Interpretations of Slavery: Phillips and Stampp


















Celine Clark

The debate over slave culture began in antebellum times with attempts to characterize the work patterns and work attitudes of slaves. Historians who subsequently took up these questions sought to understand the way that the slave system of labor operated, the relationship of slaves to each other in the work process, and the relationship of slaves to their masters. Characterizations of the work patterns and the work ethic of slaves have been among the most critical points in the interpretation of slave culture. It deeply influenced views of other aspects of slave life including family mores, religion, music, folk tales, art, and the nature and extent of slave resistance to oppression.

Historians argued whether or not slavery was a benefactor or detriment to the United States. Some of the major American historians of the second half of the twentieth century--Stanley M. Elkins, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, for example--have contributed powerfully to the modern debate about Southern slavery.  Curiously, however, much of the modern historiographical argument has been shaped by two greatly influential historians, Kenneth Stampp and Ulrich B. Phillips. Be aware that covering the interpretations of these historians on the many aspects of slavery is close to impossible without writing a book.

Ulrich B. Phillips came close to greatness as a historian, perhaps as close as any historian this country has produced. We may leave to those who live in the world of absolute good and evil the task of explaining how a man with such primitive views of fundamental social questions could write such splendid history...He asked more and better questions that many of us still are willing to admit, and he carried on his investigations with consistent freshness and critical intelligence...American Negro Slavery is not the last word on its subject; merely the indispensable first. (Eugene D. Genovese)

Since World War II increasing numbers of American historians have been reading Ulrich B. Phillips with hostility, suspicion, and even contempt; worse, they have not been encouraging their students to read him at all. This negative reaction is not difficult to account for, although it stands in the starkest contrast to Phillips’ enviable reputation in his own day. However, as criticized by Eugene Genovese, Phillips has “gone out of style” along with racism and a patronizing attitude toward the Negro which have embarrassed United States foreign policy.

Let there be no mistakes about it: Phillips was a racist, however benign and paternalistic. Some historians have argued that he was gradually moving away from racist doctrines as he began to catch up with the new anthropological and biological researches making their appearances in the last decade or two of his life. Between American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), two of his most renowned works, he is supposed to have shifted away from a view holding the Negro to be biologically inferior to one holding him to be culturally backward. This was a shift from a less to a more sophisticated racism that could not have stood critical examination even in his day. His racism cost him dearly and alone accounts for his lapse from greatness as a historian. It blinded him; it inhibited him from developing fully his own extraordinary insights; it prevented him from knowing many things he in fact knew very well.

Phillips based American Negro Slavery on extensive research in plantation records but also on a deep attachment to the old South and a belief in black racial inferiority. In this work, published in 1918, he treated the slave as the beneficiary of a patriarchal but unprofitable institution designed to maintain the South's cardinal principle of white supremacy. The framework established by Phillips and his followers cast the slaves themselves primarily in the role of objects, whether as victims or beneficiaries. The focus was on slave "treatment", as well as on the performance of the slave economy and the efficiency or inefficiency of slave labor. One of the remarkable features of the Phillips interpretation was its longevity. It survived for thirty years, at least, as the conventional wisdom on the subject.

The fundamental priorities of slavery and Southern slave society are involved in many discussions. If slavery was above all a rational economic system devoted to the pursuit of profit, those who controlled it would have retained their investment in it only as long as it continued to show greater profits than alternative forms of enterprise or labor organization. However, if slavery was even more important for other reasons--as an instrument of social adjustment or racial control, or as a status symbol--owners may have been content to maintain it for those reasons alone, as long as it did not prove cripplingly unprofitable.

Phillips and his followers thought that slavery often laid a burden of unprofitability upon the planters, which they shouldered because they supported and maintained the institution for other reasons. However, it does not follow that because slavery yielded a good return, profit was the only motive and ambition of slave holders. Phillips tended to grasp the complexity of his subject and indicate the need to probe many fronts.

In general, Ulrich B. Phillips provided numerous examples intended to demonstrate the inherent laziness, docility, and incompetence of blacks, whether enslaved or free. He did not value their worth in any way and held a mainly racist view in his interpretations of slavery.

Kenneth Stampp accepted the framework Phillips had constructed, but, more than matching his predecessor's research in the plantation record, he completely overturned Phillips's conclusions. Stampp saw the slave as the maltreated victim of a profitable economic system; in a nutshell, where Phillips had viewed slavery as mild but inefficient, Stampp saw it as harsh but profitable. Kenneth Stampp went further than any other post-Phillips scholar in rejecting the traditional interpretation of slavery. In The Peculiar Institution, Stampp argued that investments in slaves were quite generally profitable, indeed, highly profitable for most planters. He also rejected the contention that economic forces would by themselves have led to the demise of slavery, even in the upper South. Nor did Stampp find any evidence to support the claim that slavery prevented industrialization and economic growth. He pointed to "innumerable experiments" which "demonstrated that slaves could be employed profitably in factories," arguing that slave holders preferred to operate in agriculture because, for the South, agriculture "seemed to be the surest avenue to financial success."

Stampp even expressed doubts about the fourth proposition in the traditional interpretation--that slavery was less efficient than an economic system based on free labor. "Slavery"s economic critics overlooked the fact," he said,"that physical coercion, or the threat of it, proved to be a rather effective incentive, and that the system did not prevent masters from offering tempting rewards for the satisfactory performance of assigned tasks."

Stampp hesitated to go on to the conclusion that slaves were equal to free men in the efficiency of their labor. He conceded that slave productivity was sharply reduced by "the slave's customary attitude of indifference toward his work, together with the numerous methods he devised to resist his enslavement." Stampp was able to hold on to his contention that slavery was profitable only by arguing that there were other advantages which more than compensated for whatever superiority free labor had in efficiency. These advantages included longer hours of work, more complete exploitation of women and children, and lower real wages for slaves than free men.

Why did Stampp, who broke with so much of the traditional interpretation and who came so close to rejecting the myth of the incompetence of slave labor, fail to do so? Why did he, as it were, pull back just as he seemed about to do so? The answer lies in Stampp's preoccupation with the refutation of Phillips on point about the treatment of slaves. Stampp provided testimony that cruelty was indeed an ingrained feature of the treatment of slaves. The cases of cruelty which Phillips regarded as unusual, as outside the unwritten rules of the master class, emerged as a common pattern of white behavior in The Peculiar Institution. Cruelty, Stampp said, "was endemic in all slave holding communities"; even those "who were concerned about the welfare of slaves found it difficult to draw a sharp line between acts of cruelty and such measure of physical force as were an inextricable part of slavery."

Stampp decided to move in a direction that appears quite different from the one chosen by other historians. He argued that slaves did not succumb; they resisted. Resistance did not generally take the form of revolution or strikes. Such open forms of resistance were sheer suicide. Stampp believed that the characteristic of slave behavior was common: slaves lie, steal, feign illness, behave childishly, and shirk their duties. To Stampp, the theme of the inferiority of slave labor was due to "day to day resistance."  

The view which prevailed for many years was that slaves worked long and hard simply because they were forced to under the threat of the lash, but they have achieved no higher level of efficiency. Kenneth Stampp"s interpretation belongs broadly to this school of thought. He sees incentives as but one weapon in as armory of slave control which included firm discipline, demonstration of the master's power (symbolized by the whip), and the inculcation of a sense of slave inferiority.