Stampp. Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.
Kenneth M. Stampp, in his book The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), contradicted several arguments by historians who regarded slavery as an essentially compassionate and patriarchal institution that stimulated Southern racial harmony. Stampp proclaimed, to the contrary, that African Americans vigorously resisted slavery. They would cause work slowdowns by the breaking of tools, by stealing from their masters, and also through armed uprisings. Stampp, throughout his long academic career, insisted that the moral debate over slavery lay at the bottom of the Civil War.
Stampp was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1912 to parents of German Protestant descent. His family suffered through the Great Depression, and with money scarce, Stampp worked a number of small odd jobs as a teen. Having managed to save enough money through these various trades, Stampp was able to afford tuition to Milwaukee State Teachers’ College, and then at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He earned both his B.A. and M.A. there. Stampp was under the powerful guidance of Charles A. Beard, the author of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and William B. Hesseltine. Hesseltine oversaw Stampp’s dissertation and they continued to work together successfully through the conclusion of Stampp’s Ph.D. in 1942. He worked briefly at the University of Arkansas and the University of Maryland, before joining the team at Berkeley. Stampp taught at Berkeley from 1946 until his retirement in 1983.
Later, his attorney, Richard F. Hill, said that as a survivor of the Great Depression, Stampp developed a powerful sense of social justice and was dedicated to enlightened politics and even participated in one of the 1965 Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It would not be surprising to learn that Stampp, having his sensibilities piqued through the horrific conditions left in the wake of the Great Depression, turned his attention easily, to the horrific plight of the slaves.
Stampp’s opening gambit clearly states his opinion on the problem slavery was and its far-reaching effects. It did not just influence the South, but the whole country was impacted. “Prior to the Civil War southern slavery was America’s most profound and vexatious social problem. More than any other problem, slavery nagged at the public conscience; offering no easy solution, it demanded statesmanship of uncommon vision, wisdom, and boldness.” (vii)
Professor Stampp explains that nearly three-fourths of all free Southerners had no connection with slavery. The ‘typical’ Southerner, Stampp found, was not only a small farmer but also a non-slaveholder. This creates the question of why did three-fourths of non-slaveholding Southerner’s back the peculiar system. Only a small percentage of southern whites saw economic advantages from slavery. Stampp believes it provided them with less tangible things; “a means of controlling the social and economic competition of Negroes, concrete evidence of membership in a superior caste, a chance perhaps to rise into the planter class.” (p. 33)
An entire chapter is devoted to ‘A Troublesome Property’. Here, Stampp goes into great detail about the defiance of many slaves. Further confirming that slaves were not, in any way, complacent with their plight. Slaves found innovative ways to slow production down like feigning illness and damaging plantation machinery. Stampp applauds their resistant actions and believes that any group of people, likewise oppressed, should do the same. The author does concede that not all masters and overseers were cruel because a wise master knows the overall good health of a slave was indicative of receiving higher returns on crops. Some owners allowed their slaves to have small crops to supplement their own tables or to sell at market for extra coin.
Slave owners controlled their slaves by various means and with varying results. The government gave slave owners complete control over their slaves. They were not supposed to murder or maim them but these crimes were often overlooked or easily hidden. In chapter four, section two, Stampp elucidates five basic steps that slave owners used to create, what they believed, an ideal slave. Step one, not surprisingly, was strict discipline. Step two was the process of making the slave feel inferior because of the color of their skin. Step three would have the slave be in awe of the power their master could wield. Step four held that by using incentives on certain slaves and getting them interested in the job they were assigned, they would then become model slaves for others. Finally, step five was to keep the slaves from learning skills or working in factories so they would stay completely dependent upon their master.
Unlike medieval serfs who were bound to specific lands, slaves had transferrable titles that allowed them to be traded and sold. Landowners who lived in close proximity to one another would often trade slaves as the need arose. There were professional slave traders who would buy slaves, relocate them, and then sell them again. Though they were looked down upon, the business itself was very lucrative. In 1808 the federal government outlawed the import of slaves from Africa, but state to state trade was not closely monitored.
Stampp takes great pains to incorporate the words of both the slaves and their masters. He does not downplay that there were, in fact, good slave owners. One such account is from a young North Carolinian who described his father’s plantation and how fortunate the slaves were that lived there. “Here they ate what the white family ate, lived in well-built houses, had plenty of firewood, and received good shoes and ample clothing.” (p.281) The young man wrote that pregnant women received care from the best doctors, and children who became extremely ill were brought into the master’s home to be cared for alongside his own children. Unfortunately, the percentage of this type of slave owner was low and even though masters like this one were obviously compassionate, and the slaves were fortunate to have him, they were still slaves. Their futures were not of their own making.
Southern white men have often been portrayed as the good master looking after his slaves. The unsavory truth is that most of these slave owners were trying to make a lot of money fast by using free labor. Stampp blasts earlier proslavery writers when they wrote that “religious, historical, scientific, and sociological arguments” (p. 383) were the reasons slavery was a good thing for African Americans and whites. “But they rarely resorted to the most obvious and most practical argument of all: the argument that the peculiar institution was economically profitable to those who invested in it.” (383) When the stories circulated of African American, domestic slaves becoming cherished members of the family, it created the myth that slavery was, in fact, good for racial harmony. However, this so-called racial harmony did not negate the caste system in the South. If a person were African American they were on the bad side. If they were white, no matter how high or low the class, they were always considered superior.
Stampp analyzes the views of different authors, including Ulrich Phillips, whose well-known book, American Negro Slavery, (1918) upholds the idea that slavery was meant for the benefit of all Southerners, any color. Stampp does acknowledge that Phillips did help him discover the best methods for research and he used those methods extensively when searching the various sources, from farm journals, diaries, letters, plantation books, and county and state records. Stampp, however, depicted drastically different conclusions. This could be because he was from a younger generation or that there were more specialized writings on the African Americans and slavery since Phillips’ time. For whatever reason Stampp’s analysis made The Peculiar Institution have a unique impact on history.
Stampp leaves little doubt that slavery was always used as a labor system not just an institution for social control as Phillip’s purported. Slavery was not used because there were special conditions or climate restrictions in the South making slavery the only viable solution. It was chosen out of several alternatives and considered the best because it was the least expensive. It was highly profitable to white Southerners and probably would have continued to be so if not for the Civil War. “Actually, the southern plantation was older than slavery and survived its abolition.” (p. 5) Stampp confirms this by stating that without a supply of bondsmen, southern agriculture may have subsisted off smaller farms and less on large staple crops, which would have led to a slower growth in the South but growth nonetheless.
Stampp indeed gives us a book with a clear, forthright style with momentous revelations on slavery. By using the words of former slaves he, more accurately, presents a better picture of that life. Perhaps the most important disclosure of this work is the denunciation of past proslavery works. Here, slavery is truthfully described in an unvarnished way, with all its brutal effects and inhumanity. Stampp presents these truths about the ugliness of American slavery, the moral debate that surrounded its usage, no additives, simply what lay at the root of the Civil War. Stampp closes this remarkable study with this quote by a former slave, “’Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is, ‘tis he who has endured. I was black, but I had the feelings of a man as well as any man.” (p. 430)
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