The Scholar Who Shaped History

Granger Collection
‘Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia’; painting by Eyre Crowe, 1861

Since the middle of the twentieth century, our understanding of the American past has been revolutionized, in no small part because of our altered conceptions of the place of race in the nation’s history. And that revolution has taken place largely because of a remarkable generation of historians who, inspired by the changing meanings of freedom and justice in their own time, began to ask new questions about the origins of the racial inequality that continued to permeate our segregated society nearly a century after slavery’s end.

Published in 1956, just two years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision called for school integration, Kenneth Stampp’s pathbreaking The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South turned prevailing wisdom on its head. His history, written with a premise of fundamental black and white equality, yielded insights about slavery quite unlike the conclusions of earlier writings based on unquestioned assumptions of black inferiority. The leading early-twentieth-century historian of slavery, Ulrich B. Phillips, had portrayed a benevolent system designed to uplift and protect benighted Africans. Stampp, deeply affected by the emerging civil rights movement, painted a very different picture. With vivid archival detail, he demonstrated that slavery was harsh and exploitative of those who, he explained in words that rather startlingly reveal both the extent and limits of midcentury white liberalism, were after all “white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less.”

But the outpouring of research and writing about slavery in the years that followed went far beyond simply changing assumptions about race and human equality. It yielded as well an emerging recognition of the centrality of slavery in the American experience—not just in the South, but in northern society too, where it persisted in a number of states well into the nineteenth century. It also fundamentally shaped the national economy, which relied upon cotton as its largest export, and national politics, where slaveholding presidents governed for approximately two thirds of the years between the inaugurations of Washington and Lincoln.

At the same time, the burgeoning study of slavery was revolutionizing the practice of history by significantly expanding the kinds of sources scholars thought to employ in their effort to illuminate the elusive past. In order truly to understand slavery, it seemed imperative in the post–civil rights era to have a far richer understanding of the experience and perspectives of the slaves themselves. Yet by law throughout the South, slaves had been prohibited from reading and writing and thus prevented from leaving the written records on which history traditionally so largely depended.

In order to create the new history of slavery, scholars ventured into unaccustomed fields of research—demography, quantitative analysis, which came to be dubbed “cliometrics,” oral history, folklore, music, material culture, archaeology, and comparative history, to name a few. These modes of inquiry have now…

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