Historiographical Essay on Slavery
Although slavery is now one
of the most intensively-studied aspects in United States history,
there was a long period during which it was largely ignored.
The Progressive school of interpretation, which dominated the
American history profession during the first half of the twentieth
century, considered slavery to be less important than conflicts
between classes, sections, and industrial and agrarian interests.
Except for the works of a handful of African-American historians
like Carter Woodson, Benjamin Quarles, and W.E.B. DuBois and
southern historians like Ulrich B. Phillips, slavery was regarded
as an extraneous aspect of American history.
This prolonged period of scholarly
neglect came to an end in the mid-1950s. Since the publication
of Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution in 1956,
no topic has produced a greater outpouring of important scholarly
works or provoked more controversy than the study of slavery.
In part, the explosion of scholarly interest in slavery reflected
the increasing public concern with civil rights and race relations.
It also reflected a recognition that slavery played a critical
role in the settlement and economic development of the New World
and the major political conflicts and alignments of the pre-Civil
The modern boom in slavery
studies in the United States began with Stampp's The Peculiar
Institution. Contradicting the conclusions of a much earlier
authority on slavery, Ulrich B. Phillips, Stampp argued that
nineteenth-century slavery was a profitable institution; that
slaves suffered severely from disease and physical maltreatment;
that they were inadequately fed, clothed, and housed; and that
they expressed their discontent by breaking tools and running
away as well as through more violent forms of resistance.
Stanley Elkins's Slavery:
A Problem in American Institutional Life (1959), which came
out three years after The Peculiar Institution, defined the issues
that dominated subsequent scholarship. Drawing upon the work
of two prominent Latin American historians, Gilberto Freyre and
Frank Tannenbaum, Elkins argued that American slavery was much
harsher and more exploitative than Latin American slavery. Indeed,
likened southern slave plantations to Nazi concentration camps
and argued that slavery was so brutal and inhumane that it stripped
slaves of their African heritage and transformed them into docile,
Much subsequent scholarship
on American slavery can be viewed as a rebuttal of Elkins's arguments.
Instead of portraying slaves as passive objects of oppression,
later scholars focused their attention on the intricate ways
that slaves resisted and accommodated to slavery; the nature
of the culture and community that African Americans created within
bondage; and the similarities and differences between southern
slavery and bondage elsewhere. If any single theme can be said
to unify the remarkable outpouring of scholarship on slavery,
it is African Americans' extraordinary success in creating and
sustaining vital kinship and cultural and religious traditions
under conditions of extreme oppression.
The modern study of slave culture
traces its roots back to Melville J. Herskovit's Myth of the
Negro Past (1941), which argued that many aspects of African-American
Culture--including art, famly patterns, folklore, language, and
music--represented cultural survivals from West Africa. More
recent studies have substituted the notion of syncretism--the
selective blending of African and European cultures--for Herskovit's
concept of cultural survival.
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