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 War period.

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, submissive figures.

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.

Back to Top

Copyright Digital History 2013