Doing a 360 Perspective on Slavery Historiography


U.B. Phillips

When I was an undergraduate at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University), taking my first upper level course in U.S. History, my professor told us that he would never assign the books of the legendary U.B. Phillips.  Phillips, a Georgian who studied at the Univ. of Wisc. and  then spent his entire academic career in the North, wrote path breaking books on slavery in the early 1900s (see Life and Labor in the Old South and American Negro Slavery)  My professor said that Phillips was an inveterate racist, whose work on the Old South was pure Moonlight and Magnolias.  Slaves were either hapless or happy, and planters were benevolent and tolerant men in performing their role as civilizers of the South—or at least that is what I was told by my professor who only gave us a 180 view of the historiography of slavery.  This professor, I should add, was the best instructor I had as an undergraduate.  The reading load was immense.  Weak students resented him.  The good students understood that he pushed us out of respect.

This fall I decided to go old school with my undergraduates in History 339 and introduce them to the controversial historian U. B. Phillips.  I assigned Eugene Genovese’s “Ulrich Bonnell Phillips: Two Studies.” in Genovese’s In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (an indispensable book on Southern history I might add) . The article is not a reactionary defense of Phillips, but a critical analysis of Phillips’s scholarship. I usually dose off when people start ranting about how Genovese turned into a political and social conservative, and thus all of his scholarship is questionable.  I don’t care if he became a nudist during his off time. His work is phenomenal –though imperfect–and his treatment of Phillips is a model as to how we should do peer evaluation.

To my surprise and delight the students get Genovese, and appreciate how Phillips saw the South as a unique slave society that produced  a distinct and deeply influential ruling class.  Phillips was a racist, a man of his times to be sure, and unfortunately his inability to transcend his racial assumptions blunted his interpretations. The students are not indifferent to the racism of Phillips.  They are more interested in trying to figure out the complexities of paternalism, which Phillips certainly romanticizes, but he opens the inquiry into political economy, pushing the students to see the interrelationships among politics, economics, and culture.  The concept of paternalism is a tricky thing.  Many scholars jettison it as too apologetic. The students have pointed out the ways that paternalism deluded slaveholders, twisted their sense of justice, and at times kept them from actually knowing the very slaves who they imagined as familial dependents.  Phillips ignored paternalism as an act of negotiation between master and slave, a complex and contradictory dynamic will be the focus of future posts as the students puzzle through  at the following books:   Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution , Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery, and Drew Gilpin Faust on James Henry Hammond.  On their own they will be reading a book of their choice on slavery, but it must be published after 1970.

Students in History 339 at Gettysburg College will be getting a 360 view of slavery historiography.

3 thoughts on “Doing a 360 Perspective on Slavery Historiography

  1. Welcome to the blogosphere, Pete! I know that Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross was criticized for several reasons, but what do you think of Without Cause or Contract? I find both to be useful on several occasions, especially on the profitability of slavery. I think Phillips can be very useful for things such as how plantations and farms operated and how the planters and farmers used enslaved people. Do you have a list of suggested books for your students, and if so, are David Brion Davis, Ira Berlin, and Edward Baptist on it?

    Liked by 1 person

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