Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kenneth M. Stampp, Civil War Historian

Kenneth Stampp in 1993.

Kenneth M. Stampp, a leading Civil War historian who redirected the scholarly view of slavery in the antebellum South from that of a benign relationship between white plantation owners and compliant slaves to one of harsh servitude perpetuated to support the South’s agrarian economy, died Friday in Oakland, Calif. He was 96.

Mr. Stampp, who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1946 to 1983, wrote several influential books about the Civil War period, from the decade leading up to the war to Reconstruction.

His reputation was founded on two books that turned accepted wisdom inside out and engendered seismic shifts in the scholarship of the period. They became staples of university classrooms.

Amazingly, in all the years I've studied the Civil War, and all the meetings I attended at the Round Table, I never heard of him.

The first, in 1956, was “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South,” which juxtaposed the views of slaves themselves with the more conventionally researched perceptions of slave owners, yielding a far different picture of the institution than historians had previously created.

Rather than portraying slaves as docile, simple-minded creatures who were complicit in their own subjugation, Mr. Stampp showed how by working slowly, breaking tools and stealing from their owners, the slaves were in constant rebellion. And rather than portraying the owners as beneficent upholders of a genteel culture determined to maintain racial harmony, Mr. Stampp revealed the slave-keeping impulse to be an economically motivated choice.

Not "yes, massa, I's happy wid you." Or the benevolent white father.

“We now viewed slavery not only through the eyes of the masters but through the eyes of the slaves themselves,” said Leon Litwack, a long-time colleague and former student of Mr. Stampp’s at Berkeley, and the author of “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. “He was clearly one of the influential historians of the 20th century. All you have to do is open history textbooks and compare what you find in them to what you found before 1960.”

Perhaps the Texas Board of Education should take a look.

The second seminal book, “The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877,” published in 1965, demythologized another favorite trope of previous historians: that the decade after the Civil War was disastrous for the South, a time of vengefulness visited upon it by the North, of rampant corruption and of vindictive political maneuvering.

Yet there are people who do blame Sherman and all Yankees that followed him for wreaking havoc upon the South.

“He was really a pioneer, demolishing the magnolia and mint juleps view of slavery,” said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia. “And the Reconstruction book was in the same revisionist mode, sweeping away myths. Among serious history scholars, nobody is going to go back before Stampp.”


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