“The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South”

As an outgrowth of my study of Abraham Lincoln for this spring’s “Lowell Reads Lincoln” event at the Pollard Memorial Library, I’ve sought out some additional Civil War-era books for summer reading. One is a yellowing paperback copy of “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South” written in 1956 by Kenneth Stampp, a professor of history at the University of California (Berkeley).

Stampp traces slavery from its inception in North America in the 16th Century until the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Stampp strives to puncture the myth that slavery was a benign institution, a nearly socialist utopia where the elderly and infirm were cared for by their humane owners. While a few such cases did exist (and are cited by the author) they were a rare occurence. Stampp also shows how slaves were used repeatedly to undercut efforts of white factory labor to organize. The resulting weakness of unions in the south continues.

Stampp ends the book by proposing a theory of why Southern whites remained so antagonistic towards slaves long after slavery was abolished:

“[Slavery’s] defenders tried to convince nonslaveholders that Negroes, rather than masters, were their mortal enemies. They painted frightening pictures showing how the poor man would fare if abolitionists had their way – how slavery protected his wife and children “from a state of horrors that he has never dreamed of.” . . .

“That few nonslaveholders opposed slavery demonstrated the success of appeals such as these. Most of them felt a deep and abiding hatred of Negroes; they suffered from an intense fear that free Negroes would claim equality with them. As things stood, even in poverty they enjoyed the prestige of membership in the superior caste and proudly shared with slaveholders the burden of keeping black men in their place . . . In short, “The humblest white man feels, and the feeling gives him a certain dignity of character, that where there are slaves he is not at the foot of the social ladder, and his own status is not the lowest in the community.”

So if you’re interested in slicing threw the myths that have grown up around slavery, Stampp’s book is an excellent place to start.