Historiography Definition: a body of historical literature. Historiography is the history of history
Slavery historiography Today we are going to look at schools of thought about the institution of slavery.
The first big question that historians of slavery asked... Was slavery profitable? And if it was not then why did it persist for so long? Why fight a war over it?
In 1908, U.B. Phillips published American Negro Slavery:Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime This book argued that slavery was an unprofitable system for slave owners, but worked as a civilizing force on African Americans. Phillips argued that slavery was maintained for racial and cultural reasons not self interest (i.e. profit). Ulrich Bonnell Phillips
Social Shifts The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and at the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement affected historian’s views on slavery. In 1956, Kenneth Stampp published The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante- bellum South
Kenneth Stampp countered Phillips, arguing that slavery was not paternalistic (for the slaves own good), but a practical system of controlling and exploiting labor. Where Phillips had seen slavery as mild but inefficient, Stampp saw it as harsh but profitable.
Soon after Stampp, Stanley Elkins published Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959) He was the first historian to look at the psychological impact of slavery rather than economics. Elkins compared the experience of Jews in Nazi concentration camps to the shock and brutality of slavery.
This comparison led Elkins to argue that the system of slavery had infantilalized slaves, making them “sambos”- reduced by brutality to a dependent, child-like status Although widely disproved now, this was a groundbreaking book for both its use of a comparative approach and use of psychohistory. Elkins was also important for bringing the issue of slave culture to the fore.
Elkins caused a generation of slave scholars to respond to the “sambo thesis” by showing that slaves created culture among themselves. This “slave community school” examined the many roles that slaves played in creating their own distinct culture from whites. One of the most famous books on the slave community is Eugeune Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1976). Genovese
Genovese’s interpretation argued that slavery was not for civilization or even for profit, but it was a way of life for southerners. Genovese saw that slaves had their own culture, which was independent from white culture. He showed that slaves were influential within the slave system. Part of this slave culture was slaves using passive resistance to attempt to control their lives.
Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, written in 1987, signaled the end of the slave community school. Kolchin compared Russian serfs to American slaves and found that slaves were considered as both income and people needing care. The proximity of slaves to the master limited slaves freedoms and prevented them from developing a sense of belonging to a larger community. Peter Kolchin
In the 1980’s, as women’s history gained recognition and influence, scholars begin to examine the slave experience for women. Deborah Gray White’s, Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, published in 1985, argues that slavery was very different for enslaved women than for men. Deborah Gray White
Recently, studies in identity formation – how people learn who they are - have scholars to consider how slaves identified themselves. Michael Gomez in Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (1998), considers slave identity from the individual perspective of African Americans. Gomez argues that Africans who were brought to America as slaves retained their African ethnic identity, eventually merging it with white beliefs. Thus, Africans did lose all of their cultural identity when they were forced into slavery. Michael Gomez
Since the breakdown of the slave community scholarship, the study of slavery has gone in many directions. Now scholars are breaking down the idea of a hegemonic (single dominant system) of slavery. Instead tracing out the origins of slavery, historians are now looking at how it was shaped differently in different regions.
In his most recent book Many Thousands Gone (2000), Ira Berlin examines how American slavery varied across time and space. Berlin examines of how slavery and slave culture evolved in three chronological eras in four distinct geographical regions. Ira Berlin
Each new development in history (studying women for example) affects how historians view the past. As each generation of scholars learns more and creates new arguments based on their research, so the whole of history moves forward.