Celebrating Black History Month at the VCU Libraries
Reviewed by Michael Rawls, Administrative Office Specialist III
In the fifty years since the publication of Peculiar Institution, historians have produced a significant number of works on American slavery -- developing a variety of interesting sub-fields and topic specializations. Yet, this work remains among the best as a departure point for understanding the world of the ante-bellum slave and it should be considered a prerequisite for subsequent readings on the subject.
Stampp divides his research into ten neatly compartmentalized chapters, each detailing a particular aspect of slave life. The chapter entitled, "A Troublesome Property," for instance, examines various means by which slaves resisted their bondage -- from running away to sabotaging farm implements. Likewise, "To Make Them Stand in Fear," illustrates the frightening level of brutality that was ever-present in the plantation system. Other chapters address the workday lives of slaves, their material condition, legal and familiar status, slave auctions, and the paradoxical role of domestic servants. The last two chapters examine economic factors and social attitudes regarding slavery, respectively, with an eye toward answering the arguments of those who hold an ameliorative view of the institution.
Thankfully, the necessity of the last two chapters has diminished greatly since the book was first published, but it serves as a reminder of the importance of this work. When Peculiar Institution was written, the prevailing view of slavery was one of paternalism and benevolence -- akin to the depiction of slavery in Gone with the Wind. In academics, the prominent work of historian Ulrich Phillips served to legitimize such opinions. Against this backdrop, Stampp's challenge was nothing less than to change America's attitude regarding slavery. Rather than explicitly condemning slavery, he simply describes it in a dispassionate tone. He leaves it to the source material itself to convey the horrors of slavery, trusting the reader to develop their own sense of condemnation. Stampp’s efforts met with resounding success. Peculiar Institution became a classic that is widely used in college and high school classrooms to this day and can be counted among the finest examples of historical revisionism.