Skip to main content

American Tragedy

July 2024
6min read

Running through the dark center of American history there is a vivid red thread of tragedy. Deep in the national subconscious lies the stain put there by the fact that through nearly half of its independent existence the nation had to live with an intolerable thing which could neither be rationally justified nor peacefully disposed of—the institution of human slavery. Men a century ago referred to it delicately as “the peculiar institution,” and they had found the precise expression for it. It was peculiar: in its continued existence, and in the effect which it had on the men who had to live with it and, finally, on their descendants.

If slavery had been no more than a temporary problem which finally passed into limbo there would be no particular point in studying it today. But the red thread still is unbroken, for slavery left a heritage which is still a major concern of the American people. It created its own strange mythology, which still has power even though slavery itself is long gone. To the examination of this mythology—which finally becomes nothing less than a study of the tragic thread itself, and what it means to all of us—Kenneth M. Stampp addresses himself in a thoughtful, deeply moving book named, aptly enough, The Peculiar Institution .

In general terms, Mr. Stampp wants to show specifically what slavery was like, why it existed, and what it did to the American people. He goes straight to the contemporary documents, in his quest; not to the findings of the abolitionists—who usually made up their minds in advance about what they were going to discover—but to plantation records, diaries, letters, and account books, to courthouse and legislative archives, and to the accounts written by men who tried honestly to examine slavery without letting preconceived notions affect their studies.

In the course of doing this Mr. Stampp encounters not merely the myths that clustered about slavery while it was still a living institution, but also the myths that have come down to the present time and which, in one way or another, still color so much of modern thinking about the fundamental race problem which is what we were left with after slavery itself was destroyed. It is argued, for example, that the slave system grew up in the South because of geographic factors—that the development of the South depended on the rise of the plantation system, and that that, in turn, could only have been based on slavery; that slavery grew naturally out of the colored race’s physical and mental make-up, and that it was a necessary step in fitting a primitive people to enter the complex society of a modern civilization; that by the mid-Nineteenth Century the institution was on its way to extinction anyway, simply because a wholesale system of forced labor was so uneconomic that it could not survive, and that it would have died a natural death in the course of time if outside agitators had only kept quiet about it; that the colored man, by and large, did not really mind being a slave, that he was well treated and kept pretty comfortable, and that for the most part he was pretty loyal to his white folks and tolerably well contented with his lot; that the institution all in all was patriarchal and, within reasonable limits, benevolent and kindly, and that although it was doubtless regrettable and wrong by modern standards, it was nevertheless a greater burden for the owning class than for the owned and that it was continued against the self-interest of the owners.

Mr. Stampp examines these myths, item by item, consulting (to repeat) the records left by the owners themselves; and to all of them he returns a flat and unqualified “Nonsense!” All of this, he says in substance, is part of the romanticized legend—a legend which has tried to make the peculiar institution look a little less peculiar by glossing over its innate, inescapable ugliness, by insisting that its net effect was probably for the best and by holding that in any case it was, at a certain stage in the nation’s development, a necessary institution, peculiar or otherwise.

In undertaking to puncture all of this mythology Mr. Stampp is not, as one might suppose, engaged in the pointless exercise of beating a dead horse. No one any longer defends chattel slavery; yet on the protective legends that have grown up around it, racism itself is based, and racism, even in America, is unfortunately not yet a dead horse. The thread of history is clear and unbroken here. The belief that a form of second-class citizenship is right, or at least unavoidable, today, stems directly from the belief that what would have been unthinkable if it had been done to one kind of man a century ago was endurable and perhaps even beneficent when done to another kind of man.

The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South , by Kenneth M. Stampp. Alfred A. Knopf. 430 pp. $5.75.

So Mr. Stampp lays about him. His basic assumption is simply that there are not two kinds of men—that slaves “were merely ordinary human beings” whose skins chanced to be black instead of white. This, he remarks, gives the whole story of slavery a different meaning. It gives to that story “a relevance to men of all races which it never seemed to have before.” To be more explicit, it helps to explain what he considers the pathos in the history of the South; for he says: “This aura of pathos is more than a delusion of historians, more than the vague sensation one gets when looking down an avenue of somber, moss-draped live oaks leading to stately ruins or to nothing at all. For southerners live in the shadow of a real tragedy; they know, better than most other Americans, that little ironies fill the history of mankind and that large disasters from time to time unexpectedly help to shape its course.”

One of these large disasters happened to southern society; a piece of the larger disaster that struck all of America in the 1860’s. Its roots can be traced; “Few slaves ever really adapted successfully to their servitude, and few whites could defend the system without betraying the emotional stresses to which slavery subjected them. Eventually the omnipresent slave became the symbol of the South, and the cornerstone of its culture. When that happened, disaster was close at hand—in fact, that itself was a disaster.”

It was a disaster, as Mr. Stampp goes on to demonstrate, because both whites and blacks became the victims of an institution which could not conceivably survive into the modern world but which would not collapse unless somebody pushed at it. It would not collapse because, with all of its dreadful deficiencies, it paid —that is, it paid the big slaveholders, who were in a position to prevent its collapse. It was economically profitable to those who had put their money in it. Slave labor, says Mr. Stampp, could and did compete with free labor. (He has some surprising and interesting sections on the use of slave labor in factories, on steamboats and in railroads, and in other places far removed from the plantation.) The rich man who invested in slaves, lodged and fed them for life, and cared for the children and the aged, actually put out less money, year by year and over the long pull, than he would have done if he had hired workers in the free market, providing no food and lodging and caring for no children and no aged; this point Mr. Stampp insists upon, and he goes far toward providing the figures to prove it.

Over-all, then, slavery paid: and it was thus, continues Mr. Stampp, not a patriarchal system at all, but simply a system of forced labor. It was kindly and benevolent in spots, and its asperities were often tempered by the fact that the southern gentleman had a conscience and was a man of good will. But it was still a system of forced labor, which compelled a large body of people to work for someone else’s good rather than for their own. The average slave had a pretty bad time of it, did not like it, wanted it to end, and submitted only because he had to. Ultimately, the system was poised between fear and force.

Nor did it (Mr. Stampp insists) fit the colored man for freedom and ultimately for membership in a more civilized society. On the contrary, it helped to unfit him. His native culture (which was by no means contemptible) was eradicated, except for fragments. “So far from the plantation serving as a school to educate a ‘backward’ people,” says Mr. Stampp, “its prime function in this respect was to train each new generation of slaves. In slavery the Negro existed in a kind of cultural void. He lived in a twilight zone between two ways of life and was unable to obtain from either many of the attributes which distinguish man from beast.”

There is a massive impact to this book—made all the more effective by the fact that its author writes with a dispassionate and scholarly objectivity—which helps to make it one of the most valuable and memorable books ever written in this field. Yet if the book is unemotional, it is in the end keyed toward a better emotional understanding—of all of the victims of slavery, the owned and the owners alike, and of the almost unendurably difficult problem which the peculiar institution bequeathed to the present generation.

“One can feel compassion,” he writes, “for the antebellum southern white man; one can understand the moral dilemma in which he was trapped. But one must also remember that the Negro, not the white man, was the slave, and the Negro gained the most from emancipation. When freedom came—even the quasi-freedom of ‘second-class citizenship’—the Negro, in literal truth, lost nothing but his chains.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.