Monday, June 30, 2008

Book Review: "The Peculiar Institution"

I recently completed what is roundly regarded as the seminal work on slavery in America, Kenneth Stampp's classic "The Peculiar Institution". I was looking for a single volume treatment of the subject because, despite being steeped in 19th century American history during my time of study at UCLA, I had never thoroughly grasped the scope of the slavery issue itself. The issues that it provoked have been well-covered in multiple texts I've read, but I wanted to get into the first principles of this unique American tragedy.
Mr Stampp is a Professor Emeritus at UC-Berkeley, with over 6 decades on the faculty, and "The Peculiar Institution" was his first major work. Published in 1956, it was groundbreaking in the way it showed slavery not as paternalistic and essentially benign, as most preceding authors would have had it, but as something alternately gruesome and tragic that was frequently actively resisted by its victims. The book also flew in the face of 1950s-era perceptions of race and slavery in the US, which was still struggling with the burden of pre-Civil Rights era racism.
The book moves systematically through its 10 chapters, with specific treatments on the role of slave labor in the Southern economy, the day to day worklife of slaves, punishment of slaves, family life, slave trading, and slave rebellion, among other things. While the style is sometimes dry, it is absolutely breathtaking in its scope of study. Meticulously footnoted with hundreds of primary sources, the presentation is incredibly compelling and lays to rest any number of long-standing and long-propagated myths about slavery.
More than this; however, is the subject itself. The chapters on the nuts and bolts of the slave economy are most enlightening, but it is the chapters that cover punishment of slaves, slave trading, slave rights (or lack thereof)and the effect all of this had on slave families that are truly staggering. Alternately enraging and tear-jerking, this text brings out the horror of slavery in remarkably vivid way.
Whether it be slaves being beaten to death on a whim, sold away from their family for no reason save financial, children and spouses being forced to watch the beating of a loved one, or slaves having absolutely no rights or protections in any court, there is no mistaking that this institution, and the millions who either participated in it or supported it, stripped entirely any vestige of humanity from those enslaved, they were implements, animals, beasts to be used and cast aside as one would an old shovel.
In contrast to the ghoulishness discussed above, the chapter on slave resistance was pretty remarkable. In the face of shoot to kill mandates, dogs, and the threat of being sold to the Deep South, not to mention the Fugitive Slave Law in the North, slaves still tried to either make good their escape or else throw a wrench in the works.
Clearly, this subject brings out tremendous emotion, and that is to be expected. What makes Mr. Stampp's effort so remarkable; however, is his completely dispassionate treatment of the subject and data. There is no judging, no editorializing, he lets the facts speak for themselves, and they speak loudly. This provides another layer of credibility that no amount of footnoting gives; there is no agenda here save for a clear discussion of fact, and in doing this, Stampp allows the institution of slavery to show its dark heart. Any embellishment on the part of the author would have been unnecessary.
When studying any aspect of the Civil War, one must be firmly grounded in the fundamentals. One cannot have a conversation about the 19th century in America without a firm and unbiased view of slavery and what it did to our country. This text provides a clear and strong interpretation of the former. We shall discuss the latter when I get to my next book reviews in the coming weeks.

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