The Peculiar Institution: Slavery In The Ante-Bellum South, by Kenneth M. Stampp
In general I have enjoyed the books I have read by this author and this book is no different. In writing about slavery and exposing its evils, it is difficult for many people to demonstrate a sense of compassion and empathy not only for those who were unjustly enslaved but also those who were the owners of slave and (however reluctant) supporters of the racially based social system of the South. Hating the sin and loving the sinner are not easy to both hold in place at the same time but the book does a good job at being honest but not cruel towards the slaveowners whose diaries he uses as sources of his exploration of the peculiar institution of the South. Those that appreciate detailed primary source reading to demonstrate a point will find much to appreciate here. The real telling thing is that this book manages to be both fierce and fair-minded while having sources that are heavily skewed to slaveowners sources and travelers to the South who were at least somewhat sympathetic to it. Using sources like James Hammond’s diaries (which appear dozens of times here) as a way of demonstrating anti-slavery points is a savvy move.
Coming in at a bit more than 400 pages, this book is divided into ten chapters. The author begins with the setting of his book (1), giving the context on how it was that the South went from being part of a nation that was involved in slavery in various aspects to an area whose slaveowning culture was a peculiar institution that was nearly alone in the Western world. After that the author talks about the working conditions of slaves and how that varied based on the size of the slaveowning involved (2) as well as the many ways in which slaves served as troublesome property (3). The author discusses how it was that frequently outnumbered whites sought to make slaves stand in fear (4) and also how it was that the personhood of slaves was frequently in tension with their status as property (5). The author talks about the way that slaveselling served as an unpopular but necessary part of the slave culture of the South and how it was judged as profitable (6). After that the author reflects on mortality and morbidity as it related to slaves (7), the way that blacks and whites found themselves between two cultures (8), questions of profit and loss (9), and finally a look at the end of slavery and what it meant for blacks and whites involved in the system.
It is worthwhile for us to reflect on what slavery did, even if it has not been around in the United States for more than 150 years. The repercussions of slavery and its end still reverberate within American politics and culture, and the resentment over slavery and the way it was ended are still matters that divide Americans. The author seems content not to comment on contemporary matters but to focus his attention on the nineteenth century, which is definitely a good decision for the excellence of this book. The beginning and end of this book are probably the best when it comes to developing a sense of compassion for the people involved, but those who want to see a telling look at slavery and what it did to black and white Americans will find much to appreciate here. This book was praised solidly by some excellent historians (like Bruce Catton) and it deserves such praise. There are certainly many books that one would want to read about slavery, and this book quotes some of them (like Northrup’s classic Twelve Years A Slave), but this book should be at least one of the books one reads about slavery, to be sure.