Celebrated Historian Altered Understanding of Slavery

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kenneth M. Stampp, 96, a historian who helped transform the study of slavery in the United States by exposing plantation owners as practical businessmen, not romantics defending a noble heritage, died of heart ailments July 10 at a hospital in Oakland, Calif. He had vascular dementia.

His death was confirmed by the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught from 1946 until retiring in 1983.

Dr. Stampp denied having the burgeoning civil rights movement in mind when he researched and wrote "The Peculiar Institution" (1956), which powerfully challenged the way slavery was presented in history texts. But the impact of the book was undeniably linked to the changing era in which it appeared.

Leon Litwack, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who studied under Dr. Stampp and called him "one of the most important historians" of his generation, said that as late as the 1940s, many eminent historians of the South depicted slavery as a largely benign system.

As those writers saw it, blacks could be said to have prospered under the watch of benevolent slaveowners. Still others, Litwack said, described slavery as an enterprise that was never especially profitable and one that might have dissolved on its own had the Civil War not interceded.

Dr. Stampp was among the first mainstream writers to devastate that comforting "magnolia-blossom interpretation of the plantation," Litwack said.

Dr. Stampp documented the records of smaller slaveowning farms as well as the largest plantations to create a portrait of a society determined at all costs, including rebellion, to keep its prosperous but morally repugnant way of life.

"After the necessary adjustments are made in costs and total income, surviving business records reveal that during the last antebellum decade slavery was still justifying itself economically," Dr. Stampp wrote in "The Peculiar Institution." "During the Fifties returns of 7 to 10 percent on capital investments were common. Even in the upper South slavery was amply rewarding those who took pains to preserve or restore the fertility of their soil and who directed their enterprises with reasonable efficiency."

Southern historian John Bettersworth, reviewing the book for the New York Times, called it "American historical scholarship at its lucid best."

Among Dr. Stampp's other prominent books was "The Era of Reconstruction" (1965), which disputed the prevailing idea that "radical Republicans" from the North were determined to humiliate the South after the Civil War and enfranchise blacks solely out of political self-interest.

Dr. Stampp's research showed those "radicals" primarily as well-intended, sometimes flawed men trying to make democracy work within a political system and culture that had never been known for its pristine ethics. As for blacks joining the Republican Party en masse, it was less a GOP conspiracy against the Democratic South, Dr. Stampp wrote, than former slaves facing a practical choice "between a party that gave them civil and political rights and a party whose stock-in-trade was racist demagoguery."

With the book, Time magazine wrote, Dr. Stampp became "the most provocative" of historical revisionists re-examining the postwar era.

"Kenneth Stampp helped revolutionize our understanding of two of the most challenging and painful subjects in all of American history: slavery and Reconstruction," said Edward L. Ayers, a Southern historian who is now president of the University of Richmond. "In 'The Peculiar Institution' he portrayed slavery as a particularly cold-blooded business in which black people were imprisoned against their will, far different from the romantic and evasive way it had been taught throughout the first half of the 20th century.

"In 'The Era of Reconstruction' Stampp showed that the period following the Civil War marked not the willful and malicious devastation of the white South by the North," Ayers added, "but rather a clear-eyed and determined attempt to fulfill what emancipation had begun."

Kenneth Milton Stampp was born in Milwaukee on July 12, 1912. At the University of Wisconsin under mentor William Hesseltine, he received his bachelor's degree in 1935, followed by a master's in 1937 and a doctorate in 1942, all in history.

Dr. Stampp's doctorate thesis led to his first book, "Indiana Politics During the Civil War" (1949), which looked at the tensions between pro-North and pro-South forces in the swing state. His other books included "And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861" (1950) and "America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink" (1990).

His marriage to Katherine Mitchell ended in divorce. In 1962, he married the former Isabel Peebles Brown. She died in 1996.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Kenneth M. Stampp of Oakland and Sara Stampp of Berkeley; a daughter from his second marriage, Jennifer Stampp of El Cerrito, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

Dr. Stampp taught history at the University of Maryland before joining the Berkeley faculty and was, at various points in his career, a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, Oxford University and the University of London. In 1952, he received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, which he used to research "The Peculiar Institution," and received in 1993 Gettysburg College's Lincoln Prize for lifetime contribution in Civil War studies.

In addition to professional organizations, his memberships included the NAACP and the Berkeley chapter board of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He said in a 1996 interview that he decided on his career at a young age.

"I remember a child's biography of George Washington, and some other books that related to history which made me think very early that I wanted to be a historian," he said. "In fact, in fifth grade I told a friend of mine I was going to be a history teacher. He told me he was going to be a lawyer, and he was, and I am."

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