American Tragedy

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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.