Civil War historian Kenneth Stampp dies at 96Historians in the News
HNN History Doyen Profile
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....
“We now viewed slavery not only through the eyes of the masters but through the eyes of the slaves themselves,” said Leon Litwack, a long-time colleague and former student of Mr. Stampp’s at Berkeley, and the author of “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. “He was clearly one of the influential historians of the 20th century. All you have to do is open history textbooks and compare what you find in them to what you found before 1960.”
The second seminal book, “The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877,” published in 1965, demythologized another favorite trope of previous historians: that the decade after the Civil War was disastrous for the South, a time of vengefulness visited upon it by the North, of rampant corruption and of vindictive political maneuvering.
Mr. Stampp’s more measured account showed that much good was accomplished in the period; he called Reconstruction “the last great crusade of 19th century romantic reformers” and viewed it as a progenitor of the 20th-century civil rights movement that was in progress as he wrote.
“He was really a pioneer, demolishing the magnolia and mint juleps view of slavery,” said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia. “And the Reconstruction book was in the same revisionist mode, sweeping away myths. Among serious history scholars, nobody is going to go back before Stampp.”
H-Net Obituary posted by Jim Oakes
Kenneth Stampp died early yesterday morning, two weeks shy of his 97th birthday.
Stampp was the author of several major books, most importantly"The Peculiar Insitution: Slavery in the Antebellum South," an unblinking account of southern slave society that was among the first to take slave resistance seriously. He also wrote what remains the single best study of the secession crisis,"And the War Came," a major revisionist account of Reconstruction, and numerous important essays. A forceful stylist and vigorously argumentative, Stampp was as formidable on the page as he was in the classroom.
Stampp spent most of his teaching career at Berkeley, where he trained a large cohort of graduate students who went on to write important books of their on the history of race, slavery, and the civil war era. They included, among many others, Leon Litwack, William Freehling, Joel Williamson, Robert Starobin, Robert Abzug, William Gienapp, and Reid Mitchell.
He was also instrumental in assembling at Berkeley an astonishing groups of historians in the field--Litwack, Larry Levine, Charlies Sellers, and Winthrop Jordan--an abundance of intellectual riches for me to revel in as as graduate student there in the 1970s.
Until the very end remained sharp, he kept up with the field, vigorous in mind even as his body grew frail. He held all of his students to the highest standards. It was his greatest gift to me, and I will always revere him for it.
Berkeley News Release
Kenneth M. Stampp, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading scholar of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, died on Friday (July 10). He was 96.
His signature book was"The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South" (1956), which debunked numerous myths about slavery and documented how what slave owners called"the peculiar institution" actually operated, including active and extensive resistance by African Americans.
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