Blogs > Liberty and Power > Kenneth Stampp, R.I.P.

Aug 2, 2009 6:25 pm

Kenneth Stampp, R.I.P.

The distinguished historian of the Civil War and slavery, Kenneth Stampp, passed away in Oakland, California, on Friday, July 10, at the age of 96. For a fairly good obituary, check out the press release from the University of California, Berkeley, where Professor Stampp taught until his retirement in 1983. I had the pleasure of meeting Ken in the early 1990s, when I was working on my Civil War book. Not only did he read the manuscript and give me helpful comments (as well as a book blurb), but also he was instrumental in getting the University of Texas at Austin to reopen my candidacy so I could finally end my long sojourn as an A.B.D. and complete my Ph.D. in history.

One part of the press release, however, is a bit misleading. It states that in his first book, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 (1950),"Stampp rejected the then-common theory that sectional compromise might have saved the Union, and he also traced the cause of the Civil War to slavery." I suspect that this characterization comes from Leon Litwack, a former student and colleague of Stampp's, who is quoted extensively elsewhere in the release. Although a fine scholar who has written important books of his own, Litwack has tended to be more polemical in support of his left-liberal politics than Stampp ever was.

Be that as it may, And the War Came focuses not on southern motives for secession but, as the subtitle indicates, on the northern reaction. It therefore shows better than any other work that slavery played only a marginal role, compared with numerous other concerns, in the Union's decision to suppress secession. Indeed, it is the work in which Stampp came closest to implying that secession may have been legitimate, despite slavery--a position he later backed away from.

Stampp's next book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), still remains one of the best introductions to the subject, notwithstanding all the mountains of subsequent research and writing on American slavery. Using traditional historical methods, The Peculiar Institution anticipated nearly all of the valid conclusions in the controversial cliometric study of Robert William Fogel and Stanley L Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), without slipping into what I consider to be some of Fogel and Engerman's errors. Overall, Ken was a scrupulous and meticulous researcher, a lucid and compelling writer, and an inspiring and influential teacher, exemplifying historical scholarship at its best. He will be sorely missed.

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