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Ulrich B. Phillips

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Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (November 4, 1877 to January 21, 1934) was a leading American historian of the early 20th century. He revolutionized the study of slavery and the plantation South, setting the standard for historical research for many decades. Phillips concentrated on the large plantations that dominated the Southern economy, neglecting the large number of smaller farms that employed a few slaves. He concluded that plantation slavery produced great wealth, but was a dead end, economically, that left the South bypassed by the industrial revolution underway in the North. On the whole plantation slavery was not very profitable, he said, had about reached its limits in 1860, and would probably have faded away without the American Civil War, which he considered needless.

Phillips generally endorsed the plantation owners and denied they were brutal. He argued they provided adequate food, clothing, housing, medical care and training in modern technology--that they were a school "civilized" the slaves. He admitted the failure was that no one graduated from this school.

Phillips systematically hunted down and opened plantation records and unused manuscript sources. An example of pioneering comparative work was "A Jamaica Slave Plantation" (1914). His methods and use of sources shaped the research agenda of most succeeding scholars, even those who disagreed with his favorable treatment of the masters. African American historians expressed disappointment that his emphasis on the material well being of the slaves diverted attention from the slaves' own cultural constructs and efforts to achieve freedom. By turning away from the political debates about slavery that divided North and South, Phillips made the economics and social structure of slavery the main theme in 20th century scholarship. Together with his highly eloquent writing style, his new approach made him the most influential historian of the ante-bellum south. His interpretation of white supremacy as the "central theme of southern history" remains one of the main interpretations of Southern history.


Phillips graduated with a BA degree from the University of Georgia in 1897, taking an MA there in 1899. He did advanced graduate work at the leading American research university, Columbia University, taking a PhD in 1902. Georgia and State Richts, his dissertation, earned him the Justin Winsor Prize awarded by the American Historical Association He studied with Frederick Jackson Turner and was Turner's disciple.

Turner brought Phillips to the University of Wisconsin where he taught from 1902 to 1908. After 3 years at Tulane University, until 1911, Phillips moved to the University of Michigan and stayed until 1929, and then taught at Yale until his death of throat cancer at age 56 in 1934.


The Phillips approach almost completely dominated scholarship from 1910 to the 1950s. Phillips's views were rejected by neoabolitionistys historians led by Kenneth Stampp in the 1960s. But they were soon revived; as Harvard Sitkoff argues, "in the mid-1960s Eugene D. Genovese launched a rehabilitation of Phillips that still continues. Today, as in Phillips's lifetime, scholars again commonly acknowledge the value of many of his insights into the nature of the southern class structure and master-slave relationships." [1] The Phillips school asked, what did slavery do for the slaves? As the historian Herbert Gutman noted, the Phillipsian answer was that slavery lifted the slaves out of the barbarism of Africa, Christianized them, protected them, and generally benefited them. Scholarship in the 1950s then moved to the question, what did slavery to the slaves, and concluded it was a harsh and profitable system. More recently after the 1960s scholars like Genovese and Gutman asked, "What did slaves do for themselves?" They concluded "In the slave quarters, through family, community and religion, slaves struggled for a measure of independence and dignity. [2]

Phillips concludes slavery was inefficient

Phillips argued that large-scale plantation slavery was inefficient and not progressive. It had reached its geographical limits by 1860 or so, and therefore eventually had to fade away (as happened in Brazil). In 1910, he argued in "The Decadence of the Plantation System" that slavery was an unprofitable relic that persisted because it produced social status, honor, and political power, that is, Slave Power).

Phillips' economic conclusions about the inefficiency of slavery were challenged by Robert Fogel in the 1960s, who argued that slavery was both efficient and profitable as long as the price of cotton was high enough. In turn Fogel came under sharp attack.

An essay by the historians George Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch (1967) analyzed limitations of both Phillips and his critics. They argued that far too much attention was given to slave "treatment" in examining the social and psychological effects of slavery on Afro-Americans. They said Phillips had defined the treatment issue and his most severe critics had failed to redefine it:

"By compiling instances of the kindness and benevolence of masters, Phillips proved to his satisfaction that slavery was a mild and permissive institution, the primary function of which was not so much to produce a marketable surplus as to ease the accommodation of the lower race into the culture of the higher. The critics of Phillips have tried to meet him on his own ground. Where he compiled lists of indulgences and benefactions, they have assembled lists of atrocities. Both methods suffer from the same defect: they attempt to solve a conceptual problem—what did slavery do to the slave?—by accumulating quantitative evidence.... The only conclusion that one can legitimately draw from this debate is that great variations in treatment existed from plantation to plantation." [3]


Smith argues: [4]

"[He was] a conservative, proslavery interpreter of slavery and the slaves.... In Life and Labor in the Old South Phillips failed to revise his interpretation of slavery significantly. His basic arguments—the duality of slavery as an economic cancer but a vital mode of racial control—can be traced back to his earliest writings. Less detailed but more elegantly written than American Negro Slavery, Phillips's Life and Labor was a general synthesis rather than a monograph. His racism appeared less pronounced in Life and Labor because of its broad scope. Fewer racial slurs appeared in 1929 than in 1918, but Phillips's prejudice remained. The success of Life and Labor earned Phillips the year-long Albert Kahn Foundation Fellowship in 1929-30 to observe blacks and other laborers worldwide. In 1929 Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, appointed Phillips professor of history."

Phillips contended that masters treated slaves relatively well and his views were rejected most sharply by Kenneth M. Stampp in the 1950s. [5]. However, to a large degree Phillips interpretive model of the dynamic between master and slave was revived by the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, who wrote that Phillips's "work, taken as a whole, remains the best and most subtle introduction to antebellum Southern history and especially to the problems posed by race and class."[6] In 1963, C. Vann Woodward wrote: "Much of what Phillips wrote has not been superseded or seriously challenged and remains indispensable." [7]

Phillips denied he was proslavery--he was an intellectual leader of the Progressive Movement and slavery, in his interpretation, was inefficient and antithetical to the principles of progressivism. Phillips (1910) explained in detail why slavery was a failed system. It is Smith's opinion that:[8]

"Phillips's contributions to the study of slavery clearly outweigh his deficiencies. Neither saint nor sinner, he was subject to the same forces-- bias, selectivity of evidence, inaccuracy--that plague us all. Descended from slave owners and reared in the rural South, he dominated slave historiography in an era when Progressivism was literally for whites only. Of all scholars, historians can ill afford to be anachronistic. Phillips was no more a believer in white supremacy than other leading contemporary white scholars."

Race as "Central Theme" of Southern History

In "The Central Theme of Southern History" (1928), Phillips maintained that the desire to keep their region "a white man's country" united the white southerners for centuries. Phillips' emphasis on race was overshadowed in the late 1920s and 1930s by the Beardian interpretation of Charles Beard and Mary Beard, who in their enormously successful The Rise of American Civilization (1927) emphasized class conflict and downplayed slavery and race relations as a cause of the American Civil War. By the 1950s, however, the Beardian economic determinism was out of fashion, and the emphasis on race (rather than region or class) became a major topic in historiography.[9]

By 2000, and citing Phillips, Jane Dailey, Glenda Gilmore, and Bryant Simon argue: [10]

"The ways in which white southerners "met" the race "problem" have intrigued historians writing about post-Civil War southern politics since at least 1928, when Ulrich B. Phillips pronounced race relations the "central theme" of southern history. What contemporaries referred to as "the race question" may be phrased more bluntly today as the struggle for white domination. Establishing and maintaining this domination--creating the system of racial segregation and African American disfranchisement known as Jim Crow--has remained a preoccupation of southern historians."

In 2006 Ira Berlin concluded, "Phillips was not so much wrong about the centrality of white supremacy to the South as blind to its presence in the North."[11]


  1. Sitkoff review of Dillon, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips in The Journal of American History, 73#3 (Dec., 1986), p. 780.
  2. City University of New York Historical Series [1]; Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750–1925, (1977) p. 25 said "Critics, including such able scholars as E. Franklin Frazier, Kenneth M. Stampp, and Stanley M. Elkins, sharply rejected the racial assumptions of Phillips and his followers but focused on the same question."
  3. George Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch, "Resistance to Slavery," Civil War History, 13 (December 1967), 315-29.
  4. [2]
  5. In 1982, Stampp wrote, "In their day the writings of Ulrich B. Phillips on slavery were both highly original and decidedly revisionist... . He was about as objective as the rest of us." Cited in Smith and Inscoe, p. 10
  6. Genovese, In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (1971) 275-76
  7. Woodward, "Introduction" to 1963 edition of Life and Labor in the Old South page v.
  8. Smith and Inscoe 1990 p. 10
  9. Darden Asbury Pyron, "U.B. Phillips: Biography and Scholarship," Reviews in American History 1987 15(1): 72-77; Thomas Pressley, American Interpret their Civil War 238ff on Beard, 278ff on Phillips. W.H. Stephenson wrote in 1955, "Historically speaking, Phillips's central theme of southern history was correct, for white southerners from colonial days to the twentieth century advocated white supremacy." Stephenson in Smith and Inscoe, p. 28. On the revival of interest in Phillips's "central theme," see Robert E. Shalhope, "Race, Class, Slavery, and the Antebellum Southern Mind," Journal of Southern History 37 (November 1971), 557-74 and James M. McPherson, "Slavery and Race," in Perspectives on American History 3 (1969), 460-73.
  10. , "Introduction" in Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, eds. Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (2000), online excerpt.
  11. Berlin, "The Battle Over Memory," Washington Post Book World February 12, 2006; page BW10 online version