July 15, 2009
By David Darlington
We regret to announce the passing of Kenneth Milton Stampp on Friday, July 10, 2009. Stampp died of a heart ailment in Oakland, California. He was 96.
Stampp was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on July 12, 1912. He attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison for his bachelor’s (1935), master’s (1937), and PhD (1942) degrees, studying under Charles A. Beard and William Hesseltine, who served as his dissertation advisor. After brief stints at the University of Arkansas and the University of Maryland, he took a position at the University of California at Berkeley, where he spent the bulk of his career. He taught at Berkeley 1946–83; from there he retired as Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of History Emeritus.
Stampp is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most formidable scholars of slavery, the American Civil War, and the Reconstruction. His seminal publication is The Peculiar Institution (1956) which overturned the way slavery was taught in the United States. The previous generation of historians, typified by Ulrich B. Phillips, tended to interpret slavery as a benign, paternalistic institution fostering racial harmony, “civilizing” Africans, or already facing economic extinction prior to the Civil War. Stampp’s book challenged these ideas, showing the ways plantation owners sought to control slaves because the institution was still profitable, and the various ways that African Americans actively (uprisings, escapes) and passively (work slowdowns, theft, breaking tools) rebelled against their condition. He also maintained that the morality of slavery was at the heart of public debate surrounding the Civil War. “Prior to the Civil War southern slavery was America’s most profound and vexatious social problem. More than any other problem, slavery nagged at the public conscience; offering no easy solution,” he wrote.
Another noteworthy publication was The Era of Reconstruction (1965) which offered a revisionist approach to the Radical Republicans of the post-Civil War era. The prevailing “Dunning School” of historiography regarded the Radical Republicans as Northern triumphalists bent on humiliating defeated Southerners and enfranchising African Americans incapable of self-government for political advantage. Stampp argued that the Radicals were well intended for their time, but imperfect; they left the Reconstruction unfinished. But they did try to integrate African Americans into a political culture that had never accepted them before. Edward L. Ayers, quoted in the Washington Post’s obituary for Stampp, said, “Kenneth Stampp helped revolutionize our understanding of two of the most challenging and painful subjects in all of American history: slavery and Reconstruction. 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, but rather a clear-eyed and determined attempt to fulfill what emancipation had begun."
Other noteworthy publications include Indiana Politics during the Civil War (1949, his revised dissertation), And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860–61 (1950), and America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (1990).
Stampp was the winner of the AHA’s Award for Scholarly Distinction for 1989. In 1993 he received Gettysburg College’s Lincoln Prize for lifetime contribution in Civil War studies. For some selected writings by Stampp, visit this page on HNN.
A full treatment of Stampp’s career will appear in a future issue of Perspectives on History.