A Review of American Negro Slavery by Ulrich B. Phillips
Phillips' book is an attempt to provide an overview of the practice and institutions of slavery in the Americas from its beginnings to the 19th century. Writing in 1918, Phillips hoped to provide an account of slavery based upon historical evidence and modern methods of research, rather than ideological motivations. He drew his evidence from the plantation records and letters of slave owners; contemporary travel accounts; court records and legal documents; newspaper articles; and in some instances, the recordings of slaves themselves, rather than what he viewed as more biased sources such as abolitionist writings. While this approach was not systematic and led him to base many of his conclusions upon subjective evidence and an over reliance upon particular chroniclers of the South, the bulk of his findings are supported by subsequent scholarship.
The book opens up with Genovese's Forward, stating that since WWII many historian have been reading Phillips with "hostility, suspicion, and even contempt" and even worse because they "have not been encouraging their students to read him at all." Phillips begins the book by discussing the beginnings of the use of slaves in the West Indies sugar plantations, and slowly makes his way towards America. The author explains each type of plantation and its cash crop and discusses the areas where slavery was well received or rejected.
In the descriptive portions of his book, Phillips was generally on target but lacked depth. Historians would later take exception to his findings, as they are based more upon his personal beliefs concerning race, rather than documented evidence. The author is mainly concerned with the economic and political aspects of slavery and as such the bulk of the book is therefore devoted to an examination of how westward expansion coincided with economic development that resulted in the creation of legal institutions protecting slavery in those regions where a shortage of labor and an excess of arable land combined to make it a feasible method of production. Phillips found that most slaves were well provided for materially and treated with less than brutality by their masters, who for both economic and moral reasons had an interest in the happiness and well-being of their property. He does not deny that slaves were whipped, performed dangerous or tedious tasks, or were separated from their families, but points out that such occurrences were the exception rather than the rule. He does not find that slaves were particularly susceptible to laziness or criminality, or that the threat of slave uprisings was as great as contemporary whites assumed, but rather finds that the racial characteristics of slaves included loyalty, geniality, and a predisposition to manual rather than intellectual labor.
The author also explores the profitability of slavery as an institution, as while the tendency of slave owners to keep their...