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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,188

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This is the grave of Ulrich B. Phillips.

Born in 1877 in La Grange, Georgia, Phillips was a son of the post-Reconstruction South and boy did he show it over his long career as a historian. His father was a minor merchant but his mother grew up in the plantation world and was downwardly mobile, as so many of these people were when they lost their capital–human beings–when they committed treason in defense of slavery. Young Ulrich went to a fancy private school in New Orleans and then the University of Georgia and graduated from that school in 1897. He stayed on for a master’s degree and then went to Columbia University for his Ph.D. And who did he study with there? William Dunning, the founder of the school of studies that justified southern domination over slaves, the Civil War, and the rise of Jim Crow by painting Reconstruction as a horror of Black rule. Let’s just say that Phillips bought into these ideas hook, line, and sinker.

Phillips got a job at the University of Wisconsin and became friends with Frederick Jackson Turner, who also influenced his work with its ideas about the American West. Now, Phillips’ work did question the plantation system, but in a way that continued to justify the South. His work, such as his influential 1910 essay, “The Decadence of the Plantation System,: claimed that the plantation system was an economically terrible way to run a farm and that slavery would have died out naturally due to its lack of economic sense. But we know today that this is complete hogwash. Slave plantations were integral to American capitalism and if anything, they were growing in profitability in the 1850s. There’s zero reason to think they would have naturally faded away, though I think the twentieth century focus on human rights would have probably doomed the institution eventually. But it wasn’t for economic reasons. By saying this, and I have no doubt that Phillips believed it, it served to create and then reinforce popular ideas of the Civil War at the time that claimed the war was a northern capitalist enterprise to crush a non-capitalist part of the nation. This is partly why Eugene Genovese revived some of Phillips’ arguments in the 70s. This nonsense could serve the needs of people across the political spectrum (and Genovese was still a leftist at this time).

In all of this, Phillips defended slavery as an actual good for Africans, bringing them civilization. He downplayed the violence of the plantation and completely ignored all evidence about things such as the psychological impact of slavery. For him, slavery was a benevolent institution that maybe needed to die out for economic reasons, but that was better for Black people than Reconstruction, which of course in this vision was a bunch of ignorant barefooted drunks goaded on by evil abolitionists and other northern extremists for the interests of the latter. And therefore, the violence of so-called “Redemption” was necessary–including the Ku Klux Klan–to save the white race from these out of control half-civilized marauders. He also edited The Correspondence of Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens, and Howell Cobb and then wrote a biography of Toombs. That must be horrible to read today given what an absolute piece of garbage Toombs was and how much Phillips liked him.

Over time, Phillips changed, only in the sense of using fewer racial pejoratives in his work. His early work, such as American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor, as Determined by the Plantation Regime, from 1918, was full of the most open and cringey racism possible. By the time of his 1929 book, Life and Labor in the Old South, the world had changed enough that respectable racism had to be couched in slightly less aggressive terms. But the basics were the same–slavery was not a bad institution for Blacks but was economically retrograde, etc. That book was a huge hit. It got him a job at Yale (he had taught at Tulane for a bit after leaving Wisconsin in 1908 and then went to Michigan in 1911. Even more incredibly, in 1929 he received an Albert Kahn Foundation Fellowship to study Black laborers in contemporary America. That’s how central Phillips’ ideas were in American historiography and social science in these days.

Now, let’s be clear, Phillips wasn’t a monster per se. His beliefs were basically bog standard in the entire Democratic Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a huge fan of the Dunning School and even went so far as to appoint his favorite popular racist historian as his ambassador to Spain. There is very little room here between Phillips and Arthur Schlesinger, one of the most notable liberals of the day and famous for not including anything on Indian Removal in The Age of Jackson. The ideas of Dunning and Turner flowed very well together and not just in the mind of Phillips. This was a White Man’s Nation, including for most New Dealers, and non-whites simply had no place in their imagination of what it could be. Blacks were an inconvenient reality; the tribes simply were irrelevant and not even worth mentioning.

And Phillips was right about one thing: that race was the central organizing feature of southern history. He saw the unifying theme of southern history as whites trying to maintain white dominance. Of course, he thought this was a good thing. But he’s right as far as it goes. This was also a pushback against Charles and Mary Beard’s belief that class conflict was the central theme of American history, which really doesn’t age well as much as maybe I’d like it to. That never made much sense in the South and Phillips simply is correct about this factually, if not in the terrible implications of his feelings about it. What Phillips missed is how central white supremacy was in the North. That he could not see because of his Jim Crow South base.

Phillips died in 1934, at the age of 56. Not sure why he died so young. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see his scholarship completely repudiated by the rise of the new slavery studies in the 1950s and 1960s and then the rise of Black scholars in the academy.

Ulrich B. Phillips is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Interesting story here about the grave. I visited this cemetery once and couldn’t find it. I was like, great, unmarked grave, how unhelpful. But then I called the cemetery and they were very helpful and said that yes, he is in the Mayo grave, which is his wife’s family. One thing you find doing this series is how some cemeteries are incredibly pro-visitor (the people there actually printed me a precise map to find it) and some cemeteries are really hostile to helping anyone (Catholic cemeteries especially who find visitors who aren’t family anathema). So thanks to the peeps in Sleepy Hollow for their help.

If you would like this series to visit other historians of slavery, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. David Brion Davis is in Orange, Connecticut and Stanley Elkins is in Northampton, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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