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Background Essay on the Historiography of Slavery

This essay explains the shift in slavery historiography and how this continuing shift influenced the development of the Doing as They Can documentary.

Doing as they Can grew out of a major historiographic shift in the 1960s and 1970s, and since ASHP produced the video in the mid-1980s the topic of slavery has continued to generate new and varied historical interpretations. From the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century the historical literature on slavery, dominated by the analysis of Ulrich B. Phillips, reflected the slave owner’s view and portrayed slavery as a mainly benign institution. As the historian Herbert Gutman said, this literature focused on the question: What did slavery do for the slave? The traditional answer was that slavery lifted the slaves out of the barbarism of Africa, Christianized them, protected them, and generally benefited them.

 The Phillips school of slavery historiography was not limited to the South or to a faction within the historical profession; as recently as 1950, for instance, Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, of Harvard and Columbia Universities respectively, propagated the traditional interpretation in one of the leading college textbooks of the era. At mid-century, however, in a striking example of how present events shape understandings of the past, historians began to view slavery more critically. Amid the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, and other stirrings of civil rights activism, the view of slavery as a benign, civilizing institution for an inferior race began to crumble. In Gutman's phrase, historians asked a new question: What did slavery do to the slaves? As the research of Kenneth Stampp and others answered, slavery was above all a harsh and profitable system -- so harsh and all-encompassing, according to Stanley Elkins, that it destroyed slaves' African culture and left them passive and dependent on their masters for their culture and identity.

In the 1960s, as the civil rights and black power movements increasingly emphasized the pride and resilience of black people in the face of oppression, historians reviewed the history of slavery once again and asked: What did slaves do for themselves? Based on a reinterpretation of old sources and the study of new ones such as interviews of ex-slaves in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s suggested that within the harsh and brutal confines of slavery, African Americans were resistant and resourceful. In the slave quarters, through family, community and religion, slaves struggled for a measure of independence and dignity. 

In Doing As They Can, ASHP drew upon this new literature to explore slave life in the American South in the 1840s and 1850s. The video examines slavery from the perspective of the slaves themselves. In particular, it highlights subtle forms of day-to-day resistance that observers and historians, in their tendency to equate rebellion with large-scale slave revolts of the type that were more common in Latin America and the Caribbean, failed to recognize in North American slavery. Historians refer to the idea of slaves "doing as they can" as agency. In the past two decades, historians have examined the institution of slavery, and the idea of slave agency, in a variety of ways. Some have considered the different circumstances of slaves owned by whites who possessed large and small numbers of other slaves, while some have focused on the particular conditions under which enslaved women lived and worked as part of white households. Others have explored the pervasive and complex psychology of slave ownership, which was governed by an unstable mix of the desire to appear benevolent, the urge to maximize financial investment, and raw fear. 

Doing as they Can addresses the history of slavery at a specific point in time and place: the American South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Since the video was produced, historians have emphasized the ever-changing nature of slavery over a three-hundred year period of North American and world history. Slavery in the United States is increasingly seen as part of a global economic system that remade the modern world between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

The origins and interrelationship of slavery and racism during this period remains an especially rich subject of exploration. In his book Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Eric Williams famously declared that "slavery was not born of racism; rather racism was the consequence of slavery." Echoing that statement, many historians have stressed that North American whites developed African slavery for economic reasons, to solve problems of labor supply, and that race relations remained somewhat fluid as that system of slave labor evolved over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In other words, the racism of the antebellum period -- biologically-based arguments for African and African-American inferiority -- was not a fixed, static entity; it had a history. As historians have further emphasized, the American Revolution was a key turning point in that history. In their view, racist attitudes were not a lapse or an exception to the ideals of equality that the Declaration of Independence enshrined. Rather, racism went hand in hand with those ideals: it helped explain and justify African and African-American slavery in a free country. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning, “Background Essay on the Historiography of Slavery,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 18, 2024,

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