Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

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Ulrich Bonnell Phillips : biography

November 4, 1877 – January 21, 1934

Race as "central theme" of southern U.S. 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 A. Beard and Mary Ritter 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.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.

By 2000, and citing Phillips, Jane Dailey, Glenda Gilmore, and Bryant Simon argue:, "Introduction" in Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, eds. Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (2000), .

"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 his review of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited From Slavery By Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jenifer Frank, the historian Ira Berlin wrote, "Slavery in the North, like its counterpart in the South, was a brutal, violent relationship that fostered white supremacy. Complicity ‘s authors shred the notion, famously advanced by the Yale historian U.B. Phillips, that the central theme of Southern history was the region’s desire to remain a white man’s country. Phillips was not so much wrong about the centrality of white supremacy to the South as blind to its presence in the North."], "The Battle Over Memory," Washington Post Book World February 12, 2006; page BW10 ]

Phillips concluded 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 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 by other scholars.

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: