Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips bigraphy, stories - United States historian

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips : biography

November 4, 1877 – January 21, 1934

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (November 4, 1877 – January 21, 1934) was an American historian who studied the American antebellum South and slavery. Phillips concentrated on the large plantations that dominated the Southern economy, and he did not investigate the numerous small farmers who held few slaves. He concluded that plantation slavery produced great wealth, but was a dead end, economically, that left the South bypassed by the industrial revolution underway in the North.

On the whole his assessment was that plantation slavery was not very profitable, had about reached its limits in 1860, and would probably have faded away without the American Civil War, which he considered needless conflict. He praised the entrepreneurship of plantation owners and denied they were brutal. Phillips argued that they provided adequate food, clothing, housing, medical care and training in modern technology—that they formed a "school" which helped "civilize" the slaves. He admitted the failure was that no one graduated from this school.

Phillips systematically hunted down and revealed plantation records and unused manuscript sources. An example of pioneering comparative work was "A Jamaica Slave Plantation" (1914). His methods and use of sources shaped the research agenda of most succeeding scholars, even those who disagreed with his favorable treatment of the masters.Peter J. Parish, Slavery: history and historians (1990) p. 6 After the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s historians turned their focus away from his emphasis on the material well-being of the slaves to the slaves’ own cultural constructs and efforts to achieve freedom.Parish, p. 8

By turning away from the political debates about slavery that divided North and South, Phillips made the economics and social structure of slavery the main theme in 20th century scholarship. Together with his highly eloquent writing style, his new approach made him the most influential historian of the ante-bellum south. His interpretation of white supremacy as the "central theme of southern history" remains one of the main interpretations of Southern history.


  • Georgia and State Rights; a Study of the Political History of Georgia from the Revolution to the Civil War, with Particular Regard to Federal Relations. American Historical Association Report for the Year 1901, Vol. 2. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902, his dissertation, earned him the Justin Winsor Prize awarded by the American Historical Association (reprint 1983)
  • American Negro Slavery; a Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor, as Determined by the Plantation Regime. (1918; reprint 1966);
  • A History of Transportation in the Eastern Cotton Belt to 1860. (1908).
  • Life and Labor in the Old South. (1929).
  • The Life of Robert Toombs. (1913).
  • The Course of the South to Secession; an Interpretation. (1939).

Works edited by Phillips

  • The Correspondence of Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens, and Howell Cobb. Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1911, Vol. 2. Washington: 1913.
  • Florida Plantation Records from the Papers of George Noble Jones. (coedited with James D. Glunt). (1927).
  • Plantation and Frontier Documents, 1649–1863; Illustrative of Industrial History in the Colonial and Antebellum South: Collected from MSS. and Other Rare Sources. 2 Volumes. (1909).

Major articles by Ulrich B. Phillips


Phillips’s views were rejected shortly after World War II. But they were revived again in the 1960s, and as Harvard Sitkoff wrote in 1986, "[I]n the mid-1960s Eugene D. Genovese launched a rehabilitation of Phillips that still continues. Today, as in Phillips’s lifetime, scholars again commonly acknowledge the value of many of his insights into the nature of the southern class structure and master-slave relationships."Sitkoff review of Dillon, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips in The Journal of American History, 73#3 (Dec., 1986), p. 780. The Phillips school asked, what did slavery do for the slaves? As the historian Herbert Gutman noted, the Phillipsian answer was that slavery lifted the slaves out of the barbarism of Africa, Christianized them, protected them, and generally benefited them. Scholarship in the 1950s then moved to the question, what did slavery do to the slaves, and concluded it was a harsh and profitable system. More recently, scholars such as Genovese and Gutman asked, "What did slaves do for themselves?" They concluded "In the slave quarters, through family, community and religion, slaves struggled for a measure of independence and dignity.American Social History Project, City University of New York, "Who Built America? series" ; Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750–1925, (1977) p. 25, said "Critics, including such able scholars as E. Franklin Frazier, Kenneth M. Stampp, and Stanley M. Elkins, sharply rejected the racial assumptions of Phillips and his followers but focused on the same question."