Ulrich Bonnell Phillips


Ulrich Bonnell Phillips : biography

November 4, 1877 – January 21, 1934
"By compiling instances of the kindness and benevolence of masters, Phillips proved to his satisfaction that slavery was a mild and permissive institution, the primary function of which was not so much to produce a marketable surplus as to ease the accommodation of the lower race into the culture of the higher. The critics of Phillips have tried to meet him on his own ground. Where he compiled lists of indulgences and benefactions, they have assembled lists of atrocities. Both methods suffer from the same defect: they attempt to solve a conceptual problem—what did slavery do to the slave?—by accumulating quantitative evidence…. The only conclusion that one can legitimately draw from this debate is that great variations in treatment existed from plantation to plantation."George Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch, "Resistance to Slavery," Civil War History, 13 (December 1967), 315-29.


John David Smith of North Carolina State University argues:

"[He was] a conservative, proslavery interpreter of slavery and the slaves…. In Life and Labor in the Old South Phillips failed to revise his interpretation of slavery significantly. His basic arguments—the duality of slavery as an economic cancer but a vital mode of racial control—can be traced back to his earliest writings. Less detailed but more elegantly written than American Negro Slavery, Phillips’s Life and Labor was a general synthesis rather than a monograph. His racism appeared less pronounced in Life and Labor because of its broad scope. Fewer racial slurs appeared in 1929 than in 1918, but Phillips’s prejudice remained. The success of Life and Labor earned Phillips the year-long Albert Kahn Foundation Fellowship in 1929-30 to observe blacks and other laborers worldwide. In 1929 Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, appointed Phillips professor of history."

Phillips contended that masters treated slaves relatively well. His views were rejected most sharply by Kenneth M. Stampp in the 1950s.In 1982, Stampp wrote, "In their day the writings of Ulrich B. Phillips on slavery were both highly original and decidedly revisionist… . He was about as objective as the rest of us." Cited in Smith and Inscoe, p. 10 However, to a large degree Phillips’ interpretive model of the dynamic between master and slave was revived by Eugene Genovese, who wrote that Phillips’s "work, taken as a whole, remains the best and most subtle introduction to antebellum Southern history and especially to the problems posed by race and class."Genovese, In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (1971) 275-76 In 1963, C. Vann Woodward wrote: "Much of what Phillips wrote has not been superseded or seriously challenged and remains indispensable."Woodward, "Introduction" to 1963 edition of Life and Labor in the Old South page v.

Phillips denied he was proslavery. He was an intellectual leader of the Progressive Movement and slavery, in his interpretation, was inefficient and antithetical to the principles of progressivism. Phillips (1910) explained in detail why slavery was a failed system. It is Smith’s opinion that:Smith and Inscoe 1990 p. 10

"Phillips’s contributions to the study of slavery clearly outweigh his deficiencies. Neither saint nor sinner, he was subject to the same forces– bias, selectivity of evidence, inaccuracy–that plague us all. Descended from slave owners and reared in the rural South, he dominated slave historiography in an era when Progressivism was literally for whites only. Of all scholars, historians can ill afford to be anachronistic. Phillips was no more a believer in white supremacy than other leading contemporary white scholars."

Secondary sources

  • Bixel, Patricia Bellis and John David Smith. Seeing the New South: Race and Place in the Photographs of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (University of South Carolina Press; 2013) 136 pages
  • Dillon, Merton Lynn. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips: Historian of the Old South (1985), biography
  • Fogel, Robert William. The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: A Retrospective Louisiana State University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8071-2881-3, chapter 1.
  • Genovese Eugene D. "Race and Class in Southern History: An Appraisal of the Work of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips." Agricultural History, 41 (October, 1967): 345-358.
  • Genovese Eugene D. "Ulrich Bonnell Phillips & His Critics." [Introduction to] Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime Louisiana State University Press, 1966, pages vii-xxi.
  • Hofstadter Richard. "U.B. Phillips and the Plantation Legend." Journal of Negro History, 29 (April, 1944): 109-124.
  • Kugler Ruben F. "U.B. Phillips’ Use of Sources." Journal of Negro History, 47 (July, 1962): 153-168.
  • Landon, Fred, and Everett E. Edwards. "A Bibliography of the Writings of Professor Ulrich Bonnell Phillips," Agricultural History, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Oct., 1934), pp. 196–218
  • Parish, Peter J. Slavery: history and historians (2nd. ed. 1990)
  • Potter, David M. "The Work of Ulrich B. Phillips: A Comment." Agricultural History, 41 (October, 1967): 359-363.
  • Pressly Thomas J. "Ulrich B. Phillips." In Americans Interpret Their Civil War (Princeton University Press, 1962), pages 265-272.
  • Roper John Herbert. U.B. Phillips: A Southern Mind Mercer University Press, 1984.
  • Singal Daniel Joseph. "Ulrich B. Phillips: The Old South as the New," Journal of American History, 63 (March, 1977): 871-891.
  • Smith John David. An Old Creed for the New South: Proslavery Ideology and Historiography, 1865-1918 Greenwood Press, 1985, Chapter 8.
  • Smith, John David; and John C. Inscoe eds; Ulrich Bonnell Phillips: A Southern Historian and His Critics (1990) , essays by leading scholars, pro and con
  • Smith, John David. "Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (1877-1934)" in The New Georgia Encyclopedia (2003)
  • Smith, John David. Slavery, Race and American History: Historical Conflict, Trends and Method, 1866-1953 (1999)
  • Smith, John David. "U. B. Phillips, the North Carolina State Literary and Historical Association, and the Course of the South to Secession," North Carolina Historical Review, (2010) 87#3 pp 253–282
  • Stampp Kenneth M. "Reconsidering U.B. Phillips: A Comment." Agricultural History, 41 (October, 1967): 365-368.
  • Stampp Kenneth M. "The Historian and Southern Negro Slavery." American Historical Review, 57 (April, 1952): 613-624.
  • Stephenson Wendell H. "Ulrich B. Phillips: Historian of Aristocracy." in The South Lives in History: Southern Historians and Their Legacy Louisiana State University Press, 1955, pages 58–94.
  • Tindall George B. "The Central Theme Revisited." In Charles G. Sellers Jr., ed. The Southerner as American University of North Carolina Press, 1960, pages 104-129.
  • Wish Harvey. "Ulrich B. Phillips and the Image of the Old South." in Wish, The American Historian: A Social-Intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 236–264.
  • Wood, Kirk. "Ulrich B. Phillips." In Clyde N. Wilson, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Twentieth-Century American Historians. Gale Research, 1983, pages 350-363.
  • Woodward C. Vann. "Introduction" in Ulrich B. Phillips. Life and Labor in the Old South. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963, pages iii-vi.


Born Ulysses Bonnell Phillips, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Georgia (UGA) in 1897. He obtained his Master of Arts degree from UGA as well in 1899 and his Ph.D. in 1902 from Columbia University where he studied under William Dunning founder of the Dunning School of historiography. His dissertation, Georgia and State Rights won the Justin Winsor Prize and was published by the American Historical Association.] at North Carolina State University, Raleigh]

Phillips studied with Frederick Jackson Turner who invited Phillips to the University of Wisconsin where Phillips taught from 1902 to 1908 when he left to teach for three years at Tulane University. In 1911, Phillips left Tulane for the University of Michigan where he taught until 1929 when he left to teach at Yale until his death in 1934.