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History Doyen: Kenneth M. Stampp

What They're Famous For

Kenneth Milton Stampp is the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught from 1946-1983. He is an award-winning historian of slavery, the American Civil War, and Reconstruction, and is considered the leading scholar in his area. 

Stampp was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1912, and came of age during the depression years. He attended the Milwaukee State Teachers' College, and then the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he graduated his B.A. in 1935 and his M.A. a year later in 1936. Stampp worked on his PhD under the direction of Charles A. Beard and William B. Hesseltine, who served as his dissertation advisor. Stampp completed his doctorate in 1942, and then briefly worked at the University of Arkansas and the University of Maryland from 1942 to 1946. In 1946, he began his tenure at Berkley where he taught for 37 years before retiring. 

In 2006 Stamp celebrated the 60th anniversary of his affiliation with the UC, Berkley. His most well known publication is The Peculiar Institution, for which he is most remembered, and is "starting point for modern studies of US slavery." Stampp's next book The Era of Reconstruction countered the school of thought of William A. Dunning (1857-1922) and his followers, by claiming that Reconstruction was in fact a success, and as Stampp writes "the last great crusade of nineteenth-century romantic reformers." The book served to "cement" Stampp as the leading authority on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Stamp's many distinctions include being awarded the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1989, and in 1993, the Lincoln Prize for lifetime achievement, which was given by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. He has held visiting professorship posts at numerous institutions, including, Harvard University, University of London, University of Munich, and Oxford University.

Personal Anecdote  

Master's Thesis on Antislavery in the South 

I had no doubt after meeting Hesseltine that he was the man I wanted to work with. Well, he was the most dynamic American historian there. Perhaps not the most profound, but certainly the most dynamic. Hicks, by comparison, was rather drab. I always thought of him as the man in grey; his complexion was sort of grey, and he wore grey suits. There was a certain quiet charm about him, and I took courses from him in Western history and recent American history. But Hesseltine, the first course I took from him was American constitutional history, and he was a Beardian. One of the first things he had us read was Beard's economic interpretation of the constitution, and in those Marxist days, this made sense to me.Hesseltine bought it, and he sold it. I was convinced that this was a satisfactory explanation for the nature of the constitution and for the motives of its framers. 

He had a wonderful lecture style. He was witty, he was clever, his lectures were full of humor. Challenging, sometimes outrageous generalizations. But I was rather young and naive then, and he seemed to me awfully exciting. There was no discussion in these lectures. He lectured, and we listened. For a while, I was scared to death of him. I thought he was wonderful, but I was afraid of him. 

The next term, in the fall, I started taking his year course in the history of the old South and the sectional conflict and Civil War and Reconstruction, and that's what really excited me. He was a southerner himself; he came from Virginia, but he was a kind of southern maverick at the time. He always claimed that the men who ran the--and they were men at that time, mostly--the Southern Historical Association would have nothing to do with him. He was never elected president of the Southern Historical Association, and he claimed that it was because he was just too much of a rebel. 

I loved graduate school, I really did. I look back with great nostalgia to Madison in the thirties. It was a wonderful place. I really did like graduate school and got to know people who were lifetime friends during those years. 

I had to pick a thesis topic immediately when I started graduate work, and I picked as the subject of my master's thesis the antislavery movement in the South. That was my first experience with research into important primary sources. I picked it myself. I don't remember how--I must have read something about antislavery sentiment in the Old South. The Southern critics of slavery were largely Quakers; there were antislavery organizations in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee--not in the Deep South, where organized antislavery was impossible. Antislavery Southerners advocated gradual, compensated emancipation, and then the colonization of the emancipated slaves somewhere outside the United States, back to Africa or wherever. That was the kind of movement they supported. 

Dissertation: Indiana Politics during the Civil War 

  I intended to keep working in that period and that field. Somehow, I got interested in an Indiana politician. I have no Indiana connections. Indiana is politically an interesting state, and I'll explain why. I got interested in an Indiana politician named Oliver P. Morton. He was a Democrat in his early life, and broke with the Democrats in 1854 over the Kansas-Nebraska bill. He joined a group that was at that time known as the Anti-Nebraska Democrats. They were one part of the coalition that formed the Republican party, old Whigs and Anti-Nebraska Democrats and antislavery Free-Soilers, some former members of the Know-Nothing party. 

Morton was a fairly important, active politician during the 1850s, and in 1860, he ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket and was elected. Another Republican, [Henry S.] Lane, was elected governor. Everyone knew in advance that he was going to be elected to the United States Senate. He was, and Morton became governor in 1861. 

My interest in Morton never changed, but I finally decided that I disliked the man so much that I couldn't possibly write a biography of him. That's an interesting matter. 

The more I got to know him, the more I got to dislike the man, and that's an interesting thing to think about. Biographers usually write about people they like and not often about people they don't like. Perhaps there would be some interesting biographies if they were written by people who didn't like their subjects, like some of the Nixon biographies, for example. 

By that time, I had done quite a lot of research on Morton as governor, as Civil War governor of Indiana. 

Then the question was, if I don't want to do a biography of Morton, how do I salvage off-and-on research over a couple of years? I finally decided that I was going to do a more general study of Indiana politics during the Civil War. This turned out to be a fascinating subject because Indiana was a fascinating state during the Civil War. 

I ended with the end of the war in my dissertation. I have an introductory chapter on the 1850s about the formation of the Republican party and the election of 1860; the second chapter is on the secession crisis; then the rest is on the war and the social consequences. I have a concluding chapter that tries to summarize my view of what had happened in society in Indiana during the war and to the politics of Indiana. That's where I ended it. 

After I wrote the dissertation, I reworked it, did some cutting, and submitted it for publication. 

My life that year was very simple: work. I worked in the Indiana State Library and the Indiana Historical Bureau. They were both in the same building, but they had different collections. In the evening at least five nights a week, I went to the Indiana Public Library and worked on newspapers for the 1850s and 1860s, and that's about all there was to my life. I knew my roommate, I got to know the people at the Indiana State Library, but I had virtually no social life while I was down there. It was just work. Sometimes my roommate and I played two-handed bridge at night just for diversion. I read when I could, but it was really just the library all day long. 

I think I was kind of lonesome down there with not knowing anybody. I had had a rather active social life in Madison, and this was drudgery in some respects, but the research was exciting, I loved it. 

I was out of graduate school as far as that was concerned. No, I had plenty of time just to work on my dissertation. 

I had finished teaching up in Fond du Lac and the term ended in Madison. It was the same drudgery being a teaching assistant, making out the exams and grading the exams and attending lectures that I was hearing for the third time. 

By the end of July or early August, I finally finished my research on that dissertation, and I thought it was time for a holiday. Jobs were almost nonexistent, so I was delighted to take the job at Arkansas. I could have had one more year on the extension; I could have had a second year. 

In June 1941, we moved back down to Madison. Some time while I was up in Rhinelander, I had a letter from a young professor who used to teach at the University of Wisconsin, his name was Fred Harvey Harrington. He was a Ph.D. from New York University, and he was the young man in the History Department there, in American history. I got to know him fairly well the year that I was Hesseltine's teaching assistant and teaching in Fond du Lac. They came over to see Kay and me a number of times, and we went to see them. 

The next year, the year I was in Rhinelander, he left Madison to go to the University of Arkansas to become head of the Department of History and Political Science as a full professor. Some time in the late spring of 1941, I heard from Hesseltine and got a letter from Harrington that there was a one-year job. Somebody was going on leave at the University of Arkansas, and Harrington wanted to offer it to me. I took it. 

So in June we went back down to Madison, and we found an apartment. It was a terribly hot summer, I remember, and I spent the whole summer writing my dissertation. Before the summer was over, I had it all written except one concluding chapter. I showed it all to Hesseltine, and he approved it, thought it was good. I'm not very good in heat, especially humid heat, the kind we had in Wisconsin. I can remember sitting in a bathtub with a big board on the side, writing in the bathtub in cool water with my notes there. 

By September, I had just one last chapter, about fifteen or twenty pages, I had to write, and early in September, we started for Fayetteville, Arkansas. 

That fall--it's all connected with Pearl Harbor--I finished the last chapter of my dissertation, and I was to go back to Madison. Pearl Harbor was on the seventh, I think it was a Sunday, and I was to go back to Madison and take my Ph.D. exams the following Wednesday. 

I took my oral exam on the tenth of December. That day I think their minds were on Pearl Harbor and other things more than my exam. They did ask some questions. I had my usual trouble with Chester Penn Higby, the European historian, who asked me some impossible questions. Selig Perlman, the man with whom I took my outside field in economics, labor history and socialism and capitalism, was on the committee. He thought my dissertation was excellent. I got by with everyone except Higby. 

After it was over, I was sent out then called back in, and everyone congratulated me except Higby. He just walked out and never said a word to me. He could never forgive me for that, even though I had given him an explanation. I think I did very well in my oral exam. So I passed, and I was a Ph.D. at last. 

An Offer from Berkeley 

Then in the spring of 1946, things began to happen. Hofstadter got an offer from Columbia, and I knew he was leaving. Mills got an offer from Columbia, and I knew he was leaving. And there I was--I wasn't going to get the job at Hopkins, and I wasn't going to get the job at Swarthmore. I thought, My God, I'm going to be here again. Freidel is fired, Hofstadter is leaving, Mills is leaving, and I'm going to be here alone. 

In April 1946 I went to a kind of rump meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in Bloomington, Indiana. John D. Hicks had been one of my professors at Wisconsin. 

He was very much in favor of Roosevelt's foreign policy. He knew Hesseltine, and I was a Hesseltine student. John D. Hicks was at the Mississippi Valley meeting in Bloomington, Indiana. It was a small meeting, and I remember Hicks saying, "Let's have a drink together. You know, I'm an old Wisconsin--" he was out here [in Berkeley] now. He came out here in '42. So we sat and had a drink and talked about Wisconsin and about Hesseltine. And that was that. 

The next month, early May of 1946, I got a letter from Hicks and a letter from Hesseltine offering me an instructorship out here. He had written to Hesseltine and said that he was interested in bringing me to Berkeley. I said, "Instructorship? I'm an associate professor. I know it's only Maryland, but I'm not going to start over again." He wrote to Hesseltine and said, "Tell Stampp to accept it," an instructorship. I said, "No." I wrote back and said, "I'll step down one rank. I'll go back to assistant professor, but I'm not going to take an instructorship." Well, I think Hicks had sort of said, "That's all I can do." Ultimately it was changed. 

It was raised to an assistant professorship, and more than that, it was raised to a second-step assistant professorship. My salary at Maryland at that time was $3,500, and going to Berkeley, my salary would be $3,600. That wasn't much of an inducement. Well, it turned out when I got here that it was going to be $3,900, and that helped a lot. 

I didn't even know where Berkeley was. I had to find a map. I thought Berkeley was somewhere in southern California. I was that ignorant about the university. I found it was across from San Francisco. I had never been to San Francisco. I had been to Los Angeles but not San Francisco. I told Hofstadter about the job, and he said, "Well, surely you're not going to take it." I said, "Well, I'd like to get out of here, and I wouldn't mind going out there for a few years." He said, "Well, I must say, I don't think much of the history department at Berkeley." 

Well, he knew, for example, that the dominant figure for some years was Herbert Eugene Bolton and that Bolton didn't have any use for men who taught American history. You should teach history of the Americas. 

I came out. I told Hofstadter I would go out at least for a few years. I went to Madison that summer and taught in the summer session. My wife was with me. Then I managed to get a car. They were hard to get in 1946, but through an influential brother-in-law I got a car so I could drive out. 

We got into California on the twelfth of September, I remember, and stopped up in the mountains. I loved the mountains, I wanted to stop in the mountains, so we stopped in the little village of Cisco, elevation of about 5,500 feet, and found a motel there. 

The next day, we drove on down-- driving into the Bay Area then was something because there was no freeway. You had to drive through Roseville and every community on the way--Davis, and right through Richmond, and Rodeo and so on. I thought we would never get here. 

I remember we finally came out on--I think there was an East Bay freeway then--the freeway the afternoon of September thirteenth, and I looked at San Francisco and the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, and I fell in love with it, absolutely fell in love. 

Settling into Teaching and Publishing 

I began teaching a survey course in American history. I remember walking in to 101 Cal [California Hall]--I don't know whether you remember 101 Cal when it was a lecture hall, held about 400 students. 

It was a nice lecture hall--you didn't realize the size of it from the podium because it was sort of like this [shaped like an amphitheater]. I had never lectured to more than thirty-five students, and I walked in there one Tuesday morning and found 400 students in there, and four teaching assistants whom I had not met yet. I still remember one of them asked whether I had my registration card with me. I looked kind of young then. I had to tell them I was going to run this course. And--wow, that was an experience, I must say, lecturing to that many students. That was really nerve-shattering. 

My own field, really, for the first time. I gave my course in the history of the Old South. I had about, oh, sixty or seventy students in it. It was a nice-sized group. I had a seminar--it must have had seven or eight students in it. That I liked very much. 

I spent all my spare time writing And the War Came, and also I went East for conventions, took the train East. I got travel money, research money, to do that. I conferred with a new director of the Indiana Historical Bureau, I believe in 1947. I had sent him the revised dissertation manuscript, and he thought it was great, "We're going to publish it." That was wonderful. It came out in 1949, finally. So I was hard at work on And the War Came. I finished that in 1948. 

I sent it to LSU Press, Louisiana State University Press, and they loved it. They took it and published it in 1950, so that looked pretty good: a book out in 1949 and another book in 1950. 

It had wonderful reviews. I didn't get a single critical review; it really was good. I found out later that it was second for the Pulitzer Prize. I found that out through the head of the LSU Press. 

I had learned how to lecture to 400 people, and I was not too bad at it, I was pretty good. As a matter of fact, Hicks had heard that my lectures were very good, and my enrollment in my upper-division course had grown from about fifty or sixty students the first time to 200 or 300 students. I lost that small group there. Hicks once asked me whether I had preachers in my family or something. 

The Peculiar Institution 

To my best recollection, it was a former graduate student, Richard Heffner, who, hearing my feeling that there was a need for a new book, said, "Well, why don't you write it?" and I thought about it. I do insist that it had nothing to do with the civil rights movement. 

The book came out in 1956, and so somebody suggested--I think it was Win [Winthrop] Jordan, actually, who used to be in our department--that it was somehow connected with the civil rights movement, and it really wasn't. My decision to write it dated back to the forties. 

I began working on it as soon as I finished a book called And the War Came, which I finished in 1948. In the spring of 1952, I had applied for a Guggenheim, and I received one. I was due for a sabbatical. So I planned to be away for the whole year, from the summer of '52 to the summer of '53. That's when I was going to do the bulk of my research on this book. 

In January, I moved to Chapel Hill. I had written to a friend at the university there, and he had found a quite satisfactory place for us to live in a suburb of Chapel Hill called Carboro, which is a mill town. It was rather interesting living in a Southern mill town for a while. I couldn't have done the book without going there, yes. I don't think it had any effect on the tone of my book. A lot of the Southerners whom I saw, when the book came out, didn't write to me and say, "This is a great book." 

When the Guggenheim year was over in July, we came back to Berkeley. I had a little more research to clear up out of secondary sources, but I began writing in the late fall or maybe early winter of 1953-'54. It was a terrible experience beginning that book. I was terribly concerned about this book and my responsibility in writing it. I really wanted to write a book that would persuade Southerners that slavery wasn't quite like the myths and legends. 

Now, the question of a publisher, Knopf published it, but I had an unfortunate relationship with Knopf with my book And the War Came--giving them an opportunity to reject it twice. It was a double humiliation. Anyway, And the War Came was out in 1950, and it had very good reviews. Alfred Knopf, the old man, was pretty peeved at one book man at Knopf, one of their field men, because he's the one who had solicited the manuscript. I had said, "I will never publish a book with Knopf." Anyway, this man came to me in 1952 at a convention and said, "I hear you're writing a book about slavery." I said, "Yes, but Knopf is not going to have it." I don't think is an exaggeration: I think he must have been under considerable pressure from Knopf because he practically got on his knees and asked for it. I said, "I'll never send you the manuscript. If you want to give me a contract without ever seeing the manuscript, okay." And I got it. 

Sight unseen. I was never going to let them turn down another manuscript or another book of mine. So I'm very glad because Knopf makes beautiful books, and he does a pretty good job of promoting. So I sent the manuscript to Knopf the late summer of 1955, and I had an editor whose name I can't remember, and he disappeared before the book was finished. He probably was fired. Knopf was always firing people. So for the last bit, I didn't have an editor. The manuscript--it was a clean manuscript. I had a typist who really made no typos--I couldn't find any--and raised a couple of questions. She did a little bit of editing, actually, anyway. So the manuscript was a nice clean one that I sent to Knopf; then later in his reminiscences, Alfred Knopf said that in all the time that he was running his company, he had only received two manuscripts that could go straight to the publisher without editing. Mine was one, he said; another was a friend of his who also had written on black history. Well, that was partly true, but it also covered the fact, or disguised or concealed the fact, that my editor had been fired. Anyway, it's a nice story, and it never made me unhappy to have Knopf say that my manuscript was so letter-perfect. 

It was published in October, 1956. As far as I know, it received no prizes. There was no Pulitzer prize or Bancroft prize. There was a prize at that time given for the best book in Southern history, and it didn't even win that prize, though I think it was by far the best book in Southern history that year. The only prize actually came years and years later -- I got the Lincoln prize in 1993. It was sort of a lifetime award, but the thing they always featured in their presentation prize was The Peculiar Institution, which most people think is the most important book I wrote. 

Quotes By Kenneth M. Stampp

From:  Kenneth M. Stamp in the Introduction of "The Causes of The Civil War"

"As one reflects upon the problem of causation one is driven to the conclusion that historians will never know, objectively and with mathematical precision, what caused the Civil War. Working with fragmentary evidence, possessing less than a perfect understanding of human behavior, viewing the past from the perspective of their own times, finding it impossible to isolate one historial event to test its significance apart from all others, historians must necessarily be somewhat tentative and conjectural in offering their interpretations.

● It may then be asked whether there was any point to the enormous effort that has gone into the various attempts to find the causes of the Civil War. If after more than a century the debate is still inconclusive, would not the historian be wise to abandon his search for causes and confine himself to cataloging facts and compiling statistics? Is it not all the nore discouraging to find, as the documents in this book indicate, that historians often merely go back to interpretations advanced by partisans while the war was still in progress? I think not. Because the century of historical inquiry, if it leaves the causes of the Civil War still open to debate, has nevertheless been extremely illuminating. uncertainty about the war's causes has driven historians back to the sources time and time again, with the result that we have gredually enlarged our knowledge and and deepened our understanding of our greatest national crisis. Hence I find the prospect of a continuing debate, however much it may annoy those who find it disagreeable to live with uncertainties, the best promise that research and writing in this period of American history will continue to have vitality." 

From:  Kenneth M. Stampp in "Indiana Politics during the Civil War"

● But Indiana Democrats did not long encumber their cause with a nostalgic yearning for things that had passed. The leaders of these western agrarians were soon busy resurrecting their party in order to re-engage their foes and to make themselves felt in the new nation. They quickly confessed that slavery was dead and warned that Democrats should not "tie the corpse around their necks." Instead they preferred to face the living issues of national reconstruction.

●  What these issues would be did not long remain in doubt. The Sentinel reminded its readers that the war had left the tariff question unsettled and that in this respect the interests of the West and South were still identical. Western Republicans, it affirmed, were the mere tools of New England, and tariff reduction could be the program by which the Democracy would rescue the nation from "a great manufacturing aristocracy." Other party leaders saw in the growing indignation of western farmers against the railroad monopolies another problem demanding a solution. Finally, there were already cries of protest against the national banking system which enriched a few men but failed to meet the West's constant need for additional capital.

●  The Sentinel confidently predicted that the present attempt of New England to be "overseers of the whole nation" would be as odious to the West as the past attempt of the South had been. Hence, it prophesied, the western states, with their identity of interests, would soon make themselves a power in the land. "And they will make that power felt in impressing their policy upon the nation." The roots of western insurgency were already deep in the soil of Indiana. In 1872 and 1876 the Democrats would capitalize on agrarian discontent with the new order to capture the governorship; in the latter election they would, for the first time since 1856, win the state's presidential electoral votes. From their ranks would come the leaders of the Granger and Populist movements.

● But the triumphant Republicans, heirs to the Whig tradition, were equally prepared for the future and ready to meet this new threat from their irrepressible foes. The Indianapolis Journal noted with satisfaction that war and Republican rule had brought to the Northwest an unprecedented degree of material well-being. Indiana, it observed, was a region "of unabated prosperity." Accordingly, in the spring of 1865 Indiana's political rulers surveyed the Hoosier scene and pronounced it good.

From: Kenneth M. Stampp in "The Peculier Institution"

●  Critics of slavery, certain white men think, err when they assume that the Negroes suffered as much in bondage as white men would have suffered. One must remember, argue critics of critics, that to the Negroes slavery seemed natural; knowing no other life, they accepted it without giving the matter much thought.

●  Not that slavery was a good thing, mind you-but still, it probably hurt the Negroes less than it did the whites. Indeed the whites were really more enslaved by Negro slavery than were the Negro slaves. This poet-slavery argument, like the ante-bellum proslavery argument, is based on upon some obscure and baffling logic. It is not unlike James H. Hammond's confident assertion that "our slaves are the happiest...human beings on whom the sun shines"; or his complaint that "into their eden is coming Satan in the guise of an abolitionist."

●  A former slave once pronounced a simple and chastening truth for those who would try to understand the meaning of bondage: "Tisn't he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is,-'tishe who has endured." "I was black," he added, "but I had feelings of a man as well as any man." One can feel compassion for the antebellum southern white man; one can understand the moral dilemma in which he was trapped. But one must remember that the Negro, not the white man, was the slave, and the Negro gained the most from emancipation. When freedom came-even the quasi-freedom of "second-class citizenship"-the Negro, in literal truth, lost nothing but his chains.

From Kenneth M. Stampp in "The Southern Road to Appomattox"

●  NOT LONG AGO one of America's best political commentators made an observation about the problem of causation in history that every responsible historian would surely endorse: I hold a kind of Tolstoyan view of history and believe that it is hardly ever possible to determine the real truth about how we got from here to there. Since I find it extremely difficult to uncover my own motives, I hesitate to deal with those of other people, and I positively despair at the thought of ever being really sure about what has moved whole nations and whole generations of mankind. No explanation of the causes and origins of any war -- of any large happening in history -- can ever be for me much more than a plausible one, a reasonable hypothesis.

●  This is a position to which I fully subscribe, and I believe that it is as valid for explanations of why a war was won or lost as for explanations of why a war began.

●  With this cautionary statement in mind, I am going to suggest one of the conditions, among several, that may help to explain why the South lost the Civil War. I think there is reason to believe that many Southerners -- how many I cannot say, but enough to affect the outcome of the war -- who outwardly appeared to support the Confederate cause had inward doubts about its validity, and that, in all probability, some unconsciously even hoped for its defeat. Like all historical explanations, my hypothesis is not subject to definitive proof; but I think it can be established as circumstantially plausible, because it is a reasonable explanation for a certain amount of empirical evidence....

●  Very soon, as a matter of fact, white Southerners were publicly expressing their satisfaction that the institution had been abolished and asserting that the whites, though perhaps not the blacks, were better off without it. Many were ready now to give voice to the private doubts they had felt before the war. They denied that slavery had anything to do with the Confederate cause, thus decontaminating it and turning it into something they could cherish. After Appomattox Jefferson Davis claimed that slavery "was in no wise the cause of the conflict," and Alexander H. Stephens argued that the war "was not a contest between the advocates or opponents of that Peculiar Institution." The speed with which white Southerners dissociated themselves from the cause of slavery is an indication of how great a burden it had been to them before Appomattox.

●  The acceptance of emancipation, of course, did not commit Southerners to a policy of racial equality. Rather, they assumed that the free Negroes would be an inferior caste, exposed to legal discrimination, denied political rights, and subjected to social segregation. They had every reason to assume this, because these, by and large, were the policies of most of the northern states toward their free Negro populations, and because the racial attitudes of the great majority of Northerners were not much different from their own. White Southerners were understandably shocked, therefore, when Radical Republicans, during the Reconstruction years, tried to impose a different relationship between the races in the South -- to give Negroes legal equality, political rights, and, here and there, even social equality. Now for the first time white Southerners organized a powerful partisan movement and resisted more fiercely than they ever had during the war. The difference, I think, was that in rejecting Radical race policy they felt surer of their moral position, for they were convinced that Northerners were perpetrating an outrage that Northerners themselves would not have endured. Thus the morale problem was now on the other side; and the North, in spite of its great physical power, lacked the will to prevail. Unlike slavery, racial discrimination did not disturb many nineteenth-century white Americans, North or South. Accordingly, in a relatively short time, chiefly because of the unrelenting opposition of white Southerners, Radical Reconstruction collapsed.

● The outcome of Reconstruction is significant: it shows what a people can do against overwhelming odds when their morale is high, when they believe in their cause, and when they are convinced that defeat means catastrophe. The fatal weakness of the Confederacy was that not enough of its people really thought that defeat would be a catastrophe; and, moreover, I believe that many of them unconsciously felt that the fruits of defeat would be less bitter than those of success.

From Kenneth M. Stampp in "America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink"

●  "Could all of this have been avoided -- would the course of the sectional conflict have been significantly altered -- if Buchanan had remained true to his pledge and demanded the submission of the whole Lecompton constitution to the voters of Kansas? That is a question no historian can answer. It is doubtful that a firm stand by Buchanan would have resulted in southern secession, because the provocation would not have been sufficient to unite even the Deep South behind so drastic a response. Nor would it have been sufficient to produce a major split in the national Democratic party. Accordingly, without a divided and demoralized national Democracy, Republican successes in the elections of 1858 and the presidential election of 1860 would have been a good deal more problematic.

●  Yet, contrary to the optimists of 1857, removing the Kansas question from national politics, although eliminating a serious irritant, would not have assured a lasting settlement of the sectional conflict. The possibilities for other crises over slavery were far too numerous. Sooner or later, any one of them, like Lecompton, might have disrupted the Democratic party, perhaps, as in 1860, led to the nomination of two Democratic presidential candidates, and resulted in the election of Abraham Lincoln or some other "Black" Republican. The triumph of a Republican presidential candidate proved to be the provocation that turned the southern threats of secession, heard so often in the past, to reality.

●  On December 6, 1858, after the Democratic disasters in the northern autumn elections, Buchanan sent his annual message to the lame-duck session of the Thirty-fifth Congress. He began with his own explication of the Lecompton controversy, expressing satisfaction that Kansas at last appeared to be "tranquil and prosperous" and was attracting thousands of emigrants. The rebellious activities of the "revolutionary Topeka organization" had been abandoned, thus proving that "resistance to lawful authority . . . cannot fail in the end to prove disastrous to its authors." Although he continued to believe that approval of the Lecompton constitution would have "restored peace to Kansas and harmony to the Union" more rapidly, he "cordially acquiesced" in the English bill which Congress preferred. Still, it was "to be lamented that a question so insignificant when viewed in its practical effects on the people of Kansas, whether decided one way or the other, should have kindled such a flame of excitement throughout the country." In this manner, at the end of a disruptive party controversy, Buchanan made his case for posterity.

● Rarely, it must be admitted, has any President, during his term in office, confessed publicly that he was guilty of an important error of judgment. He may on occasion, using the passive voice, concede the possibility that mistakes had been made, leaving responsibility for them in doubt. Buchanan would not concede even that. Referring to his message of February 2, 1858, which recommended approval of the Lecompton constitution, he now assured Congress and the public that he had no regrets. "In the course of my long public life," he defiantly asserted, "I have never performed any official act which in the retrospect has afforded me more heartfelt satisfaction." Let him be remembered, then, for that!

About Kenneth M. Stampp

● "Students and scholars alike will benefit from this collection of eight essays by one of the nation's finest historians of the Civil War era. Stampp considers the crises of the 1850s that produced the Republican Party, the concept of a perpetual Union that the North went to war to defend, and the role of Abraham Lincoln in the sectional conflict. -- Robert Detweiler reviewing "The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War" in "History Teacher"

The bloodiest Civil War battles of the historians, unlike those of history, have been fought over events before rather than after 1861. And unlike the historic battles, the historiographic engagements still rage, the issue still in doubt in many instances. Most of them have been going on for more than a century, and while there have been occasional truces and lulls in the fighting, latest bulletins from the front offer little prospect for peace. Kenneth M. Stampp takes us on a guided tour of the classic antebellum battlefields of historiography....

● Professor Stampp is well qualified as a guide to these battlefields of the historians. A veteran of most of the campaigns and still a participant on active duty in several, he is well posted on the strength, weakness, and firepower of the forces engaged. After first pointing out, identifying, and assessing all belligerent units and reserves on a particular field, he puts on a demonstration as a participatory guide. Pitching in with live ammunition he leads a charge himself and often leaves the field littered with casualties. While he makes no secret of the colors he flies and the cause he fights, he shows a proper regard and, in all but a few cases, a seemly gallantry toward his foes. Bearing scars from many past encounters, he has learned a due respect for the forces of opposition and usually prefers to consider their intentions honorable if misguided. -- C. Vann Woodward reviewing "The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War" in New York Review of Books

● Kenneth M. Stampp is by common acclaim the dean of historians of the Civil War era, and the long and honorable list of his works more than justifies the title; but not since "The Era of Reconstruction" (1965) has he used the narrative form. Now that it is becoming so academically fashionable, he has perhaps decided to show the young how an old master can handle it; and the result is a triumph of the historian's craft. The argument underlying this chronicle of one year could not be stated more modestly, but almost every detail contributes to it; and the cunning structure of the narrative, which amounts to a carefully calculated arrangement of details, will compel readers to discover Mr. Stampp's thesis for themselves and make it their own. -- Hugh Brogan reviewing "AMERICA IN 1857 A Nation on the Brink" in NYT

● "For almost firty years Kenneth Stampp's writings and teachings have charted the course of historical inquiry regarding slavery and the Civil War. Standard textd have incorporated much of what Stampp has said about the era of Reconstruction that we forget how revolutionary many of Stampp's arguments were when they first appeared. He rejected such former common-places as slavery being a benign insitution, as a "blundering" generation and "irresponsible agitators" alone bringing on secession and civil war, and as Republican corruption and vindictiveness marking Reconstruction as a tragic era. Save for his assumptions about the cultural unity of races and his emphasis on the exploitive, regimented character of master-slave relationships in The Peculier Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South- assumptions and emphasis currently challenged in recent work on slavery, sometimes by Stampp's own former students- Stampp's work has proved remarkably durable." -- Randall M. Miller in the "Journal of Southern History" about "New Perspectives on Race and Slavery in America: Essays in Honor of Kenneth M. Stampp"

● "In this reassessment of the period after Appomattox, Kenneth Stampp, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, calls the Southern version dead wrong. He is only one of dozens of contemporary historians who have recently undertaken to reconstruct the Reconstruction. Of these revisionists, Stampp is easily the most provocative. His proposition is that the impenitent postwar South set to work at once to restore the very order that it had supposedly yielded in defeat. The idea was to negate the war's outcome. 

●  In this cause, says Stampp, the North served as unwitting accomplice. Lincoln's assassination propelled Andrew Johnson into the White House, a kind-hearted and derivative man anxious to implement Lincoln's injunction to let the South up easy. To staff the governments of the secessionist states, he granted wholesale pardons to Confederate officers and civil servants—and such men did not waste time accepting the chance to preside....

● The South's version of Reconstruction blames everything on those vengeful Yankees who rammed their triumph down rebel throats—and implies that until then the rebels were willing to acknowledge the inevitable price of defeat. Stampp's purpose is to expose this version as a falsehood that has graduated, over the years, into a Southern mystique. His book presents compelling arguments that Selma is the predictable heritage of a South that, though losing a war, at once conspired to evade the moral indemnity that was its toll." -- Time review article on "THE ERA OF RECONSTRUCTION, 1865-1877" (Apr. 23, 1965)

● "One white scholar who did much to quicken interest in Afro-American history was Kenneth M. Stampp. His book The Peculier Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, was, in the words of Robert H. Abzug, a "landmark in the rewriting of Afro-American and race relations history." The Peculier Institution opened new interpretations of the Afro-American past. Stampp assumed a unity among Americans that that transcended the differences dividing them, writes Abzug. After the publication of The Peculier Institution, white scholars in particular began to examine black history in terms of individual experiences. Even Stanley M. Elkins, whose book Slavery: A Problem in American and Institutional and Intellectual Life, which appeared in 1959, adopted an environmental rather than a biogenetic argument to explain the existence of Sambo as a childlike, lazy, dependent slave. Stampp and his students have looked at the effects of slavery and racism on both whites and blacks." -- Robert L. Harris, Jr. in the review article "The Flowering of Afro-American History"

● "For the vast majority of Berkeley students whose lives Ken Stampp touched, of course, it is as a teacher of American history that he is best remembered. And with good reason: I have never known a teacher whose classroom presentations were more beautifully organized and controlled, more literate and logical, more eloquently understated, and more appealing to the common sense of students. Whether lecturing before hundreds of restless academic novices in cavernous Wheeler Auditorium or to upper-division students in his courses on sectional conflict, or supervising a dozen separate scholarly inquiries in seminar, his "presence" uniformly reflected a deep respect for the discipline of history and a delight in teaching." -- John G. Sproat, Professor Emeritus of History University of South Carolina

● "In his distinguished studies of the sectional conflict, Kenneth M. Stampp has pushed aside musty curtains and opened sensitive topics to fresh inquiry. He has never deluded himself into believing that his work is "definitive," for his grasp of the human factors in the historical equation makes it apparent to him that other generations will write histories conditioned by their own perspectives. Yet, his contributions are not likely soon to be set aside and forgotten. For the most enduring quality of his work may well be his capacity to comprehend the essence of a historical situation, then to express it in terms that make it all but self-evident. Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in the closing lines of his classic study of slavery: "One can feel compassion for the antebellum southern white man; one can understand the moral dilemma in which he was trapped. But one must remember that the Negro, not the white man, was the slave, and the Negro gained the most from emancipation. When freedom came-- even the quasi-freedom of 'second-class citizenship'--the Negro, in literal truth, lost nothing but his chains." It is difficult to conceive of an intellectual climate in America in which that truism could be refuted." -- John G. Sproat, University of South Carolina in "Dictionary of Literary Biography"

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:

1940-41: Instructor, University of Wisconsin, Extension Division
1941-42: Instructor, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
1942-46: Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1946-83: From Assistant Professor to Morrison Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Visiting Professor: Harvard (1955), SUNY, Binghamton (1980), Colgate (1981) Williams College (1983)
Summers: University of Wisconsin, Madison (1945, 1946, 1949, 1952), University of Colorado, Boulder (1958). 

Area of Research:

Slavery, American Civil War, and Reconstruction


BS, PhM, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Madison (1935, 1937, 1942)

Major Publications:

  • Indiana Politics During the Civil War, (Indiana Historical Bureau, 1949).
  • And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861, (Louisiana State University Press, 1950, with a new preface by the author, 1970).
  • The Peculiar Institution, (Knopf, 1956).
  • Andrew Johnson and the Failure of the Agrarian Dream: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 18 May 1962, (Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1962).
  • The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, (Knopf, 1965).
  • The Southern Road to Appomattox, (University of Texas at El Paso, 1969).
  • The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War, (Oxford University Press, 1980).
  • Records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, (microform), (University Publications of America (Frederick, MD), 1985-2000).
  • America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, (Oxford University Press, 1990).
  • The United States and National Self-Determination: Two Traditions, (Gettysburg College, 1991). 

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Contributor) Problems in American History, (Prentice-Hall, 1952).
  • (Editor) The Causes of the Civil War, (Prentice-Hall, 1959, revised edition, 1974, 3rd revised edition, Simon & Schuster, 1991).
  • (Co-author) The National Experience, (Harcourt, 1963, revised editions, 1968, 1973).
  • (Coeditor with Esmond Wright) The McGraw-Hill Illustrated World History, (McGraw-Hill, 1964).
  • (Editor with Leon F. Litwack) Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings, (Louisiana State University Press, 1969).

Awards and Grants:

Phi Beta Kappa (1935);
MA, Oxford University, 1961;
LHD, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1981;
Guggenheim Fellow, 1952-53,1967-68;
Fulbright Lecturer, Amerika-Institut, University of Munich, 1957, 1968, 1972;
Commonwealth Fund Lecturer, University of London, 1960;
Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University, 1961-62;
President, Organization of American Historians, 1977-78;
Visiting Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford University, 1979;
Confederate Memorial Literary Society, Award of Merit, 1980;
Commonwealth Club, Silver Medals, 1981, 1991;
Shortlisted for Pulitzer Prize, 1991;
American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction, 1989;
Organization of American Historians Distinguished Service Award, 1993;
Lincoln Prize, Lincoln and Soldiers Institute, Gettysburg College, 1993;
Telford Taylor Public Service Award, Yeshiva University Law School, 1995;
Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences;
Southern Historical Association Certificate of Achievement, 2005.