Slavery, Race, and American History: Historical Conflicts, Trends, and Method, 1866-1953

Article excerpt

Slavery, Race, and American History: Historical Conflicts, Trends, and Method, 1866-1953. By John David Smith. (Armonk, N.Y., and London: M. E. Sharpe, c. 1999. Pp. xvi, 240. Paper, $23.95, ISBN 0-7656-0378-0; cloth, $64.95, ISBN 0-7656-0377-2.)

The fifteen essays that comprise this volume cover much the same ground as John David Smith's An Old Creed for the New South: Proslavery Ideology and Historiography, 1865-1918 (Westport, Conn., 1985). In that earlier volume, the work of historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (1877-1934) was the culmination of a southern-born interpretation of slavery that rested on racist assumptions about the incapacity of blacks. That interpretation also justified racial inequality in the twentieth century. Phillips is the dominant figure in Smith's new collection, too, as well as the main subject of six of the essays. Phillips and his cohort of pioneer historians of slavery not only raised questions that we continue to debate but, as Smith shows, they also created the archives in which we continue to do our research.

Because he must introduce the historians and the historiography anew in each essay, repetition is unavoidable, as Smith acknowledges; but this does not leave much space for analysis. Phillips and his southern white peers are labeled racists, for example, but there is little here about just how that racism shaped the historians' interpretations. These historians' virtues are similarly declared but not fully demonstrated. Two of the most intriguing essays contrast Phillips's historical work with that of W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederic Bancroft. Smith's efficient summaries of the divergent views of these important scholars are admirable, but his achievement arouses a desire for more depth than short essays can deliver.

A main reason for the collection's lack of critical bite is that Smith is an advocate for scholars of long ago whose works, he believes, have received insufficient attention from today's scholars. The volume's first essay is about George H. …