American Negro Slavery is the classic historical statement of the slavery apologetics. Phillips's unrepentant racism is not only a major feature of th...moreAmerican Negro Slavery is the classic historical statement of the slavery apologetics. Phillips's unrepentant racism is not only a major feature of the book, his thesis is based on it. Phillips is no KKK member; that is, he does not hate African-Americans. Rather, he just does not see them as fully human. He does not ascribe to them even the most basic and common of human attributes. His book draws a picture of African-American slaves as unaware yet content. He sees slaves as incapable of emotion and, even, cognizance. He believes that the carrying of Africans to bondage and the experience of being slaves on a plantation including "uprooting his ancient language and custom had little more effect upon his temperament than upon his complexion" (291). The book is full of Mr. Phillips' dehumanizing characterizations. He writes of benevolent slave masters whose relations with their slaves were "largely shaped by a sense of propriety, proportion, and cooperation" (296). For this modern reader, and, I suspect, many others, it makes it hard to take anything he says seriously.
Furthermore, Phillips spends much of the book detailing the economy of plantation life, but never acknowledges that slavery itself was, at its heart, an economic institution. Instead, he clings to the notion of slavery as paternal or patriarchal. While this may have been true prior to the 19th century, certainly it does not apply after the emergence of the cotton gin. Because of this, he makes no distinction between the 18th and 19th centuries, and, therefore, his story lacks any kind of real, substantive change. One would get the idea that the only thing that changed was the crop being worked by the slaves. It is clear that the author still holds some romantic, paternal view of race relations and applies that to his history. This is perhaps the book’s most grievous sin.
All that said, the book was important in its time (and remains important in a historiographical context) for a number of reasons. First, it was the first historical work on slavery to be based on large-scale primary source research. Phillips tracked down and used plantation records and their owners' diairies. This may seem like the common-sense thing to do for modern historians but at the turn of the 20th century, this was truly cutting edge historical research. Phillips did, however, ignore other available sources that would have contradicted his thesis, e.g., travel diaries of northerners depicting the brutality of slavery. Second, Phillips book was the first to explore the economics of North American plantation slavery. It is fundamental to his benevolent patriarchy argument that slavery simply was not profitable but for the very largest plantations (i.e., so they must have been doing it for a reason other than profit).
In the end, Phillips, like all historians, and his history was the product of his time. Southerners of the first post-Reconstruction generation had to reconstruct an identity as Southerners that could both mitigate their past while clearing a way for the future. American Negro Slavery was a grand attempt by the Georgia-born Yale professor to contribute to that effort by mitigating both the South's history as a slave society and its history of confederacy, by arguing that the Civil War was an unnecessary conflict because slavery would've died out shortly anyway due to its growing unprofitability. (less)