Reading Material: Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution

I originally bought this book because despite my interest in the Civil War, I don’t have a solid grounding in the antebellum social context, if that makes sense. Slavery as practiced here probbly constitutes the largest gap in my knowledge, to the extent that I couldn’t even tell you what I didn’t know. I’d read all of one work specifically dedicated to it: Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, which was really excellent but also limited itself to the slave trade, and focused specifically on the slave trade in New Orleans.

The Peculiar Institution was the book I chose to start to fill that gap; what I was looking for was a work that would give me a grounding in the subject so that I could hare off and do more reading. As it turns out, I chose really well. Stampp covers a lot of ground here, and it makes for absolutely riveting reading. It seems weird to say that I couldn’t put it down when reading a history book, after all one of the advantages of reading history is that we already know how it ended. Still, I couldn’t put it down. Stampp’s compassionate and analytical voice doesn’t take sides, but doesn’t flinch from the horrors of slavery or the appalling (to modern ears) racism that supported the institution. He quotes from primary sources written by both the enslaved and the enslavers, and draws much of his material from legal proceedings, as well.

I’d definitely highly recommend The Peculiar Institution to anyone else in my situation, looking for a place to start in a study of slavery and race in the antebellum south.

Next up on my reading list: The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves


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