Kenneth M. Stampp
Professor of History, Emeritus
1912 – 2009
Kenneth M. Stampp, a formidable scholar and teacher and one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century, died in Oakland, California, on July 10, 2009.
He is best known for his sharply revised assessments of three central chapters in the American experience: slavery, the coming of the Civil War, and Southern Reconstruction. Although his works aroused controversy in some quarters, his arguments were compelling and his interpretations have prevailed. Any examination of textbooks in United States history published from the 1920s to the present would reveal how profoundly he reshaped the ways we think about our past.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on July 12, 1912, Kenneth Stampp would be heavily influenced by the largely German neighborhood in which he grew up, an unpopular war, and his family’s devout Methodism and socialism. His father was an ardent supporter of Eugene Debs, and the only newspaper in the house was the Milwaukee Leader, a socialist organ. By the fifth grade he aspired to be a history teacher. His mother had other ideas: “What I would like you to be is a good socialist lawyer.” When he was old enough to vote, it was for Norman Thomas, not Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
After receiving his B.A. in 1935 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Stampp taught briefly in high school before choosing to enter a doctoral program in history. Stampp found Madison hospitable to his radical politics. He worked with William B. Hesseltine and several other professors steeped in Charles Beard’s economic interpretation of history. Outside the classroom he attended Communist and Socialist Party meetings, finally opting for membership in the Socialist Party as more congenial to his pacifism. Throughout his long career, however, Stampp remained essentially an independent and unaligned thinker, refusing to adopt uncritically any dogma or interpretive scheme. His graduate training reinforced his interest in the South; he wrote his master’s thesis on the anti-slavery movement in the South and his dissertation (and first book) on Indiana politics during the Civil War.
After a short stint teaching at the University of Arkansas, Stampp joined the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1942, the same year he received his Ph.D in history. He taught there with two colleagues who became enduring friends, Richard Hofstadter and sociologist C. Wright Mills. Unable to reconcile World War II with his pacifist views (“I was bitterly opposed to Roosevelt’s foreign policy”), he managed to avoid military service.
In 1946, Stampp received an offer from the University of California, Berkeley. Ignoring Hofstadter’s advice and his own doubts (“I didn’t even know where Berkeley was. I had to find a map”), he accepted. He would remain there until his retirement in 1983. During the 1950s, as one of the “young Turks,” he would be instrumental in transforming the Department of History through tenure decisions and appointments from a Herbert Bolton barony into one of the most prestigious history departments in the nation. In 1957 he became the A. F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History.
His book And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861, published in 1950, quickly established Stampp as one of the leading historians of the Civil War. In it he argued that the critical issues that brought on the “irrepressible conflict,” most of all slavery, did not yield to any sectional compromise. The inescapable tragedy of this costly war, Stampp believed, is that it had to be fought.
The depiction of slavery familiar to generations of Americans featured a docile black population whose history was said to have been one of submission gladly endured. The Peculiar Institution demolished the myths sustaining this interpretation; it remains to this day the indispensable study of the enslavement of blacks in the Old South, how they learned to survive, how they insisted on their humanity, and how they transcended their condition. It was published in 1956 but conceived in the 1940s, before the advent of the modern civil rights movement.
The book has influenced decades of scholarship and teaching. It examines the records of small as well as large slaveholders; and this time, the voices and views of the slaves themselves could no longer be denied. “Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is,” one slave observes, “tis he who has endured.” No previous historian had made as clear the fact that though defined as chattel, black men and women proved to be from the very moment of their enslavement “a troublesome property.”
Even as historians once mischaracterized slavery, they condemned Reconstruction as a tragic era of unrelieved corruption and depravity foisted on a prostrate South by alien and venal carpetbaggers and scalawags and by Negroes incapable of exercising the civilized functions of government. For nearly a century, this distorted view of Reconstruction united whites in resisting any challenge to segregation, disfranchisement, or white supremacy. No period in American history stood in greater need of reappraisal. Stampp accepted the challenge, and in Reconstruction, 1865-1877, published in 1965, he countered with an altogether different version of reality. Building on several state studies and the previous work of W.E.B. Du Bois (which the American Historical Review had ignored), Stampp underscored the achievements of the first integrated governments in the South and the ability of blacks to learn the uses of political power and act on their own vision of a biracial democracy. In the end, Stampp argued, not black corruption but white terrorism undermined the efforts to bring democracy to the South.
Kenneth Stampp’s wide-ranging interests extended beyond the academy. He was an avid reader of fiction, a devotee of the symphony, the ballet, the theater, and the opera. In a different arena, he was a passionate fan of the Milwaukee Braves and the Green Bay Packers. And with equal passion he savored fine wines and cuisine and world travel.
Kenneth Stampp cared deeply about the world in which we lived, and what we make of this society. From his socialist days in Wisconsin to the election of Barack Obama in 2008, he was an avid observer of the political scene, defining himself in 1996 as a “very left-wing Democrat.” From the very outset, he immersed himself in the political life of Berkeley. He fought early on to abolish the ban on Communists speaking on campus. A member of the Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom, he was outspoken in opposing the Regents’ faculty loyalty oath, and helped to organize financial support for the non-signers. He supported Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sit-ins and joined the picket lines to force stores in Berkeley to employ black people, and in 1965 he participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, organized by Martin Luther King Jr., to express solidarity with the civil rights movement. During the “Free Speech” upheaval, he came to the defense of students protesting the ban on political activity on campus, in this case activity in support of civil rights.
What characterized Stampp as a scholar was not only the quality and depth of his research but sound judgment, the clarity and rigor of his analysis, a respect for the complexity and integrity of the past, and an elegant and engaging style. He always cared deeply about how to communicate history, about the need to make that history available not only to historians and students but to a larger public. To that end, he deplored pretentious and trendy jargon and scholarly obscurantism.
History has been called a dangerous place to visit. “In the underground of our unwritten history,” wrote black novelist Ralph Ellison, “much of that which is ignored defies our inattention by continuing to grow and have consequences.” In his writings and teaching, Stampp challenged conventional wisdom, demystified the past, exposed pious hypocrisy, grappled with the untidiness of human responses to people and events, and perhaps most important, compelled his students and readers to see and to feel the past in ways that may be genuinely disturbing, and perhaps transforming.
Stampp enriched and enhanced our lives by his active presence, by his combative, questioning spirit, and by the intensity of his social concerns. He believed that knowledge of our troubled past may help to liberate us as a people from the ravages of racial bigotry, economic inequality, and war. Kenneth Stampp as a historian always faced up to the moral dimensions of his subjects (the debates over slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction), that, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “there was a right side and a wrong side . . . which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.”
Stampp is survived by his son, Kenneth Mitchell Stampp Jr. of Oakland; daughters Sara Katherine Stampp of Berkeley, Jennifer Elizabeth Stampp of El Cerrito, California, and Michele S. Macartney-Filgate of Toronto; as well as four grandchildren and his partner, Jean Working of Oakland.
Leon F. Litwack 2009
Robert L. Middlekauff
Gene A. Brucker