Ulrich Bonnell Phillips – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Ulrich Bonnell Phillips was the first great historian of the South and the South slavery, and his work has attracted as much attention and stirred up as much controversy as that of any historian in the South.
Phillips was born in Barn November 4, 1877, to Jessie Young and Alonzo Rabun Phillips. His father, a merchant, was of Yeoman descent, but his mother, whom Phillips considered his main inspiration, had a plantation background.
Phillips attended Tulane Preparatory School in New Orleans, Louisiana, before entering the University of Georgia, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1897 and a master’s degree in 1899. He attended the summer semester of 1898 at the University of Chicago, studying with historian Frederick Jackson. Turner. Phillips received his doctorate in 1902 from Columbia University in New York, working under the direction of historian William A. Dunning. His thesis, “Georgia and State Rights,” won the Justin Winsor Prize and has been published by the American Historical Association. From 1902 to 1908, Phillips taught at the University of Wisconsin and published extensively, including History of transport in the eastern cotton belt until 1860 (1908) and numerous articles. Phillips’ early studies dealt with the unprofitable nature of slave labor and the detrimental effects of slavery on the economy of the South.
During the fall term of 1907, Phillips taught as a visiting professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. The following year, he accepted the post of chairman of the department of history and political science at Tulane. He has established himself as a leader in the systematic research of plantation records, census data and other primary sources, many of which have appeared in Documents on plantations and borders (1909). The University of Michigan hired Phillips in 1911, the same year he married Lucie Mayo-Smith. They had three children: Ulrich Jr., Mabel and Worthington.
During his eighteen years in Michigan, Phillips became the foremost historian in the south of the country. In 1913 he edited The correspondence of Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens and Howell Cobb and published The life of Robert Toombs. Phillips has also contributed to major articles on comparative slavery and the economics of slavery. In “The Central Theme of Southern History” (1928), Phillips argued that the desire to keep their region “a white man’s country” united the southerners.
Phillips’ best-known works are slavery of American negroes (1918) and Life and work in the Old South (1929). slavery of American negroes was the first systematic analysis of slavery throughout the South. It went beyond in scope and detail the previous books on slavery in North America and influenced virtually all subsequent books on the subject. Phillips’ use of the comparative method to examine slavery in the West Indies offered a new perspective to American historians. Although he made insightful observations regarding the mechanics of plantation agriculture, the southerners and overseers, he focused primarily on slaves and their slavers.
Phillips identified a sense of fellowship between the two, a relationship characterized by “propriety, proportion and cooperation.” Over the years of living together, argued Phillips, blacks and whites developed a relationship not of equals but of unequal addicts. Although slave owners controlled the privileges enjoyed by slaves, Phillips considered black people “by no means uninfluenced.” Phillips viewed slavery as a system of work “formed by demands, concessions, and mutual understanding, producing reciprocal codes of conventional morality” and responsibility.
Nevertheless, slavery of American negroes is seriously tainted by Phillips’ racial prejudices, particularly his assumption of the inherent inferiority of enslaved blacks. Although it was attacked soon after its publication by black scholars, it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that a new generation of white scholars took to task Phillips’ description of slavery. According to Kenneth M. Stampp in 1952, Phillips was unable to take enslaved people seriously. “Instead, he saw them as lovable, ‘comedy-series’ characters who provided not only some sort of manpower, but much of the social charm of the plantation as well. Thus slavery was hardly an institution which could have weighed heavily on them. Phillips, Stampp noted, considered the Plantations “the best schools ever invented for the massive training of that sort of inert, backward-looking people that the bulk of Negro Americans represent.”
In Life and work in the Old South Phillips has not significantly revised his interpretation of slavery. His basic arguments – the duality of slavery as an economic cancer but a vital mode of racial control – go back to his early writings. Less detailed but more elegantly written than slavery of American negroes, Phillips Life and work was a general summary rather than a monograph. His racism appeared less pronounced in Life and work because of its broad scope. Fewer racist slurs surfaced in 1929 than in 1918, but Phillips’ prejudices remained. The success of Life and work won Phillips the one-year Albert Kahn Foundation scholarship in 1929-30 to observe blacks and other workers around the world. In 1929, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, appointed Phillips professor of history.
At Yale, Phillips hoped to complete two volumes on the history of the South, one on the advent of the Civil War (1861-1865), the other on the Modern South. Although his death from throat cancer on January 21, 1934 left Phillips’ lifelong work unfinished, by 1934 he established himself as the foremost authority on the history of the southern United States, especially on slavery. By the time of his death, Phillips had broadened his outlook considerably and had come to view slavery, as well as the history of the South as a whole, as falling within the broad realm of social history.
Today, historians remember Phillips as an innovative scholar, a pioneer in the use of plantations and other manuscript sources of the South, inspiration for the “Phillips school” of American studies. State on Slavery, and a conservative, pro-slavery interpreter of slavery and the Old South.