The Central Theme of Southern History by Ulrich B. Phillips

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Imagine a historian, author of an award-winning dissertation and several books. He is an experienced lecturer and respected scholar; he is at the forefront of his field. His research methodology sets the bar for other academicians. He is so highly esteemed, in fact, that an article he has prepared is to be presented to and discussed by the United States’ oldest and largest society of professional historians. These are precisely the circumstances in which Ulrich B. Phillips wrote his 1928 essay, “The Central Theme of Southern History.” In this treatise he set forth a thesis which on its face is not revolutionary: that the cause behind which the South stood unified was not slavery, as such, but white supremacy. Over the course of fourteen elegantly written pages, Phillips advances his thesis with evidence from a variety of primary sources gleaned from his years of research. All of his reasoning and experience add weight to his distillation of Southern history into this one fairly simple idea, an idea so deceptively simple that it invites further study. Writing around the same time period as Phillips, though from the obverse vantage, was Richard Wright. Wright’s essay, “The Inheritors of Slavery,” was not presented at the American Historical Society’s annual meeting. His piece is not festooned with foot-notes or carefully sourced. It was written only about a decade after Phillips’s, and meant to be published as a complement to a series of Farm Credit Administration photographs of black Americans. Wright was not an academic writing for an audience of his peers; he was a novelist acceding to a request from a publisher. His essay is naturally of a more literary bent than Phillips’s, and, because he was a black man writing ... ... middle of paper ... ...icit in the cause of white supremacists, and is in fact as personally involved with the subject of his scholarly article as Wright is with his own less academic essay. Phillips’s evidentiary support is subject to a striking caveat, one which puts almost any source to work for his purposes, “When…slavery was attacked it was defended not only as a vested interest, but…as a guarantee of white supremacy and civilization. Its defenders did not always take pains to say that this was what they chiefly meant, but it may nearly always be read between their lines.” This has the effect of providing an assumed motive for all of his sources; Phillips’s reader also begins to ‘read between the lines.’ The most troubling aspect of his article is that, in the guise of a serious historian, he twists historical fact to suit his thesis, rather than suiting his thesis to the facts.

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