Noted Historian and Milwaukee Native Kenneth Stampp Passes Away

peculiar1For the second time in recent weeks, a major Civil War era historian whose work was enormously important for American legal and constitutional history has passed away.  Kenneth Stampp, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California-Berkeley, died this past Friday at age 96, less than two months after the death of Harvard’s David Herbert Donald.

Stampp’s 1956 work, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, revolutionized the study of American negro slavery, once and for all dismissing suggestions that the institution was fundamentally benign or that African-Americans quietly acquiesced in their slave status.  No book did more to demolish the moonlight and magnolias view of antebellum southern history.

His 1965 work, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, destroyed the myth that white Southerners were the primary “victims” of the Reconstruction years.  This work was among the first to link the Reconstruction period to the modern civil rights movement, which was very much underway during the time that Stampp wrote.

Stampp was also the author of numerous other historical works, including And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis (1950) and America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (1990).  Over the course of his long career, he won most of the major awards available to American historians.  He was also instrumental in the training of a generation of Southern and Civil War era historians whose own work built upon the insights of their mentor.  His former students include such historical luminaries as William Freehling, Leon Litwak, James Oakes, Joel Williamson, William Gienapp, John Sproat, Robert Starobin, Robert Abzug, and Reid Mitchell.

What is less well known is that Kenneth Stampp was a native of Milwaukee.  He was born in the Cream City on July 12, 1912, the son of Oscar Stampp, a naprapath (chiropractor), and Eleanor Schmidt Stampp, a homemaker.  While his parents were native-born Americans, his grandparents were all born in Germany or Switzerland, and Stampp grew up in a Protestant neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee where German was spoken as frequently as English, at least until the onset of U. S. involvement in the First World War.

Stampp attended Washington High School, from which he graduated in 1931 during the depths of the Great Depression.  He began college at Milwaukee State Teachers College (now UWM), but left abruptly in 1933 when one of his professors sought to discourage him from continuing to pursue his goal of becoming a high school history teacher.  (The professor thought that Stampp should pursue a career in elementary education.)

After withdrawing from Milwaukee State, Stampp’s German Methodist father suggested that he enroll in Marquette University instead.  As Stampp later recounted, “My father said, ‘Well, would you like to go to Marquette University?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to that Catholic institution.’ I have to tell you another thing: there was a lot of anti-Catholicism in my family because of their kind of Protestantism. My father had been very anti-Catholic, so I had no trouble saying, “Look, I’m not going to that Catholic college.”

After briefly considering enrolling in Waukesha’s Carroll College, Stampp instead enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from which he received his B.A. (1935), M.A. (1936), and Ph.D. (1942) degrees in history.  His first teaching positions were at the University of Arkansas and the University of Maryland.  He joined the faculty of the University of California in 1946 and remained there until his retirement in 1983, except for stints as a visiting professor at Harvard, Oxford, the University of London, and the University of Munich.

A full transcript of Stampp’s 1998 oral autobiography, which includes the story regarding his boyhood in Milwaukee and his decision not to attend Marquette University, can be found online here.

Continue ReadingNoted Historian and Milwaukee Native Kenneth Stampp Passes Away

Which Declaration of Independence?

800px-summerfest_2008_fireworks_70551When you are at your Fourth of July cookout or fireworks display this week, see if anyone mentions the Declaration of Independence.  If they do, ask “which Declaration of Independence?”  After all, there are more than one.

 In her 1997 book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, historian Pauline Maier describes the events leading up to July 4, 1776 and points to multiple “other” Declarations of Independence issued by local legislative bodies earlier that year.  Declarations were issued in a variety of places, including Buckingham County (Virginia), Charles County (Maryland), and Natick, Massachusetts.  In most cases, these “other” Declarations took the form of instructions from the citizens of a particular geographic area to their elected representatives in the state legislature or in the Continental Congress.  After recounting the unjustified treatment of the colonies by the Crown, these documents authorize the peoples’ representatives to vote in favor of severing ties with England.  However, some of these Declarations take a different form, such as a judge instructing a grand jury on the source of their legal authority in the absence of a Royal Governor.

Continue ReadingWhich Declaration of Independence?

Why We Fight

united_we_win31I often wonder why it is that some people disagree with my political views.  My logic is unassailable, the breadth of my historical knowledge is unmatched, my moral foundation cannot be questioned, and I am far more charming and better looking than my opponents.  Why don’t they agree with me?

My summer project was to seek an answer to this mystery.  I chose three books to read that I thought would provide some insight into the ideological fault lines that seem to run through every facet of our daily lives (and indeed seem to run through this very blog).  What follows are the lessons that I have learned.  I suppose other readers might draw different lessons.  My recommendation is that you read these books for yourself.

My first goal was to understand why the “big government” charge persistently leveled by Republicans against the Obama Administration seems to resonate with some people, but not with others.  Some clues are provided by Gary Wills in A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.  Writing some ten years ago, Wills documents the origin and growth of the arguments against “big government” and in favor of individualism and local control over the course of our nation’s history.  Over time, he argues, these disparate strands of thought have coalesced into a more general anti-government creed.  The specifics of this creed – the belief that amateur, local and voluntary conduct creates greater public well being than professional, centralized, and mandatory regulation — resembles the political philosophy currently espoused by many of President Obama’s critics.

Continue ReadingWhy We Fight