Remembering OAH Past President Kenneth M. Stampp

Historians in the News

Kenneth M. Stampp, one of the towering figures of our profession, died on July 10, 2009, just shy of his ninety-seventh birthday. Physically robust until well into his nineties, Ken’s health began to fail only a few years ago. Yet he remained intellectually sharp until, a week before he died, his heart failed him, he fell, and never recovered. His first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, the magnificent Isabel, died in 1996. He is survived by his four children--Kenneth, Jr., Sara, Michele, and Jennifer--and his fiancée, Jean Working.

Although best known for his groundbreaking study of slavery, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (1956), Stampp was his generation’s most formidable advocate of the thesis that the Civil War was an “irrepressible conflict” over slavery. His research was impeccable, his prose limpid, and passion seeped from his every sentence, engaging readers well beyond the academy. He was rewarded with high honorsa Guggenheim fellowship, the Lincoln Prize, the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford, the Commonwealth Fund lectureship at London, the presidency of the OAH.

It was an impressive rise from modest beginnings. Stampp was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on July 12, 1912, to German-American parents of strict protestant virtue and democratic-socialist ideals. Stampp’s mother hoped her son would become “a good socialist lawyer,” but from an early age he was fascinated by the American past, telling a friend when he was still a young boy that he intended to become a history teacher. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1935 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, his M.A. a year later, and after a brief stint as a high school teacher he returned to Madison where he took his Ph.D. in 1942.

Being at Madison during the Great Depression reinforced the political commitments to which Stampp had been reared. He considered himself a socialist, attended a few communist party meetings, and minored in labor economics with Selig Perlman. His dissertation, which became his first book, was a study of Indiana Politics During the Civil War (1949) and it reflected the enormous sway that Charles Beard held over historians of that generation. The Beardian inflections were tempered in Stampp’s later work, but the passion never subsided.

Upon graduation, Stampp taught for a year at the University of Arkansas before moving to the University of Maryland, where he formed enduring friendships with Richard Hofstadter, Frank Friedel, and the sociologist C. Wright Mills. He took advantage of his residence near Washington, D.C., to do the research for his next book. In 1947, Stampp moved one last time to the University of California at Berkeley, where he would remain for thirty-seven years, before retiring in 1983 as the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor.

Stampp was at heart a historian of the Civil War era--but with a particular slant. From 1950 onward, all of his work was framed as a challenge to the “revisionist” interpretation of slavery and the sectional crisis--the view that the Civil War and Reconstruction were caused by nothing and did no good, that they were unnecessarily provoked by irresponsible politicians and wild-eyed radicals. Stampp spent forty years, Javert-like, hunting revisionists down. ...
Read entire article at James Oakes in the OAH Newsletter

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