The Central Theme of Southern History by Ulrich B. Phillips Essays

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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…show more content…
However, the experiences he writes about in this essay share certain topical similarities with Phillips’s tract which make it relevant as a reference point, namely that both authors explicitly address race relations between black and white Americans over the course of Southern history. Wright’s essay is particularly useful because of his politics, in that the economic determinism he espouses sheds new light on Phillips’s argument. Phillips writes that the defining characteristic of a ‘Southerner’ is a feeling of white racial solidarity which casts all other social considerations in the shade; it is the “cardinal test of a Southerner.” When Phillips touches upon the subject of non-slaveholding whites, he emphasizes their zeal for the primacy of white civilization as an end unto itself. He relates two contemporary accounts of non-slaveholders, one a tinner and the other an overseer, to demonstrate this fervor but pointedly devalues their economic attachments to slavery, writing, “Both of them, and a million of their non-slaveholding like, had a still stronger social prompting: the white men’s ways must prevail; the Negroes must be kept innocuous.” Phillips rejects out of hand the sway of overt pecuniary motives against the weight of racial ones and this rejection is so absolute in part because “it is otherwise impossible to account
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