The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South describes and analyzes all facets of slavery in the south, from the 1600s through the mid-19th century, including demographics, lives of slaves and slaveholders, the southern economy and labor systems, the northern and abolitionist response, slave trading, and political issues of the time. An interesting element of the book is how Stampp analyzes how in fact many southern slave owners were very kind to their slaves, and provided well for them. It was not wholly unknown for some slaves to have lives as good as or better than poor northern workers. However, Stampp examines this issue mostly to show how in fact slaveowners used this behavior as a selfish strategy to ease the lives of some slaves, in order to prevent dissent among slaves, or possible legal action for mistreatment of slaves. In fact this treatment did little to convince slaves that their lives were acceptable, and dissent and opposition were common among slaves.
Stampp's main thrust was to counter the arguments of prior historians who had characterized slavery as an overall benign, paternalistic tradition, helpful in many ways to slaves, which encouraged racial harmony in the southern states. Such stances are in fact identical to pro-slavery advocates prior to the Civil War. As well, certain critics of slavery adopt an erroneous position when they claim that "to the Negroes, slavery seemed natural; knowing no other life, they accepted it without giving the matter much thought. Not that slavery was a good thing, mind you--but still, it probably hurt the Negroes less than the it did the whites. Indeed, the whites were really more enslaved than were the Negro slaves" (429). Stampp condemns such an argument and likens it to pro-slavery arguments before the Civil War, which were "based on some obscure and baffling logic" (429).
Stampp held that the national debate over the morality of slavery was the focal point of the Civil War. As Stampp wrote, "Prior to the Civil War southern slavery was America's most profound and vexatious social problem. More than any other problem, slavery nagged at the public conscience; offering no easy solution..." (vii). The book was for Stampp not only history but a necessary examination for Americans in the 1950s because "it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present," and "one must know what slavery meant to the Negro and how he reacted to it before one can comprehend his more recent tribulations" (vii). Later work by other historians qualified certain of Stampp's findings, but The Peculiar Institution remains a central text in the study of U.S. slavery.
The organization of The Peculiar Institution includes the following chapters:
I. The Setting Background and demographics in the Old South.
II. From Day Clean to First Dark Slaves' toilsome daily lives; slavery within southern labor systems.
III. A Troublesome Property Defiance of slaves; Stampp asserts that African-American slaves actively resisted slavery, not just through uprisings and escape, but also through work slowdowns, feigning illness, damaging plantation machinery and work implements, theft, and other means. He lauds these actions as honorable resistance by slaves, which could be used as models by other oppressed groups, not least black Americans in the 1950s..
IV. To Make Them Stand in Fear Disciplinary practices and submission; slave feelings of inferiority; fear and dependence in slave life; religion; incentives offered to slaves; power structures; cruelty of slaveowners and overseers.
V. Chattels Personal Conflicts in racial classifications; slave laws and codes; limited freedoms for slaves.
VI. Slavemongering Slave movement and sales; African slave trade prior to the 19th century; separation of slave families.
VII. Maintenance, Morbidity and Mortality Slave food, clothing, housing and sickness.
VIII. Between Two Cultures Class and caste systems; personal relationships of slaves and masters; social positions; sex, family, religion, leisure.
IX. Profit and Loss Slave value; economic gains and losses through slavery; slavery in the economic system; agrarian vs. industrial development in the Old South; land exhaustion in the Old South.
X. He Who Has Endured Moral ambiguity of slaveowners; the desperate defense of slavery; destructive effects of slavery on free labor, non-slaveowners and white yeomen in the Old South; intellecutal torpor in the South due to rigid pro-slavery positions.