Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, 3rd Ed., by Stanley M. Elkins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), Pp. v, 319.

            Historian Stanley M. Elkins, in the opening remarks to his controversial work, writes, “There is a coerciveness about the debate over slavery: it continues to be the same debate.” Naturally he poses the twofold question, “Has a settlement on this debate been reached? Are other debates, on the same subject but on different grounds, still possible” (1, 2)? This question serves as the genesis for Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, and also defines the work’s significance (and notoriety) in the historiography of American slavery. His thesis—even his technique and historical methodology—is nothing short of appalling: contrasting the nature of the American slavery system (which Elkins defines as “closed”) with other Western slave traditions (more “open”), Elkins argues that the lack of institutional power in the United States made American slavery unique, that the American system of slavery, which was not imported but rather came about under very unnatural circumstances, fostered a spirit of infantilism. Whereas in Latin America, where slaves understood their existence in relation to “church, crown, and plantation culture” and enjoyed a more human existence (in such a system, “The rights of personality implicit in the ancient traditions of slavery and in the church’s most venerable assumptions on the nature of the human soul were thus in a vital sense conserved…”), the American slave’s character was defined only by the demands and structures of capitalism and “legal obscurity” (81).

            Elkins opens the work by attempting to trace, in a general sense, the trajectory of historiography concerning American slavery. Refusing to overlook the most obvious, Elkins first cites the major polemical works on slavery, contemporary commentaries of the 19th century dilemma. Here Elkins references William Ellery Channing, George B. Cheever, William Lloyd Garrison, and the works of Charles Sumner, to name a but a few. While information and histories of America’s “peculiar institution” were readily available, few, as Elkins notes, possessed any objectivity; National tensions and wounds ran too deep to produce a clear and definitive study of American slavery. He also observes, rightly, “Something of the sharpness and urgency of slavery as an issue was cut short by the termination of slavery as a fact” and that the “moral ruthlessness” with which Abolitionists and northerners championed their anti-slavery causes were “chastened” with a difficult and bitter Reconstruction (5).

            He then proceeds to discuss the vacuum of American institutional existence in the early 1800s, what Elkins considers the proper context for understanding the “gravest social problem” America ever knew. “Whatever institutional stability American capitalism could conceivably develop was at its lowest possible ebb in 1830,” the author writes (32). Elkins contends that the very essence of the American republic—religious liberalism, capitalism, and political democracy—made it less important for the common man to be concerned with institutions as a whole. Americans were inward-focused, self-reliant, deriving social stability from human nature and not from institutional form. Put another way, America was booming to such an extent that the idea of institutions seemed disconnected from everyday existence, America’s religion “so dynamic that it needed no church; its wealth and opportunity so boundless that a center of financial power could lose its meaning” (32). A disconnect between most Americans and their understanding of the origins of power held sway throughout the American slavery period.

            Elkins’ most controversial chapter (and perhaps emblematic of the age in which the book first surfaced, the Civil Rights Era) circles about the question of “Slavery and Personality” (81). In it he discusses the validity of the traditional, once-scholarly perception of the southern slave as a “Sambo” figure, accepting and upholding the notion of the American slave culture as a “society of helpless dependents” (98). And here, in this segment of the book, the author begins to lose credibility, less perhaps, because of his argument than because of the methodology he employs to prove his point. Describing the shock induced by American slavery on the African Americans, Elkins draws upon psychological research used to evaluate prisoners in World War II Nazi concentration camps. In some sense, the chapter is but a microcosm of the work as a whole, featuring interesting and perhaps valid points, weaved into a somewhat compelling narrative, but botched by the lack of proof. Elkins’ work is not history in the strictest sense of the term. Of course, intellectual studies present many challenges to scholars, and Elkins’ work seems to acknowledge its purpose and limits. His contrasting of American slavery to Latin American slavery presents interesting and perhaps real questions, but the theme he uses these questions to uphold—that of the “Sambo,” docile, and infantile slave—seems out of touch with reality. 

Mitchell Klingenberg



Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. By Stanley M. Elkins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (Third Edition, Revised), 1976. Pp. viii + 310.

Elkins’ book is an attempt to explain the differences between American slavery and the institution as it developed elsewhere. The answer lies, he believes, in the fact that slavery existed in the English colonies virtually from the beginning and that institutions developed with slavery as a fact of life that must be accommodated. In contrast, he considers slavery in Spanish and Portuguese territories where monarchical and religious institutions moderated the effects of slavery. American institutions, he feels, developed without such restraints.

Because slaves in America were considered property, political and social structures and legal institutions were developed to accommodate the system of slavery. As a result, slavery in the South, driven by the dynamics of uncontrolled capitalism, became rigid, impersonal and severe. Elkins accepts Ulrich Phillips’ “Sambo” model--infantile, docile creatures incapable of anything except passive acceptance--as the psychological result of the African slave’s cultural and physical depravation. In his analysis of the impact of slavery on personality he uses abuses, the parallel experience of inmates in German concentration camps during World War II to justify his assertion that slaves were psychologically conditioned to be unable to react.

Elkins compares the British antislavery movement, bolstered by long-established institutions, and the American antislavery movement, which he identifies as stemming from non-conformist radicalism. In America there were no institutions of national scope either to mediate or resolve the question of slavery. Northern abolitionists, he contends, were intellectuals with no connections who launched an attack on the whole pattern of slavery rather than on specific reforms.

The problems with this book are numerous and disturbing. Chief among these problems is the fact that the author fails to provide supporting evidence for many of his conclusions. While the volume is heavily footnoted, the notes do not provide documentation. Instead, they elaborate on the author’s theoretical points. His adoption of the Ulrich Phillips obviously racist “Sambo” model presents another example of dogmatic statement without supporting evidence. Elkins argues that the shock of capture and transportation to an alien environment compelled African slaves to develop the infantile, personality traits associated with the traditional stereotype. Yet his whole argument rests on psychoanalytical theory and an analogy to the behavior exhibited by white Europeans held in Nazi death camps during World War II.

Elkins’ attack on the abolitionist movement seems equally weak. He contends that they should have concentrated on specific reforms rather than on the total eradication of slavery. What alternatives did the abolitionists have given the society in which they lived? On the few occasions when the abolitionists tried to work within the existing institutional framework of the time, they met nothing but defeat.

In the final analysis, Elkins’ extensive use of comparisons and analogies does not compensate for the lack of solid documentary evidence. While his thesis provides the basis for extensive scholarship, his attempt falls far short. His conclusions lack solid supporting evidence, and he seems to ignore evidence that would contradict his theories. He exhibits an interest in bringing a number of disciplines to bear on the question, yet in doing so fails to provide a coherent argument.

Ed Townes

Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. By Stanley M. Elkins.  (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1959.  Pp. 320.  ISBN o-226-20476-6).

The intellectual community of the South grappled with a justification for slavery. Slavery had existed since the beginning of time but the evolution of democratic thought and concepts of individual freedom and liberty made slavery anathema to large segments of the population. Stanley Elkins has approached the slavery from a different viewpoint, exploring the personal, moral, legal and philosophical ideologies that allowed the institution to exist. He documents the unique rigidity of the American slavery, comparing it to counterparts through time.

In the American colonies, slaves became more completely chattel than in any other colonial society.  Initially the Virginia colonies relied on white indentured servants for labor. The first ship load of African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619 but not until 1710 did the annual flow of white indentured servants drop sharply. By this time, the second generation of black slaves had matured and the benefits of culturally acclimated, English speaking servants whose labor one owned wholly and for life became apparent.

From that point the British legal system in all the colonies, but particularly in the American colonies, began to institutionalize black slavery. In American society the dehumanization was uniquely complete. The black slave belonged completely to his master. Though laws were passed against cruelty, they were the same laws that applied to other domesticated animals. A slave could not testify in court; he was a slave for life; his children were also slaves for life. He could not own property; he could not marry and could have no legal family. He had no status in society as a man or as a human other than that granted to him by his master. He was property--chattel--totally, completely, and forever.

  In most other societies, slavery was a temporary condition from which a person could earn his freedom by work or payment of a reasonable fee. The slave had legal and spiritual rights. He could marry and his children were born free. In otherwords, the slave remained a person and never lost his humanity.

The religious justification for slavery caused great debate throughout the United States. Slavery existed in the Bible and was not directly condemned by Biblical tenets. Some saw slavery as a means to bring new souls to Christ by inculcating Christian values into heathen blacks. Another group felt slavery was entirely incompatible with Christian concepts and vigorously opposed the institution in a religious crusade. Most Southerners fell somewhere between these extremes. Over time the Northern churches moved to condemn slavery and the mainstream Protestant churches split, one after another, into southern and northern groups.

 The churches had great difficulty dealing with the institutionalization of American slavery. Each church adapted within its own creed. The Catholic Church, which had to longest experience with slavery, demanded that the humanity of every slave be recognized. They could receive all the rites of the church, including marriage. Every slave was eventually free, either in this life and in the next. The Anglican Church, the choice of the slave-owning elite, passively accepted the status of slaves without comment. The Presbyterian church, the church of the Scots professional and mercantile class, shaken by the First Great Awakening and weakened further by the Great Revival, fractured into two parts-each accepting the importance of "property" but dividing on the humanity of slaves. The Methodist gave the slaves souls, which were worth redeeming and educating, as long as they "stayed in their place." The evangelical and emotive landless white Baptists accepted slaves directly into their congregations. The Quakers and others led the northern abolitionist movement and, as one of their basic tenets, never accepted the dominance of one man over another. By the time of the Civil War, increasing rancor within each of the religious sects led to the splitting of almost every denomination into two church establishments.

The most contentious proposition made by Elkins is the psychological reasons for the acceptance of slavery by the enslaved.  He offers three theories of personality including an analogy of the adjustment to absolute power in the Nazi concentration camps. Many Blacks, Jews, and others have found this offensive, which has clouded the debate on the author's insights. Elkins becomes one of those historians who attribute the Civil war entirely to slavery. He wraps Southern society in "guilt" and states that Southern intellectuals were completely devoid of content.

The tragedy of American slavery became the inflexibility of the institutions in the North and South which, in the rancor of the debate over abolition, became so polarized that neither side could move to a middle ground and a possible resolution of the issue. The Northern abolitionist demanded immediate emancipation, something achieved nowhere else, and the South demanded complete and total acceptance of its overly rigid institution of slavery, a type accepted no other Western society.  Thus, slavery became a core issue, among many, splitting the North and South and leading to secession and the Civil War.  Economic competition, the agrarian society of the South versus the manufacturing economy of the North, states rights, political ambition, and demagoguery became intertwined until both societies could not look upon the other without repugnance.  Moderation was swept away and radicalism carried the day. And the fight was on!

Watson Arnold