Stanley Elkins proposed a groundbreaking theory about the effect of oppression and totalitarianism on subject races, one that drew from multiple academic disciplines. James McPherson’s interpretation is more fact-based and less theoretical, drawing from anecdotal archival sources to develop an environment-centric picture of slavery in the Antebellum and Civil War periods. Ultimately, the success of African-Americans in all walks of life have tended to show that, as abolitionists argued, servility was a temporary product of the powerlessness of their situation in the plantation South.
Debating America’s Legacy of Slavery
James McPherson and Stanley Elkins represent two different approaches to the discipline of historical study and analysis. As a historical scholar, McPherson’s interpretation of slavery proceeds from a pragmatic examination of the facts. Over the past four decades, McPherson has earned acclaim for his ability to synthesize complex historic trends in developing straightforward accounts that interest and educate the lay reader. Elkins, on the other hand, is a historical theorist considered a pioneer in the use of anthropology, sociology and psychology. His influential work, Slavery, was a groundbreaking application of diverse methods, which yielded innovative yet controversial conclusions about slavery and its long-term effects on African-Americans. Elkins’ assertion that slavery “infantilized” black Americans and his comparison of American slaves to Nazi concentration camp prisoners have been largely discredited as improbable and unprovable (Elkins, 1959). McPherson’s skilled and thorough use of the archival record is the basis for a body of work in which he writes of slavery as an institution that imprisoned a race, yet its power to render African-Americans servile and childlike was environmental and temporary, not a transcendent legacy that dominated blacks generations after the Civil War ended slavery in America.
In explaining his “Sambo” theory, Elkins points out that abolitionists had no effective counter to the argument that blacks were a “degraded” race incapable of functioning independent of the plantation system. “It…casts light on the peculiar quality of abolitionism itself; it was so all-enveloping a problem in human personality that our abolitionists could literally not afford to recognize it” (Elkins, 1959). He explains that abolitionists found African-American equality so difficult to defend that they felt compelled to avoid the subject whenever possible. This assertion is, by its nature, an anecdotal argument, one that could never be determined empirically by scientific experimentation. Nevertheless, Elkins said it was the institution of slavery itself that formed what became the African-American persona. A totalitarian environment, Elkins said, such as the one that stripped away the ability of Jewish prisoners to defy their Nazi captors, had rendered blacks childlike and dependent.
With a characteristic sense of balance, McPherson traces the debate as it played out in both North and South, noting that abolitionists showed that supporters of the plantation system were likewise stymied by non-empirical evidence. McPherson compellingly illustrates that those who opposed slavery before and during the Civil War era could make a logical argument of their own. When political conservatives pushed the belief that blacks were inherently inferior, “abolitionists argued from the pulpit, platform, and press that a hostile environment, not innate inferiority, had created the servile, comic creature that was the American concept of the Negro in 1860” (McPherson, 1964). Those who held forth from “pulpit, platform, and press” insisted that if the slaves were given the opportunity to live free of slavery and without the disadvantage of racial discrimination, they would prove themselves fully capable of being “constructive, capable, and creative (members) of society” (Ibid, 1964).
McPherson’s writings indicate that the anti-slavery faction came closest to having quantifiable evidence discrediting the argument for black inferiority, and Elkins’ theory. If freed slaves could be successful from an intellectual standpoint, if they exhibited vigor and creativity in developing themselves free of overseers and masters, then it must be conceded that they were at least capable of functioning successfully in society. Two examples come readily to mind: Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass. A free-born African-American, Banneker was the subject of an Atlantic Monthly article, published in 1862, that showed him to be a brilliant scientist who had corrected errors in the work of contemporary astronomers (McPherson, 1964). Douglass, a former slave, became an internationally respected speaker, writer and statesman and a tireless supporter of abolition. It was largely through Douglass’ persistent and cogent arguments that the North’s war effort took on the gloss of crusade. “The American people and the government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time; but the inexorable logic of events will force it upon them in the end; that the war now being waged…is a war for and against slavery” (McPherson, 1993).
Douglass’ life also offers a window on the extent to which slaves held autonomy over their own lives. As a slave on a Maryland plantation, Douglass had the opportunity to learn to read and write. After his first master died, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to serve Hugh Auld, whose wife, Sophia, consented to teach him to read. Many years later, Douglass recalled her humane consideration of his desire to learn. However, Auld put an end to the young slave’s schooling, reminding his wife that educating a slave was not only against the law but set a dangerous precedent. Auld’s thoughts on the subject were in keeping with the fervently held belief among slave owners that educating a young slave was dangerous because “it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave…learning would do him no good, but probably, a great deal of harm – making him disconsolate and unhappy…and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself” (McFeely, 30). (Of course, if one argues that education will make a slave desire a better life, it would seem that African-Americans are not innately inferior after all.) Douglass continued to educate himself at some personal risk, hardly an autonomous situation. In the end, his example is probably more the exception than the rule, though it points to the fact that there were benign masters as well as harsh ones. In most cases, the only real autonomy enjoyed by slaves was in their cultural lives, in the sharing of musical and other traditions that can be traced to their West African origins.
Elkins notes that in most Southern states, slave masters equated introducing slaves to religion with education. Whereas teaching slaves to read was against the law in the Confederate states, the decision whether to permit them to attend church was, in most cases, a matter for slave masters. Some states managed to enact laws that made it all but impossible for slaves to take part in religious meetings. South Carolina forbade the meeting of slaves “either before the rising of the sun or after the setting of the sun” (Elkins, 1959). Others passed the responsibility on to the plantations. In Mississippi, slaves could attend ceremonies presided over by white ministers as long as their masters consented. Slaves skirted the restrictions by holding surreptitious religious meetings in defiance of their master’s wishes and the dictates of the state.
In the North, the church lay at the heart of the abolitionist movement. Evangelism fired John Brown, whose uncompromising views and subsequent violent actions, he claimed, were the direct result of divine inspiration. The church also served more practical and generally acceptable (among abolitionists) purposes, such as advocating for the inclusion of black troops in federal army units. This was tantamount to asserting the doctrine of equality, which African-Americans proved on many battlefields. “The Church Anti-Slavery Society urged the government to give Negro troops ‘an open field and a fair chance, and let the colored soldier fight on equal terms with the white soldier’” (McPherson, 1964). Most established American churches did not have a long tradition of abolitionist sentiment or practice. The anti-slavery momentum among churchmen didn’t gain sufficient force to impact the political landscape until the earlier parts of the 19th century.
The other great influencers of the political scene were economic forces at work in the 19th century. The nation’s tradition of laissez faire had abetted the spread of slavery for 200 years. Capitalism, after all, depended on a cheap and readily available labor force. From a practical standpoint, it was not until the Civil War that the plantations truly suffered from the loss of their labor source. There was pressure of another kind from abroad. Britain had abolished slavery in the first half of the 19th century. Abolitionist organizations and business interests in the Isles placed increasing pressure on the U.S., particularly on the cotton trade. In the 1830s, Liverpool mercantile interests followed the example of its “suburb” Manchester by insisting on free-trade cotton (Williams, 162, 1944). Industrial England keenly felt the economic shock waves from the struggle over slavery. The Union blockade cut off the country’s supply of American cotton, forcing thousands of Lancashire workers onto the unemployment rolls in 1862 (McPherson, 1993).
The majority of evidence concerning slavery and its residual impact on African-Americans must be considered anecdotal. Elkins makes an interesting ethnological case, though in light of the many contributions made by African-Americans in every field of endeavor (not to mention the work of men who had actually been slaves), his claims are highly dubious. McPherson emerges the more disciplined scholar, if more conservative than Elkins, maintaining a fact-based analysis of events and the environment in which slavery flourished. Perhaps McPherson’s most eloquent statement about slavery has nothing to do with Ordeal by Fire or any of his books or lectures. He co-signed a letter asking President Obama to end the practice of laying a wreath at the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery. McPherson and his co-signers recognize that no government or cause is worthy of such honor. African-Americans have survived and flourished because they have been able to put the terrible legacy of slavery behind them. McPherson would have everyone adopt that prudent course.
Elkins, S.M. (1959). Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 60, 86-87.
McFeely, W.S. (1991). Frederick Douglass. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 30.
McPherson, J.M. (1993). Ordeal by Fire. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 219, 265.
McPherson, J.M. (1964). The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War
and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 134, 142, 204.
Williams, E.E. (1944). Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina