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Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life

Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life

by Stanley M. Elkins

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This third edition of Stanley M. Elkin's classic study offers two new chapters by the author. The first, "Slavery and Ideology," considers the discussion and criticism occasioned by this controversial work. Elkins amplifies his original purpose in writing the book and takes into consideration the substantial body of critical commentary. He also attempts a


This third edition of Stanley M. Elkin's classic study offers two new chapters by the author. The first, "Slavery and Ideology," considers the discussion and criticism occasioned by this controversial work. Elkins amplifies his original purpose in writing the book and takes into consideration the substantial body of critical commentary. He also attempts a prediction on the course of future research and discussion.

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University of Chicago Press
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Edition description:
3d edition, revised

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A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life

By Stanley M. Elkins

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1976 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20477-2



In ante-bellum times, the polemical works on slavery—the pro-slavery and antislavery arguments—clearly predominated. They set the tone for everything else. There was almost nothing that could be called "objective" in the very strictest sense. Still, there was material produced in this period which contained a great deal of specific information and which is therefore suitable for historical uses. One type of effort in this line had to do with treatises on, and compilations of, the legal codes embracing slavery. "History" as a specific art was not very well developed then, and the discipline most likely to impose some kind of objective standards on work dealing with slavery was the discipline of the law. A fairly good and dependable tradition existed for this purpose. Although the writers and compilers were themselves by no means free from polemical intentions (indeed, they were for the most part inspired by them) the requirements of fact operated upon them in such a way that they left a number of works which are still of great value. The two leading examples were produced by men whose commitments to the subject itself were at opposite poles. Thomas R. R. Cobb's Inquiry into the Law of Slavery was the work of a Georgia jurist, and John Codman Hurd's Law of Freedom and Bondage that of a New Englander of strong abolitionist leanings. They are equally useful and equally dependable today. The other line of effort in some way qualifying as historical evidence was that which produced the eyewitness accounts of ante-bellum slavery. Such accounts were both hostile and sympathetic in nature. It is perhaps best that each kind be given equal weight, as evidence in the judicial sense must always be, and the best presumption probably is that none of these observers was lying about the facts as he saw them. Different facts impressed different people, of course. But Fanny Kemble, Nehemiah Adams, Sir Charles Lyell, Susan Dabney, and Frederick Law Olmsted were men and women of character, and the things they wrote had character also; much is gained and not much lost on the provisional operating principle that they were all telling the truth. Again, however, it was the polemic—or at least the heavy moral judgment—never very far below the surface, that ran through all of this. A strong moral bias, one way or the other, set the direction for just about anything that would be written on the subject in ante-bellum times.

Something of the sharpness and urgency of slavery as an issue was cut short by the termination of slavery as a fact. Throughout a good part of the postwar generation a moratorium on that subject was observed everywhere with surprising unanimity. The problem had in a practical sense been settled by the war and was superseded for the time being by the problems of reunion and reconciliation. The kind of moral ruthlessness in the North that had carried the antislavery standard into battle received a certain chastening afterward through the disillusioning experience of Reconstruction—an experience which, whatever else could be said of it, hardly had the moral simplicity of the crusade against slavery. The South had at least a reciprocal claim on the Northern conscience for the first time in many years. One of the results was that much literary energy during this period went into the staking-out of neutral ground upon which fraternal sentiments might again mingle: intersectional romance, the magnolia theme, antebellum chivalry, and the faithful retainer. By the 1880's the old-time abolitionist who had wept over Uncle Tom's Cabin in his youth could sit shedding furtive tears over "Marse Chan."

Something else, meanwhile, had begun to develop and emerge: a tradition of historical scholarship, along with what has been called "nationalist" thinking and writing on problems of American history. "Nationalist" is a fairly accurate term for this thinking, if one considers it in the setting of the late eighties and nineties. For one thing, scholarship in itself, with the postwar development of historical seminars and graduate schools, had emerged as a value recognized and accepted to an extent wholly unknown in prewar times. In addition, enough time had elapsed by about the middle eighties that for the first time in decades (in some ways, the first time ever) it became possible for the idea of "American" history to operate on men's minds as something more than an abstraction, as something comparable to the former concreteness of "North" and "South."

But with the full emergence of this tradition, in what spirit would slavery be taken up once more? With the moral ground having lain fallow for a generation and the subject now formally protected behind the bulwarks of scholarship, how would slavery be treated by the new "multivolume" historians—such writers as Schouler, Von Holst, Rhodes, McMaster? Once more there would be overtones very reminiscent of the abolitionists. With some of the immediacy gone, it was possible to get at least a provisional consensus: with all the detachment in the world, no scholar of principle could be expected in a new and enlightened age to countenance human-chattel slavery.

The outstanding case is that of James Ford Rhodes. Despite standards of scholarship which make his work still very useful, Rhodes found it practically impossible not to take up the subject once more on the terms set by the old-time polemics. Seeing slavery through the eyes of New England and the Middle West, Rhodes began his treatment of it—in his History, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1893—with a clear statement of moral position: slavery was fundamentally evil. He warned his readers that although his wish was "to describe the institution as it may have appeared before the war to a fair-minded man," his description could do no more than elaborate on the words of Henry Clay: "Slavery is a curse to the master and a wrong to the slave."

Rhodes made a detailed indictment of the system. He attacked as an old heresy the assertion that ante-bellum slaves were on the whole "better fed, better clothed, and better lodged" than laborers in Northern cities and cited evidence that they were frequently overtasked to the point of physical breakdown. He showed their utter lack of protection in the matter of legal rights; he showed how the domestic slave trade, which separated husbands from wives and parents from children, made steady and pitiless assaults on whatever family life the slave might have; and he pictured the slave's helplessness against the aggressions of a brutal master. Rhodes pointed to numerous transactions in mulatto and quadroon girls for wanton purposes and to the corruption of plantation morals effected by the dalliance of the master and his sons with their female slaves—a fact which occasioned untold anguish to many Southern women. He emphasized the slave's degraded lot and his constant longing for freedom. And finally, in allocating responsibility for the system and its many immoralities, Rhodes did not restrict it to the planter class alone; he insisted that an entire society, North and South, must share the guilt. James Ford Rhodes thus did much to establish the pattern for whatever would subsequently be written on the subject of American Negro slavery.

By his own generation, Rhodes's work was accepted with surprising equanimity. His account of the years leading to the Civil War was praised by both North and South as impartial and fair, and his attack on slavery aroused remarkably little hostility even in the South. One reason for this was the growing conviction among a younger generation of Southerners that the future of the New South lay in industrial progress rather than in the rural conservatism of the old plantation regime. A number of rising young historians of the South—such men as William P. Trent, Woodrow Wilson, and William E. Dodd—were quite willing to write off the institution their fathers had fought for as hopelessly reactionary. Rhodes's treatment of the postwar period, moreover, pictured Southern affairs in a light that seemed to the South most reasonable. He deplored carpetbag reconstruction and the imposition of Negro suffrage by Federal power and was willing to recognize the South's right to deal with the "race question" in its own way. Rhodes's version of slavery, accordingly, remained more or less the standard one for nearly two decades.

Meanwhile, however, research at Johns Hopkins during the 1890's had taken the form of a series of restricted monographs on slavery set up on the model of "institutional" history promoted by Herbert Baxter Adams. They differed in a significant respect from the approach of Rhodes. The emphasis was genetic, with an effort toward total objectivity; the question was not so much whether the institution was good or bad, or how it worked, but simply, How did it get started? The result was that these studies—by Jeffrey R. Brackett, John S. Bassett, John H. T. McPherson, and others—having no polemical, moral direction, appeared to have no direction at all. The price of detachment, ironically, was that the work—much of it admirably detailed—had little positive impact on other scholars; it could not really become part of the conversation on slavery. The Johns Hopkins monographs were widely used, though principally as stepping-stones for more polemics rather than as models of method. When Albert Bushnell Hart's Slavery and Abolition appeared in 1906, there was little evidence in it of the Johns Hopkins methodological influence; it followed, in all its major organizing categories, the pattern laid down by Rhodes a dozen years before.

The appearance of Ulrich B. Phillips signified a profound change of phase. The Progressive Era, truly a new age in all things, brought to American history Dunning on Reconstruction and Phillips on slavery. Phillips, who showed the institution through Southern eyes for the first time in more than half a century and was at the same time guided by scholarly standards, made an inestimable contribution: he made it possible for the subject to be debated on scholarly grounds. No debate is worth much without a vigorous, knowledgeable, and principled opposition, and the vitality which this debate was to retain for so many years would be due in overwhelming measure to Ulrich Phillips and his followers.

Born in 1877 as the son of a Georgia merchant, Phillips was reared in an atmosphere of reverence for the values and standards of the old planter class. He found it impossible to believe that a society which had produced such values and such standards could have rested on a corrupt and immoral institution. Northerners, in the last analysis, could not really be expected to understand slavery. At the turn of the century Phillips was studying under Dunning at Columbia; he began very early on an intensive study of slavery that would not only challenge the deepest assumptions of Rhodes and Hart but would also make drastic alterations in the views held on that subject by thousands and thousands of American readers. A torrent of articles began flowing from Phillips' pen, and when his major work, American Negro Slavery, finally appeared in 1918, it was not a beginning but a grand culmination of nearly fifteen years of steadily growing influence.

The basic assumption in American Negro Slavery was that of innate and inherited racial inferiority. There is no malice toward the Negro in Phillips' work. Phillips was deeply fond of the Negroes as a people; it was just that he could not take them seriously as men and women: they were children. His approach to the subject involved the most painstaking and responsible scholarship; it was necessary, he thought, to go to the sources. He gave small weight to legal codes, for they gave little indication of what ante-bellum slavery was actually like; he paid little attention to travelers' accounts, since those accounts were intolerably distorted by antislavery bias. The true sources for the subject—the sources from which the full flavor of plantation life might be evoked—were the actual plantation records. The result was a sympathetic account of the old regime which succeeded (though not in the most obvious polemical sense) in neutralizing almost every assumption of the antislavery tradition.

Phillips found that, in the light of what he saw as the inherent character of the Negro race, plantation slavery was not by any means a cruel and inhuman system. Evidence drawn directly from the records did much to dispose of prior generalizations about inadequate food, clothing, and housing. He showed that earlier stories of cruelty and overwork had been wildly overdrawn. Everywhere in Phillips' pages the emphasis is on the genial side of the regime, on cheerfulness and contentment, on the profoundly human relationships between the paternal master and his faithful and childlike blacks. While there may have been "injustice, oppression, brutality and heartburning," as anywhere in the world, there were also "gentleness, kind-hearted friendship and mutual loyalty to a degree hard for him to believe who regards the system with a theorist's eye and a partisan squint." Not only did the institution of plantation slavery maintain a stable labor force for Southern agriculture; it functioned as a school. "On the whole the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented." On scholarly grounds alone—scope, depth of research, and use of original sources—American Negro Slavery far surpassed anything yet done, and Phillips was easily and beyond question established as the foremost authority on the subject.

The setting in which Phillips worked—and in which his ideas were so well received long before his book actually appeared—was the setting of the Progressive Era. "Progressivism" in the early years of the twentieth century had strong reformist overtones, but the form which the progressive attitude took in this period on matters of race was quite different from that which it would take for later reform generations. Certain streams were by then coming together, making possible a wide acceptance North and South of the essentially tolerant view of Negro slavery which Ulrich Phillips represented.

In the South the muddy and anomalous (so far as the whites were concerned) post-Reconstruction position of the Negro was being systematically liquidated by the turn of the century. (The withdrawal of Federal troops in the 1870's had by no means been followed by the wholesale removal of Negro political and social rights; many of those rights had been maintained until well into the nineties.) But the Populists' organized though abortive efforts to make common political cause with the Negro had precipitated an all but unanimous determination, already coalescing throughout Southern white society, to eliminate Negroes from politics altogether. The tool whereby liberal white elements, in combination with Populist remnants, might then gain ascendancy in the Democratic party was the formula of a white man's government: the Negro must go. The Negro's by then precarious political status, together with the lukewarm conservatism of the old post-Reconstruction Bourbon element, constituted nothing further in the way of obstacles to the complete triumph of Jim Crow and thoroughgoing Negro disfranchisement. Negro leadership itself—dominated by Booker T. Washington—was quick to see the coming state of things and urged what amounted to full capitulation. This meant not only that the Negro had nothing more in the way of a political future but also that social survival would henceforth require a new form of the old ante-bellum dependency relationship between Negroes and white patrons. The meaning of political Progressivism in the South, therefore, was that civic purity and racial purity would be synonymous.


Excerpted from Slavery by Stanley M. Elkins. Copyright © 1976 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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