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History of the U. S. Civil War

Stanley M. Elkins’ illustrative work Slavery; A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life provides a different a approach to the phenomenon of slavery in American history. Unlike ordinary depiction of causes of its origin and its advantages and disadvantages, Elkins takes into consideration an entirely novels manifestation of slavery i. e. slavery a dilemma in American history and its effects of intellectual and institutional life.

Whereas James McPherson’s interpretation of slavery in Ordeal by Fire only comes in relation to its affect on the modernization process of America and as primary cause of civil war and its different causes. Unlike Elkin’s book, McPherson’s main concern remains limited to the notions of modernization. He describes the phenomenon of slavery as a catalyst that augmented modernization. Relationship between Church and Slavery: Mr.

Elkin looks at the activities of the church in totality with other social forces whereas McPherson has singled out the Catholic spirit as the dominant force that compelled the Southerners to retreat to old practices and social patterns and slavery was one of them. He is of the view that “Protestant work ethics” did not allow slavery on one form or the other. That was the reason that Protestant North detested slavery and started abolition movement.

He further reinforces the idea that only resistance to abolition was from catholic section of Northern society. Mr.Elkins reinforces the idea that American slavery was harsher and was augmented by institutional set-up as compared with Latin Americans. And this institutional set-up was backed up by church at the early stages of American history. McPherson also supports this idea and is of the view that Church helped to institutionalize slavery in South and provided religious justifications for it in the absence of proper socio-political institutions at the early stages. In South, slaves were regarded as an entity that was included in their (Southerners) property rights and were sanctioned by legal system.

Capitalism and Slavery: Elkin reinstate Tannenbaum’s thesis highlighting that slavery in the United States was a brutal social facade of laissez-faire capitalism and only reflects its principles and practices. The practical manifestations of this laissez-faire capitalism shrank the slave to a mere commodity. He reinforces the idea that in the early nineteenth century, two phenomenon, democracy and capitalism, changes the course of events and the socio-psychological pattern of American life.

In the context of slavery, theses two phenomenon seem juxtaposing each other but reality was different as both helped dissolving old institutions (slavery was one of them) as both believed in the transcendent value of individual. McPherson also takes into account the relationship between capitalistic spirit of North and slavery. Mr. Elkins is of the view that economic compulsions interpreted the relationship of slavery as a master-slave relationship that was further rooted into the social and intellectual life of America. Later on it was structured into the legal system.

In the whole scenario, slaves acted as economic instruments and this subordination was characterized only by commercial necessities. Whereas McPherson illustrates with many examples that slavery was not a matter of economics or expediency but it was rooted in the values system of Catholic population of South. However McPherson is of the view that capitalism instilled a modernizing spirit in the Northern populations and this “modernizing capitalism” introduced a series of reforms that “permanently altered the social and economic landscape” (p.375).

So he asserts that capitalism was a blessing for slaves as it set an impetus for anti-slavery momentum in the North. Master-Slave Relationship: Both books clearly describe the various facets of slave-master relationship especially the harsh treatment and the control that masters had on the lives of their slaves. First main chapter “Institutions and the Law of Slavery” provide a comparative analysis of this control over the lives of slaves United States vis a vis Latin America.

He illustrates with examples that Spanish law has provision for salve to buy property and even their freedom if they have acquire enough wealth. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church has granted them the right to marriage. Although in the Southern American states their economic conditions were better comparatively but they were negated these essential rights. In the second chapter “Slavery and Personality”, Elkins again provide a deep insight into the level and intensity of control that masters had over their slaves.

He further narrates the psychological effect of this control on Negro personality and its individual and collective consequences. The negation distorted their psychological being, hampered their psychological development and they were reverted to child-like behavior. To illustrate the psychological effect, Elkins says that harsh pattern of slavery in the South brought into being a typical Negro personality that was commonly known as Sambo. Sambo denotes to a personality prototype that was characterized by childlike behavior. This infantilism (as Mr.

Elkins calls it) was a result of absolute negation of individual rights and ultimate powerlessness. Although McPherson also deals with this master-slave relationship but does not provide any comprehensive prepositions. He only illustrates the harsh treatment of slaves but does not provide any information about the effect of this treatment. However his descriptions are powerful and bring out the hidden brutalities of this pernicious episode ion the American History. Primary and Secondary Sources and Evidences: Mr. Elkins investigations and interpretations depend on variety of primary and secondary sources.

He has explored and utilized the legal manuscripts, the property documents, states legal codes to provide an exact legal structure of the age on the particular issue of slavery. His comparative evidences include various secondary sources. For example, he uses the authentic and influential original work “Slave and Citizen” by Frank Tannenbaum to compare slave life in Latin America and United States. He further uses the Nazi literature to compare the Sambo with Jews. Elkins has employed the behavioral sciences to provide this analysis.

He further rely on Alexander Bruce’s “An Economic history of Virginia” and Lewis C. Gray’s “History of Agriculture in the Southern America” to analyze economic perspective in which slavery took its birth and evolved. These references further capacitated Elkins with deep investigation of slave conditions in the South. Mr. Elkins does not speculate over the institutions of slavery in different countries and draws it conclusion but he relies on primary and secondary resources to advance his thesis and provides supportive arguments and analysis to conclude those.

For example, to investigate and compare the British Anti-slavery movement with American abolitionist movement, he relies on the classical source of Coupland’s book. Furthermore, plenty of footnotes enrich the authenticity of the book. McPherson has also utilized a variety of sources and chapter-by-chapter compendium to strengthen his arguments but sometime his assertion seems to be based on vague conclusion that does not match his sources. Most of the time he remained one-dimensional and defended North.

His anecdotal approach led him to establish certain abstract notions. Although endnotes are not comprehensive but an all-inclusive annotated bibliography capacitates the readers to hanker after other resources to get an in-depth knowledge. Conclusion: Presentation of facts in a lucid manner remains the top quality of McPherson’s Text but “Ordeal by Fire” touches most of the issues pertaining to slavery but his explanations of specific events have a tendency to be unfinished.

His evaluations and analysis remain incomplete as he presents a thesis but goes ahead without explaining the issue in detail and leaves many questions in the mind of the reader. Additionally his major thesis remains “modernization” and how civil war contributed to it. A close analysis of Mr. Elkins’ thesis suggests that he has not considered an important intellectual element that was the basis of this problem. In United States, the phenomenon of “slave as property” was limited to a single racial group i. e. African American.

So this racial discrimination on the economic and the social level further manifested itself in the intellectual assumption of hereditary linkage between slavery and inferior mental and rational level. Additionally, he pays no heed to an important element of slavery i. e. the effect of presence and personality of these Afro-Americans on the white population. But I still I think that Elkin’s book is more accurate and wide-ranging as it has tried to provide a comprehensive interpretation of intellectual facets of ante-bellum slavery and its institutionalization.

This like most others does not “overtone very reminiscent of the abolitionist” (Elkin, p. 6) but provides a totally new insight into the problem of slavery. This book manipulates our traditional view of slavery in United States and compels us to ponder over it in a new way.


Elkins, Stanley. (1972). Slavery; A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (3rd ed. ). University of Chicago Press. McPherson, James M. (1982). Ordeal by fire: the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf. Donald, D. H. (Ed). (1996). Why the North won the Civil War. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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