Slavery: A Problem In American Institutional And Intellectual Life

Topics: America

Stanley M. Elkins’ illustrative work Slavery  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. 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.

First main chapter “Institutions and the Law of Slavery” provide a comparative analysis of slavery in United States vis a vis Latin America. In the second chapter “Slavery and Personality”, Elkins further provide a deep insight into the psychological effect on Negro personality and its individual and collective consequences.

He compares the slave life in America with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and their conversion into immature individuals. The third main chapter “Slavery and Intellectuals” deals with abstract American thought and its inability in creating channels for resolving the slavery issue. He elaborates various abolitionist approaches suggested and/or adopted by the contemporary leaders and politicians to solve this problem.

Mr. Elkins reinforces the idea that American slavery was harsher and was augmented by institutional set-up as compared with Latin Americans.

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In United States, slaves were regarded as an entity that was included in their (Americans) property rights and were sanctioned by legal system.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.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.  He further compares it with Nazi concentration camp, where harsh treatment and absolute powerlessness over every action had reduced the Jews to infantilism.Finally, Elkins takes into account the surge of abolitionists in American history and their passionate movements. He regards the abolitionists as of high moral character, anti-institutional and mortified. He further compares the American abolitionism with the same movements in England and manifests that that I country like England, institutions were strong and “men could hardly avid thinking and acting institutionally”. Whereas in America, there was not even a single institute of that caliber at national that could determine the slavery issue.

So surge in abolitionism was a natural outcome of this situation.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.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 ha 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’ book was a new addition in the series of U.B. Philipps, Kenneth Stamp and James Ford Rhodes who interpreted different aspects of slavery but Elkins’ work is of importance hitherto as it has marked a new orientation to slavery. It further initiated a “comparative sociology of slavery”. It has tried to provide a comprehensive interpretation of intellectual facets of ante-bellum slavery and its institutionalization.ReferencesElkins, Stanley. Slavery; A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. University of Chicago Press. 1959.

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Slavery: A Problem In American Institutional And Intellectual Life. (2019, Dec 05). Retrieved from

Slavery: A Problem In American Institutional And Intellectual Life
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