Civil War and Slavery

1. What are the points of agreement and disagreement between the two authors, Stanley Elkins and James McPherson, concerning the institution of slavery?

The subject of slavery, long caught in the grip of sectional recrimination. The repressive power was so great, argued Stanley Elkins, that it not only precluded political resistance, but actually reduced the typical slave to infantile dependence. The constraints on discussion of slavery in the South are also well discussed in Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life

Stanley Elkins, in Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life ( 1959), concludes that the capitalism rather than race provides the explanation for the slavery. ” One of his basic conclusions was that “the master must have absolute power over the slave’s body, and the law was developing in such a way as to give it to him at every crucial point.” (p. 49)

James McPherson Ordeal by Fire. A comprehensive survey of the social, political, intellectual, and military history of the Civil War and Reconstruction era by an accomplished scholar, Ordeal by Fire is characterized by a happy combination of thoroughness, accuracy, and fine writing. About a quarter of the book is devoted to the history of the United States in the nineteenth century prior to the war and to events leading to the war

Most scholars like McPherson believed that Elkins’s view was too extreme, but his critics were divided on the degree of his exaggeration. It is argued that although the comparison of plantations with concentration camps was overdrawn, a comparison with prisons or insane asylums was appropriate. Plantations were not institutions aimed at the destruction of slaves but at the strict control of their behavior. What developed on plantations, then, was something between infantilization and politicized resistance.

2. Specifically, what influence did institutions like the church have on the character of American slavery?

The Catholic Church, as the guardian of the souls of Christian slaves, proclaimed that it had the authority to review the practices of masters, and so it established ecclesiastical courts which in a number of countries recognized that slaves had certain civil rights.

These courts sought to protect slave families and they made it possible for large numbers of slaves to buy their freedom and thus enter the realm of free labor in Spanish and French colonies. However, the effectiveness of the Catholic Church varied from country to country and from one time to another, according to the strength of the slaveholding class and the will of local church leaders. In the United States the Catholic churches of the North generally refused to speak out on the slavery issue, while those of the South openly accepted slavery as it was practiced. In Cuba the church was unable to prevent slaveholders from greatly intensifying the oppressiveness of the system.

Whatever the problems of the Catholic Church in its role as protector of slaves, the Protestant churches initially lagged behind them. It was not until the last two decades before emancipation that the missionary work in the West Indies became extensive or that amelioration of the lot of slaves became a principal objective. In the South, the Protestant clergy made some efforts to ameliorate the worst abuses of slavery, especially after 1830. But since, their churches were generally dominated by slave owners such intervention was exceedingly cautious and not always effective.

3. How much control did the masters have over their slaves? Did the slaves exercise any autonomy over their own lives?

The different views of slave culture arise not merely from the different sources favored by particular scholars but from different views of the balance of power between masters and slaves. Some scholars have emphasized the great power of the masters and the extreme weakness of the slaves.

The power of the masters arose from the fact that the state invested them with virtually unconstrained authority to deal with slaves and provided the judicial backing and physical force required to maintain that authority. American slaveholders demonstrated their determination and their capacity to exercise control by the way they responded to challenges, bringing to bear as much force as was necessary to crush the challenge.

There are no scholars who argue that the balance of power was actually in favor of slaves, but some skirt that position. In such assessments the weapons of the masters are made ineffective, or largely so, by their arrogance, self-deception, and stupidity.

The slaves, on the other hand, deprived not only of the control of the state or even its protection, but of the political organizations that are normally necessary to establish a base with which to contest power, are nevertheless able to outwit masters so completely as to create an autonomous society of their own design dedicated to goals that directly contradict the goals of masters.

4. Did American devotion to limited government and laissez faire capitalism ameliorate the brutality of slavery?

Political and cultural factors also affected the outcome of the contest between slave and free labor. The growth of capitalism in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led the Crown and Parliament to encourage the formation of large-scale slave plantations. Since these “capitalist plantations” were producing commodities eagerly demanded at home, English governing authorities were prepared to stimulate them with subsidies, where necessary, and to remove legal impediments.

In United States, the Democrats tended to be both more republican and more laissez-faire than the Whigs. Constructed mainly from the remnants of Jefferson’s party, and led initially by Andrew Jackson. The Democratic Party called itself “a let alone party” and denounced the Whigs as “a meddling party.” Blaming “nine-tenths of all the evil” on misguided legislative enactments, Democrats argued that “spontaneous action and self-regulation” would produce a better society than one which was directed by the state or restricted by legislative fiat.

Although the Whigs denounced the laissez-faire policies of the Democrats and declared their belief in the obligation of the government to promote economic progress and the welfare of the population, they were, by their own designation, the “conservative” party, the party of “law and order,” the party dedicated “to the defense of property,” the party which celebrated the “Puritan ethic of hard work and self-reliance,” and the party which said that it was “the duty of every man to be a prosperous man.”

The Whigs did not believe it was the duty of the government to protect the free working man from his employer or the farmer from the merchant. They compared the different groups in society to the different parts of the body and saw a fundamental “harmony of interests” between the parts, an “interdependence of different classes,” and an “organic unity of society.”  (Walker, 1979 p. 210)

5. What evidence does each author use to support his arguments, and is the evidence anecdotal or quantifiable?

The problem, according to Elkins, is that research focused “almost wholly upon resistance” has diverted attention from how damaging chattel slavery was “to every man, woman, and child, white or black, who was in any way touched by it.” What has been overlooked, he continues, is that “culture, under such conditions as those of slavery, is not acquired without a price; the social and individual experience of any group with as little power, and enduring such insistent assaults (of cruelty, contempt, and, not least, uncertainty), is bound to contain more than the normal residue of pathology

According to McPherson the antislavery coalition was fragile in 1860, it might have grown stronger even in the absence of the Civil War. The evangelicals who were at the heart of the movement would not have abandoned their struggle for moral purification merely because of political setbacks that might have occurred in the early 1860s. Their dedication to the abolitionist cause allowed them to overcome the discouraging setbacks of the late 1830s, of the first half of the 1840s, and of the early 1850s. The argument and evidence provided by both scholars seem quantifiable.

6. Which author more accurately describes antebellum American slavery? Why?

McPherson describes antebellum American slavery in an accurate way, according to McPherson the validation of racial slavery led to the questioning of the ideals of liberty and equality, that lay at the heart of the antebellum American republic.

Elkins’s analysis has been criticized, the most cogent argument being that abolitionists did create institutions–the issue of anti-institutionalism keeps coming up as a function of the religious attitudes of the antebellum years.

ReferencesElkins, Stanley M. 1959. Slavery:A problem in American institutional and intellectual life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Howe, Daniel Walker. 1979. Thepolitical culture of the American whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

James M. McPherson, 1982 Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction ( New York: Knopf.