Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional Term Paper

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¶ … Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life by Stanley Elkins, and Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction by James M. McPherson.

Specifically it will contain a comparative analysis of Elkins historical interpretation of slavery with McPherson's analysis.

Author Stanley Elkins first wrote this pivotal book on slavery in the South in 1959.

It has been one of the leading works on slavery ever since then, with two revisions.

The book still remains in print today, and is still argued for its theories and ideas.

Elkins was the first author to actually look at how slavery affected the slaves, and that made his book forward thinking at the time it was written.

Written before the Civil Rights agreements of the 1960s, and in the decade after World War II, Elkins views took Nazism and its ultimate control of the citizenry into account in his own theories, something that might have been altered today simply because of the passage of time.

A liberal professor at Smith College, his views might have been seen as revolutionary for the time, but his research is thorough and his theories still hold water today.

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In fact, his third essay, known as the "Sambo" essay compared slaves during and after the Civil War to children, the black "Sambo" stereotype, and Nazi Germany, which many people decried and thus ignored (Roberts, 1999, p. 3).

James McPherson has written numerous books on the Civil War and Reconstruction, unlike Elkins who only wrote the one, and then 20 years later wrote a book on Federalism.

McPherson attempts to make his books understandable to the layperson, and this may be the largest difference between these two authors.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Assignment

Elkins is clearly a scholarly writer intent on providing academic theories and ideas, while McPherson is attempting to get more people to read about and understand the Civil War and race relations within that war.

Author Elkins offers several significant arguments to illustrate his positions.

One of his major theories states that slavery was a problem for American slaves, more so than in other countries.

In fact, he argues that the fervent opinion against slavery in America was "all moral," rather than scientific and unemotional.

He writes early in his book, "It was a problem of conscience which by mid-century would fasten itself in one form or another, and in varying degrees, upon men's feelings everywhere" (Elkins, 1976, p. 28).

Elkins feels slavery, as an institution, could (and should) have been examined less emotionally and more realistically, rather than as an ethical or moral dilemma, and this is one of the most significant points-of-view in his book, which sets the period and his views for the rest of his writing.

Another key argument Elkins uses to back up his beliefs is the attitude of change and growth that was occurring throughout American through the 1830s and beyond.

Old political and social institutions, such as Congregationalism and Federalism were dying out, and they were being replaced by new, more modern institutions. The author states, "Thus for the American of that day it was the very success of his society - of capitalism, or religious liberalism and political democracy - that made it unnecessary for him to be concerned with institutions" (Elkins, 1976, p. 33). Consequently, by the 1830s, slavery, that "peculiar" institution, became increasingly repugnant to many Americans.

Of course, this was far different in the South, where slavery was an essential and economically sensible way of life. Elkins continues, "To the Northern reformer, every other concrete fact concerning slavery was dwarfed by its character as a moral evil - as an obscenity condemned of God and universally offensive to humanity" (Elkins, 1976, p. 36).

Thus, Elkins clearly indicates slavery was a powerful moral dilemma to those who opposed it, and that made the institution intensely personal and emotional, too.

Perhaps the most interesting and disconcerting argument the author uses is tied to his assessment of American slavery compared with other geographic areas that promoted slavery, such as Latin America. The largest disparity between American slavery and slavery in Latin America was the authority of the Catholic Church over the institution of slavery in primarily Catholic countries.

In America, religion played an important part of the argument against slavery, but in Latin America, the Catholic religion was an important characteristic of slavery, instead.

The author writes, "Every slave bound for Brazil was to receive baptism and religious instruction before being put on board, and upon reaching port every ship was boarded by a friar who examined the conscience, faith, and religion of the new arrivals" (Elkins, 1976, p. 71). Thus, Latin American slavery attempted to at least partially integrate the slaves into society, while American slavery kept them decidedly different and at arm's length from "civilized" society. In addition, slaves benefited from additional freedoms in Latin America, such as the capability to marry and stay with their partner, the ability to demand their freedom under certain circumstances, and purchasing their own freedom in certain circumstances, as well (Elkins, 1976, p. 73). Therefore, America created an extremely "peculiar" institution that altered personality and outlook, while other country's slave practices had less lasting results.

Elkins argues slavery was based on morality, rather than science and unemotional, and McPherson backs up this assessment. He notes that the Quakers religious group was one of the first to decry slavery on moral and religious grounds, and that other groups soon followed suit. They equated slavery with sin, making this a very moral and emotional argument, and one that ultimately led to war, while many other countries managed to ban slavery without war. He writes, "In the 1830s, abolitionists had two primary goals: to convert Americans including Southerners and slaveholders, to a belief that slaveholding was a sin; and to win equal rights for free blacks" (McPherson, 2001, p. 46). Thus, McPherson makes a valid argument that upholds Elkins theory.

This same argument indicates how America was drastically changing in the 1830s, another of Elkins arguments. The Liberty Party, formed in 1839, indicates how rapidly the country was changing, and how important the idea of abolitionism had become in the country. In addition, women were beginning to fight for their own rights, along with those of slaves, so the country was becoming more polarized over moral issues, just as it was becoming more industrialized and modern. McPherson writes, "The abolitionist-entrepreneur correlation was no coincidence. The capitalist ideology was a free-labor ideology" (McPherson, 2001, p. 50). All of this helped lead up to a conflict that could not be overcome, and to a situation that could only lead to bloodshed. Because the arguments were so emotional, they became even more important, and because the country was changing, it seemed less inclined to accept the things people felt where morally and ethically wrong.

Finally, Elkins discusses the Catholic Church and slavery in Latin America, as in direct contrast to what was happening in the United States. It is not surprising that McPherson does not address this issue, as his text is more concerned with the Civil War - what led up to it and how slavery was one of the decisive issues leading up to the war. He does mention that the Catholic Church opposed abolition and urged its members not to fight for abolition in the U.S. (McPherson 297). His interest did not lie in how other countries viewed slavery, while Elkins purpose was not only to show how the issue tore the nation apart, but why this "peculiar" institution drove the United States to war, when it was able to be settled without war in many other nations of the world.

For the most part, the authors of these two works agree on many of the aspects of slavery. They agree about many of the feelings that led up to war, including morality and industrialization, and they inherently agree that slavery was an institution that subjugated and dehumanized the slaves, and that it could not continue in this country, especially when so many other modern nations were overthrowing slavery. They also show that many of those who first fought against slavery in the country fought it on religious grounds, making it a very emotional and moral issue, and one that bred contention.

Elkins especially shows how slaves held no control over their own lives, and masters held all the control, from family life to even life and death. Some masters were more kind and open than others, but Elkins maintains slaves were treated like dehumanized children, and it affects their relationships and personalities even today. They both agree conditions were extremely harsh, even brutal, and slaves were treated as less than human. McPherson writes, "Chattel bondage gave the master great power over his slaves to buy or sell, to punish without sanction of the courts, to separate families, to exploit sexually, even to kill with little fear of being held legally responsible" (McPherson, 2001, p. 38). It is clear slavery was horrible, and both authors… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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