Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Elkin's Book on Slavery


Sherman telegraphed Grant in 1864 that he could make Georgia howl.* Not just Georgia, but the entire South has been howling for a hundred and fifty years. Southern history is unlike that of the rest of the USA. Our whites have had to deal with a resounding military defeat and the loss of their dream of nationhood. Our blacks have had to come to terms with the crippling effects of slavery.

Researching historical background has been one of the pleasures of writing my books. In bringing to print my fourth antebellum novel, I’ve decided not to include a selected bibliography, in part because one was printed in a previous novel, Master of Westfall Plantation. However, two of the books I read as resources while writing this latest novel (Westfall, Slave to King Cotton) should have been mentioned, for they altered my thinking. 


Slavery, A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, written by historian Stanley M. Elkins, was first published in 1959. The book aroused so much controversy that Elkins published an essay in response in 1971. An understanding of slavery, if anything, has grown more difficult with time, for historians are having to grapple with current black culture and its influence on interpretations of history. (I don’t want to inflame the issue, but the idea that blacks alone have the authority to write their history does injury to freedom of thought.)

Historians have belabored the fact that slavery was unjust and wrong. 
Elkins attempted to expand the discussion.

Elkin’s motive for pursuing a study of slavery was to “break the grip of the old argument … of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’” which permeated historic thought. He wanted to get beyond what was obvious—that slavery was brutal and inhumane. “On those terms, I felt, the debate had been settled,” wrote Elkins. Strange as it may seem, his presumption about what was obvious and settled still isn’t so obvious to some Southern laypersons. I’ve been told more than once, in response to my novels, that “there were good owners of slaves” as if the exception proved a rule. But this is getting off the point. 

At the time he wrote the book, Elkins saw scholarship on slavery as staid and governed by the moral ethos of denouncing it as evil. He pursued a more innovative approach. His book compares the practice of slavery in the antebellum South with that in South America. By comparison, our laws, customs, and institutions (including the churches) created a more massive consistency than existed elsewhere. This in turn united the antebellum South behind slavery creating a closed system more repressive and severe than elsewhere (excepting islands such as Barbados, which wasn’t part of his study).


The Northern abolitionist didn’t escape institutional influences which limited their objectivity in dealing with the issue of slavery. Sadly, blacks suffered at the hands of the North as well. Fire breathing abolitionists abandoned slaves who had been freed after the war and did little to nothing to help them adjust in a difficult situation.

What Elkins seems to say in his book is what I’ve come late to understand—that our culture has an immense and invisible influence over our personalities and character. It takes an exceptional mind to recognize dishonest beliefs we have inherited.

There is too much to consider in Elkins’s book to do it any justice. It is academic but not given to the usual academic verbiage. Worth a read if you’re interested in slavery.

I’ll talk about the other book at another time. The Slave Power, Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs was written by John E. Cairnes in 1862. It is unforgiving in describing the political leadership of the Old South. 

*Portion of Telegram Sherman sent to Grant October 9, 1864:
Until we can repopulate Georgia it is useless to occupy it, but utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources. By attempting to hold the roads we will lose a thousand men monthly and will gain no result. I can make the march and make Georgia howl. We have over 8,000 cattle and 3,000,000 pounds of bread but no corn, but we can forage the interior of the state.

No comments: