Slavery and Economy According to Elkins and McPherson
To Elkins’ way of thinking, one of the primary stumbling blocks in
allowing us to truly understand why slavery occurred, why it was so
uniquely durable in the United States and how it impacts us today is the
unchanging rancor of the discourse on this subject. Elkins makes the case
that our reflection on the subject has become to deeply entrenched in
kneejerk ways of understanding the subject that a greater illumination of
slavery’s roots and its persistence has been obscured. His text remarks
that “there is a painful touchiness in all aspects of the subject; the
discourse contains almost too much immediacy, it makes too many connections
with present problems. How a person thinks about Negro slavery
historically makes a great deal of difference here and now; it tends to
locate him morally in relation to a whole range of very immediate
political, social, and philosophical issues which is some way refer back to
slavery.” (Elkins, 1) The text concedes to understand why individuals make
such concerted emotional connections but suggests that these connections
have presented us from moving into more reflective consideration of our
history of slavery.
This differs fundamentally from the McPherson article, which succeeds
in characterizing the slave-holding South according to its economic
imperatives without appearing to forgive it its ethical trespasses. Where
Elkins contends that it is necessary to dispatch with the moralizing and
emotional connotation often connected to the present-day discourse in order
to understand the practical implications of slavery in its time and place,
McPherson argues that in fact, the mores of slavery were inherently
impractical. By framing his discussion according to the implications of
the Civil War, McPherson denotes that economic realities sufficiently
illustrate the core irrationality of the so-called ‘peculiar institution’
known as slavery.
This also points us to a core similarity between the two texts.
Though they differ fundamentally in their willingness to address the moral
implications of slavery, Elkins and McPherson agrees that the rhetoric of
racial superiority would largely function as a distraction in a discussion
laden with more pressing economic implications. To this end, McPherson
explains that in the divide leading up to the Civil War, “the Republicans
became the party of reformist, antislavery Protestantism. They also became
the party of dynamic, innovative capitalism. . . Southerners and Catholics
returned the hostility. Their epithets of ‘Black Republicans,’ ‘Yankees,’
and the ‘Puritan party’ summed up in turn a host of negative symbols
associated with the Republicans: abolitionism and racial equality, material
acquisitiveness and sharp practice, hypocrisy, bigotry, and an offensive
eagerness to reform other people’s morals or to interfere with their
property.” (McPherson, 101)
It is ironic in this aspect of the discussion that in fact there would
be this perception of ethical righteousness by slaveholders, who perceived
federal regulation abolishing slavery as a fundamental violation of
individual rights. Elkins makes the argument that a way of better
understanding this irony would be to remove the ethical implications which
frame debates over slavery. In a certain regard, no debate exists as
slavery is both abolished and unconditionally accepted as not viable in
modern society for practical and humanitarian reasons. Therefore, to frame
the ongoing discussion over slavery as a debate such as that which
persisted in the ante-bellum period of American history is, Elkins
contends, to overlook an opportunity for greater illumination of the
subject. To this end, he points out the value of historiographical reports
on slavery from all array of perspectives, and not just those that have
condemned slavery. As Elkins states of those committed to documentation
the history of slavery, “although the writers and compilers were themselves
by no means free from polemical intentions (indeed, they were for the more
part inspired by them) the requirements of fact operated upon them in such
a way that they left a number of works which are still of great value. The
two leading examples were produced by men whose commitments to the subject
itself were at opposite poles. Thomas R.R. Cobb’s Inquiry into the Law of
Slavery was the work of a Georgia jurist, and John Codman Hurd’s Law of
Freedom and Bondage that of a New Englander of strong abolitionist
leanings. They are equally useful and equally dependable today.” (Elkins,
It is thus that in a certain respect, the Elkins may be seen as the
more effective text where an examination of everyday slave life is
concerned. The willingness of the historian to explore the subject without
prejudicial interest in the perspective of the author would allow him to
understand the variant of experiences in slave life that help to reduce the
value of sweeping assumptions pertaining thereto. For instance, Elkins
remarks upon the wide spectrum of levels of autonomy experienced by slaves,
depending largely upon the selective orientation of slave-owners and the
size of the estate on which such slaves toiled. On larger plantations,
where whole communities of slaves lived, they would have a relative degree
of autonomy in their lives with respect to the fact that it would fall upon
the slaves to maintain order and activity within these communities.
Elkins’ text is the more useful in elucidating these experiences, as it
reports upon slavery from the wider array of documented perspectives. This
points to Elkins’ argument that we should enter into a period of academic
evaluation of such contradicting sources so as to better understand the
matter-of-fact position of those existing within the system now relegated
properly to the past.
This also makes the Elkins text a reliable source for understanding
the nuance of the role played by Christianity and the church in the
institution of slavery. This would have the dual effect of providing
slaves with a channel for the manifestation of hope and of providing their
masters with a way to manipulate obedience and a sense of acceptance for
the established order. Again, the degree to which the Elkins text
dedicates itself to removing the debate permeating the discussion of
slavery is manifested here as a balanced recognition of slavery as playing
a part in sustaining slavery and simultaneously of providing asylum from
Ultimately though, the Elkins text works too aggressively to
undermine the emotional permanence of the issue of slavery, discrediting
the text as perhaps given over to its own historical prejudices. The
McPherson text succeeds in framing the discussion over slavery without
requiring a massive shift in perspective. Instead, the text more
effectively connects the end of slavery with the interceding economic and
humanistic requirements of modernization. As the McPherson text would
argue, “in short, slavery and modernizing capitalism were irreconcilable.”
It is thus that the McPherson text goes into great detail about the
manner in which the spread of industrial growth and economic expansion in
the north would ultimately make slavery an impossible institution to
sustain. Though it would be the slaveholder who would vociferously claim
the importance of limited government as a cause for the maintenance of the
system of slavery, McPherson illustrates that it would actually be the
inherent nature of capitalism that would ensure the ultimate end of the
type of economy which called for and sustained the practice of slavery. To
this point, McPherson reports that “heavy investment in social overhead
capital, which transforms a localized subsistence economy into a nationally
integrated market economy; rapid increases in output per capita, resulting
from technological innovation and the shift from labor-intensive toward
capital-intensive production; the accelerated growth of the industrial
sector compared with other sectors of the economy; rapid urbanization, made
possible by an increase in agricultural productivity that enables farmers
to feed the growing cities; an expansion of education, literacy, and mass
communications; a value system that emphasizes change rather than
tradition; an evolution from the traditional, rural, village-oriented
system of personal and kinship ties, in which status is ‘ascriptive’
(inherited), toward a fluid, cosmopolitan, impersonal, and pluralistic
society, in which status is achieved by merit.” (McPherson, 13)
This is to illustrate that the abolition of slavery did not just
threaten to dismantle the institution retaining blacks in bondage.
Moreover, the modes of capitalism promised to dismantle the southern
agrarian way of life which depended upon slavery. This was not simply
because slavery was perceived as something which had to be abolished.
Moreover, this was because the nature of the southern economy no longer
corresponded with economic patterns defining the United States. The value
of the McPherson text is particularly found in these descriptions which
suggest that moral questions relating to slavery would never truly be
addressed because economic imperatives would instead define the course of
events ending the institution.
It is to this extent that while Elkins does a better job of
characterizing antebellum American slavery, McPherson is more successful at
describing its implications with accuracy. Elkins uses a bevy of primary
sources which present an effective anecdotal picture of the many
experiences pertaining to slavery. However, its dedication to dispelling
emotional imperatives which remain critically relevant functions as
something of an unwelcome departure from traditions discourses on the
subject. Though this is Elkins’ stated ambition, the success which
McPherson achieves absent the use of this device suggest such a departure
to be unnecessary. The economic framing of slavery and abolition is not
mutually exclusive from the emotional and ethical questions pertaining to
the issue, nor is there necessarily a value in making this distinction.
Elkins, S. (1976). Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and
Intellectual Life. University of Chicago Press.
McPherson, J. (2000). Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.
McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.
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