The Differences Among Slaves
Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life.
by Stanley M. Elkins.
The University of Chicago Press. 247 pp. $4.50.
There exists a major problem about American slavery, one on which even a reader of the best American historians on slavery will not be enlightened: indeed, if he limits his reading to historians he will hardly know that a problem does exist. But why was American slavery the most awful the world has ever known? The slave was totally removed from the protection of organized society (compare the elaborate provisions for the protection of slaves in the Bible), his existence as a human being was given no recognition by any religious or secular agency, he was totally ignorant of and completely cut off from his past, and he was offered absolutely no hope for the future. His children could be sold, his marriage received no recognition, his wife could be violated or sold (there was something comic in calling the woman with whom the master permitted him to live a “wife”), and he could also be subject, without redress, to frightful barbarities—there were presumably as many sadists among slaveowners, men and women, as there are in other groups. The slave could not, by law, be taught to read or write; he could not practice any religion without permission of his master, and could never meet with his fellows, for religious or any other purposes, except in the presence of a white; and finally, if a master wished to free him, every legal obstacle was used to thwart such action. This was not what slavery meant in the ancient world, in medieval and early modern Europe, nor in Brazil and the West Indies.
More important, American slavery was also awful in its effects. If we compare the present situation of the American Negro with that of, let us say, Brazilian Negroes (who were slaves twenty years longer), we begin to suspect that very different patterns of slavery must have produced such different outcomes. Today the Brazilian Negro is a Brazilian; though most are poor and do the hard and dirty work of the country, as Negroes do in the United States, they are not cut off from society. They reach into its highest strata, merging there—in smaller and smaller numbers, it is true, but with complete acceptance—with other Brazilians of all kinds. The relations between Negroes and whites in Brazil show nothing of the mass irrationality that prevails in this country.
And if we compare American Negroes with the West Indian Negroes, we are struck by the greater self-confidence and energy of the latter—and again are forced to ask: what is it that happened to Negroes in the Southern States before 1865?
As we may read in the beginning of Mr. Elkins’ book, polemicists and historians have argued over American slavery for more than a hundred years without once raising their eyes from our Southern States to look at the experience of the millions of Africans who were brought as slaves to the West Indies and Brazil. It is Mr. Elkins’ virtue to have seen the special problem posed by American slavery; but this is only the first of his virtues. After reading his book, I do not believe there is a social scientist in America who thinks better than he does; he presents his thoughts with a clarity and power few of them can match; he understands sociology and psychology better than any other American historian I have read, and better than many sociologists and psychologists do. He has mastered a vast literature, in disparate fields, and he uses all his learning for the sole purpose of advancing his and our understanding of the important subject he has chosen to study. He cares nothing for the artificial boundaries between “disciplines,” everything for his subject. He is a sociologist where he must be a sociologist, a psychologist where he must be a psychologist, an anthropologist where he must be an anthropologist. May the academy not take vengeance upon him.
Such a book is so rare that it is hard to stop praising it; but let me report on what Mr. Elkins has to tell us. After first surveying the vast literature on American slavery, he refers to a little known work, Citizen and Slave, in which Frank Tannenbaum had pointed to striking differences between Brazilian and American slavery, and to their very different outcomes. Mr. Elkins takes up this theme in the first section of his book and explains why these great differences emerged. In Brazil the slave had many more rights than in the United States: he could legally marry, he could, indeed had to be, baptized and become a member of the Catholic Church, his family could not be broken up by sale, and he had many days on which he could either rest or earn money to buy his freedom. The government encouraged manumission, and the freedom of infants could often be purchased for a small sum at the baptismal font. In short: the Brazilian slave knew he was a man, and that he differed in degree, not in kind, from his master.
Mr. Elkins argues that the situation was so different in the United States because here individualism was unrestricted, freed from feudal limitations, aristocracy, a powerful church, monarchy—from any institution that claimed traditional authority. In the absence of all restraining institutions, the search for private gain and profit was unlimited, and the law so fashioned as to remove the slightest hindrance to individual action: our courts argued, for example, that it was unfair to expect the slaveowner to recognize familial bonds if this meant a reduction in the price he received for his slaves (selling man and wife together, or mother and children, naturally reduced the number of potential buyers, as well as the potential price). Such was the ambience of American slavery.
In Brazil, by contrast, the church was powerful, and insisted on the protection of the slaves and the saving of their souls. (There is probably no more shameful part in the history of American religion than its complete abdication from any effort to help American slaves—it only undertook activity when asked by the slavemasters, who thought religion might help keep the slaves docile.) The royal government across the sea was also interested in the protection of the slaves. In any case the use of property in Latin America was hedged in by a variety of quasi-feudal restrictions, and it was taken for granted that slaves were not the absolute property of their owners. In the Latin countries, in short, the remnants of feudalism protected the slave; in the society fashioned here in the United States, nothing was left to prevent a cruelly logical reduction of the African to a piece of mere property.
In the second part of his book, Mr. Elkins takes up another question: the character of the American Negro. Why, he asks, was such a uniform description of the slave prevalent in the South—childlike, irresponsible, incapable of thought or foresight, lazy, ignorant, totally dependent upon his master, happy? Apparently Brazil had no similar stereotype. The Southerners liked to believe that this was the essential nature of the African; it justified holding him as property. But Mr. Elkins finds no similarity between this stereotype of the Southern Negro, slave or free, and descriptions of West Africa by travelers and anthropologists: “. . . looking back upon the energy, and complex organization of West African tribal life, we are tempted . . . to wonder how it was ever possible that all this native resourcefulness and vitality could have been brought to such a point of utter stultification in America.” A connected problem: in the United States, there are simply no “survivals” from African culture—in Brazil and the West Indies, there are many. How explain this? Mr. Elkins’ answers again point to institutional differences. Where the slavemaster wielded absolute power, the slave became absolutely dependent. Where the slavemaster’s power was restricted by traditional institutions, the slaves—after all the horrors that accompanied the passage from freedom in Africa to slavery in the New World—had a breathing space, an area of freedom in which to reconstruct some part of their African culture. Where such a breathing space existed, it allowed slaves to perform some of the actions of free men—and therefore they were, even in slavery, more like free men.
Here Mr. Elkins draws on the literature on Nazi concentration camps to get at the psychological consequences of a situation of total powerlessness continued over a long period of time. He points out that the psychological dependency, to the point of imitation and even love, of slaves on their masters, could be found in concentration camp inmates who managed to survive the early term of their imprisonment.
In the third part, Mr. Elkins discusses American abolitionism. This is to me the least satisfactory section of his book, though it is hardly less brilliant than the rest. He seems to share a bias, common among contemporary historians, which I find difficult to understand, against the abolitionists. They are criticized for being moralistic, fanatical, uncompromising, vituperative; they refused to consider practical measures, short of emancipation, that might have alleviated the conditions of the slaves, and so prepare them for emancipation. Mr. Elkins suggests that the opponents of slavery might have proposed measures that would have given the slave an area in which to develop toward freedom—for example, “bringing the slave into the Christian fold and under the eye of the church . . . insisting that he be offered a spiritual life marked by dignity and be given instruction in Christian morality,” or insisting upon the sanctity of the family “as a basic principle of Christian practice. . . .” But it is clear from his own evidence that slavemasters would have accepted none of this. Mr. Elkins is deceived in thinking that what is useful for analysis is also useful for reform. Powerful institutions changed the situation of the slave in Brazil, but this does not mean that these institutions, or anything approximating them, could have been introduced for the same purpose here. There was no way of transforming the Protestant denominations into the Catholic Church. And from the 1830’s on the slavemasters were united in refusing to countenance any change in the situation, except, of course, in the direction of making their power even more perfect. Because nothing stood against the absolute property right over human beings, it was necessary for abolitionism to develop its own absolutism.
For the first time Mr. Elkins’ use of a comparative approach to throw light on a problem seems to fail him. He explains the fanaticism of American abolitionism, in contrast to British abolitionism, by arguing that here there were no institutions through which mind and morality could operate—no ruling class, church, aristocracy, etc. The issue of slavery could not be mediated and resolved through institutions—it was addressed directly to the masses, to public opinion, it became “democratized,” and for that reason so simplified that concession was impossible. And yet, as he points out in a footnote, such a set of mediating institutions did exist in American politics, and for thirty years Congress did, in fact, effectively forge various compromises. It was not through lack of institutions that Abolitionism became shrill and fanatical—but because of the South’s monolithic resistance to any change in the slavery system. If the South today resists with such fanaticism the integration of lunch counters, what is there to make us believe that it could have been moved by a challenge to the institution on which its whole life was based?
A more reasonable explanation of the success of British abolitionism in the 1830’s than the structure of British institutions is that the British movement argued for the freedom of slaves in the West Indies—slaves were no part of British life. For such an objective, it was possible eventually to mobilize so strong a body of opinion (and against the relatively small group whose interests were directly affected) that no resistance was possible, and a peaceful emancipation was carried through.
This book raises the curtain on what must become an important area for research and thinking. The first part suggests that we need a closer examination of the different slave systems of the Western Hemisphere than we have yet had. It will be particularly important to look into the experience of Puerto Rico (there, too, the pattern of slavery must have been quite different, for its outcome is different), Haiti (where the slaves massacred their masters—why did they not do the same in the United States?—and where after 150 years of freedom no stable political system has emerged), and other Caribbean countries. The second part suggests that we need to know more about the changes in Negro personality and character since the days of slavery—E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States already serves as a fine model.
It was clear to a number of sociologists (Robert Park, Donald Pierson) that the comparative study of the Negro in different countries would teach us more than would an exclusive preoccupation with the situation in the United States, where—alone in the Western Hemisphere—we suffer from a most serious and unsolved problem in the relations between the races. Mr. Elkins’ book has gone further than any other work in showing how fruitful a comparative approach can be. It will affect our thinking for many years to come.