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Stanley M. Elkins
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Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.










Nancy Lee's assessment of post World War II scholarship up from the enlightenment gained during the war, ... is that men like Stanley Elkins rationalized about matters in which they had absolutely no scientific or personal observation.  Historical commentary by Elkins set forth notions not supported by the facts of African-American history in hundreds of years at thousands of places by millions of people. 

Stanley M. Elkins is as of 2004 the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor Emeritus of history at Smith College. His Slavery : A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), based on his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, was theoretically innovative and enormously influential in the years after its publication, although its arguments are largely rejected today.

Stanley M. Elkins

Elkins made two major, and controversial, arguments in Slavery. The first was that American abolitionists undercut their own effectiveness by their insistence on ideological consistency and purity, and their refusal to compromise with the slave system. Elkins contrasted them with British abolitionists who, he argued, were more pragmatic and therefore more politically effective; he noted that Britain had abolished slavery without war.

Elkins's second argument was that the experience of slavery was psychologically infantilizing to slaves. He based his arguments on recent sociological and psychological research by Bruno Bettelheim and others on inmates of German concentration camps during World War II, showing that the totalitarian environment systematically destroyed their ability to resist, to plan, and to form positive relationships with one another. Elkins speculated that antebellum slavery was a similar environment and instilled an infantilized, dependent personality pattern.

One implication, only partially spelled out in Elkins's account, was that this personality pattern might persist in his own time, a century after the end of slavery. Elkins' views were influential during the late 1960's when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an advisor to United States President Richard M. Nixon, supported Affirmative action programs in order to counteract the lingering effects of slavery on black culture.

Initially Slavery : A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life was heralded by the black community as an important and positive contribution, but subsequently the comparison of black slavery and Nazi concentration camps was considered offensive by many descendants of both oppressed groups. The controversy is discussed by Ann Lane in her 1971 book: The Debate Over Slavery, Stanley Elkins and His Critics. Other historians began challenging Elkins's thesis, particularly John W. Blassingame's The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972).

Elkins is also the author (with the late Eric McKitrick) of the 1993 The Age of Federalism, 1788-1800, which was the winner of the 1994 Bancroft Prize. The book discusses the relationships among key players like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as well as the larger political narrative of the administrations of George Washington and John Adams.

Nancy Lee was one of hundreds of thousands of enlightened and educated African-Americans born after slavery who had an opportunity to listen and learn from family members and others who had been ex-slaves.   Her experiences were not unusual for gifted and talented youth.  Despite the misgivings of many later day self-described superiors living in America and Germany after the two world wars, ... most ex-slaves had excellent recall abilities regarding their own life experiences. 

The audacity of Professor Stanley Elkins was not simply his wrong conclusions about abolitionists and slaves; but, also the absence of knowledge and opinions among African-American scholars every bit his equal and peer on all matters, ... excepting perhaps his own ancestral experiences.  


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