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Stanley M.
Stanley M. Elkins is the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor Emeritus of history at Smith Collegemarker.

Slavery (1959)

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.

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, making them follow what he controversially called the "Sambo" model. He based his arguments on then-recent sociological and psychological research by Bruno Bettelheim and others on inmates of Nazi 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 1960s when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, supported Affirmative action programs in order to counteract the lingering effects of slavery on black culture.

Thirdly Elkins argued that slavery in North America was strikingly different than in Latin America, a theme originated by historian Frank Tannenbaum regarding Brazil. That is, the Sambo model did not appear in Brazil.


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 compilation: 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 and McKitrick

Elkins was a student of Richard Hofstadter at Columbia, along with his close friend the late Eric McKitrick. They collaborated on numerous influential articles, including two that were included in Slavery. They coauthored the major 1993 book The Age of Federalism, 1788–1800, which was the winner of the Bancroft Prize. The book provides a history of the Federalist party, discusses the relationships among key players like Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, and provides a full analysis of the administrations of George Washington and John Adams.

Works about Elkins

  • Ann Lane, ed. The Debate Over "Slavery": Stanley Elkins and His Critics (1971), 378pp; essays by 13 scholars

  • Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Stanley Elkins' Slavery: The Antislavery Interpretation Reexamined," American Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1973), pp. 154–176 in JSTOR

  • Peter Kolchin, "Reevaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective," The Journal of American History, Vol. 70, No. 3 (December 1983)

  • Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Stanley Elkins and Northern Reform Culture," Yankee Saints and Southern Sinners (1986, 1990)

  • E. Miller Budick, "Plantations and Pogroms, Slavery and the Holocaust: Disentangling Black and Jewish History (Stanley Elkins, Ralph Waldo Ellison, and Hannah Arendt" in Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation (1998), 252pp.

  • Kirsten Fermaglich, " 'One of the Lucky Ones': Stanley Elkins and the Concentration Camp Analogy in Slavery " in American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965 (2007), 252pp.

Works by Elkins


  • Cecelia M. Kenyon, Men of Little Faith: Selected Writings of Cecelia Kenyon, edited by Stanley M. Elkins and Eric L. McKitrick (2003)

  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (1993) Publisher's Summary

  • Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959, 1963, 1976)


  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. "A Meaning for Turner's Frontier: Part I: Democracy in the Old Northwest," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Sep., 1954), pp. 321–353 in JSTOR

  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "A Meaning for Turner's Frontier: Part II: The Southwest Frontier and New England," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Dec., 1954), pp. 565–602 in JSTOR

  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "Institutions and the Law of Slavery: The Dynamics of Unopposed Capitalism," American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring, 1957), pp. 3–21 in JSTOR

  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "Institutions and the Law of Slavery: Slavery in Capitalist and Non-Capitalist Cultures," American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1957), pp. 159–179 in JSTOR

  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "The Founding Fathers: Young Men of the Revolution," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Jun., 1961), pp. 181–216 in JSTOR


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