Stanley Elkins

This article is about the American historian. For the American novelist, see Stanley Elkin. For the Canadian politician, see Stanley Edward Elkin.
Stanley M. Elkins

Stanley M. Elkins (April 27, 1925 in Boston, Massachusetts - September 16, 2013 in Leeds, Massachusetts)[1] was an American historian, best known for his controversial comparison of slavery in the United States to Nazi concentration camps, and for his collaborations (in a book and numerous articles) with Eric McKitrick regarding the early American Republic. He obtained his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and taught at the University of Chicago, spending most of his career as a professor of history at Smith College.


Elkins was born in Boston to Frank and Frances Elkins (née Reiner). He attended Boston English High School and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943, serving in the 36nd Infantry Regiment, fighting in Italy during World War II. After the war, he married Dorothy Adele Lamken and attended Harvard University on the GI Bill (A.B. 1949), followed by Columbia University for graduate school in American history (M.A. 1951, Ph.D. 1958), where he studied under Richard Hofstadter.[2] He and fellow graduate student Eric McKitrick received a joint appointment as assistant professors of history at the University of Chicago, where they taught from 1955 to 1960. In 1960 he joined the faculty at Smith College, where he was appointed the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor Emeritus of History from 1969 until his death in 2013.[3]


Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), based on Elkins' doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, was theoretically innovative and enormously influential in the years after its publication, although its arguments are largely superseded today.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.[4]

The Age of Federalism

The Age of Federalism: The Early Republic, 1788-1800, co-authored by Elkins and Eric McKitrick, was described as a "dazzling book," featuring an "elegant and penetrating pen portrait of Hamilton."[5]The Age of Federalism won the Bancroft Prize. The book explores the history of the Federalist party, discusses the relationships among key players, among them Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, and analyzes the administrations of George Washington and John Adams.


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).

Awards and fellowships

1995 Order of Cincinnatus Prize 1994 Bancroft Prize 1980 Visiting Fellow, St. Catherine's College, Oxford 1970-71 Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton 1970-71 Guggenheim Fellow 1967-68 National Endowment for the Humanities Grant 1963-64 American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship 1959-60 Rockefeller Foundation Grant 1954-55 Rockefeller Foundation Fellow

Published works





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