Slavery has long held a curious fascination for Americans North and South, black and white. In the antebellum period politicians fought a war of words over the question of slavery's expansion into the territories. For black Americans, however, the peculiar institution was never an abstraction; they knew instead a system of abuse, exploitation, and oppression. Although the Civil War settled permanently the question of legalized bondage in the United States, the fighting failed to heal the painful wounds caused by two centuries of institutionalized degradation. Slavery left in its wake a bitter legacy of race hate and distrust. Today Afro-Americans still reside under what W.E.B. DuBois termed a "veil of racism." Twentieth century racial proscription and discrimination are lingering reminders that slavery was a blot on American civilization, a glaring contradiction to the nation's professed values and democratic traditions.
Although slavery's complex role in American life intrigued students before the Civil War, it took on new significance after Appomattox. Immediately following the war numerous writers began to evaluate slavery anew—now within the context of race relations during Reconstruction. With the fervor of the old antislavery crusade, neoabolitionists continued to attack the South's peculiar institution. In response to these critics a new school of proslavery writers emerged. While they did not favor the reestablishment of slavery, these writers pointed nevertheless to the alleged benefits that blacks received as bondsmen. Without the guardianship offered by slavery, they insisted, postwar blacks were regressing physically, morally, and spiritually. This plantation legend of benevolent masters and happy slaves held broad appeal for whites. It reinforced their prevailing belief in black inferiority. It helped them rationalize a new system of racial control, the Jim Crow laws. And it bolstered well the forces of nationalism and imperialism then at work in the country. Despite the condemnation of slavery by numerous black writers, the new proslavery argument had clearly triumphed by the turn of the century.
The nature of the slavery debate changed in the early twentieth century. While white writers, generally insensitive to the plight of the bondsmen, still led the discussion, the flood of writings on slavery that appeared between 1900 and 1920 were more institutional in focus and less polemical in tone than heretofore. Scholarship in these years traced the origins of slavery, uncovered its evolution as a legal system, and examined the institution on the state and local levels. The economics of slavery, especially the profitability question, also received much attention from writers.