Young Slave During Civil War

Slavery: The Brutal and the Routine

America's "peculiar institution" lasted for centuries. Its legacy still haunts us.

For almost 250 years, from the arrival of the first African slaves in 17th-century Virginia until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, countless human beings in the United States lived out their lives as property. Much of America's early, prodigious wealth was produced by men, women, and children who toiled, and died, in bondage. Rape, lynchings, and the casual destruction of entire families were among slavery's defining realities. Recently, Kanye West waded inexpertly into the fraught conversation around the legacy of that bondage, indicating that slavery was, in effect, "a choice." Of course, the notion that they had a choice in whether to endure inhuman treatment would likely have astonished the millions of slaves who, for generations, lived under constant threat of the whip.

Punishment Time Life Pictures/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Punishment A former slave reveals scars on his back from a whipping he received after he escaped in an attempt to join the Union army during the Civil War. While historians of every stripe have posited theories about the true and only spark that ignited that terrible war, it's indisputable that slavery played a role in, and was often at the core of, every debate and negotiation between the North and South leading up to April 1861. The 'Peculiar Institution' Bettmann/Bettmann Archive The 'Peculiar Institution' A slave family picks cotton in the fields near Savannah, Georgia, in the mid-19th century. In March 1861, Vice President Alexander Stephens of the Confederate States of America delivered his famous "Cornerstone Speech," in which he stated categorically that not only was slavery a signature element of the American South, but its defense was "the immediate cause" of the Civil War itself: "The new [Confederate] Constitution," Stephens declared, "has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization." An Empire Built on Bent Backs Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images An Empire Built on Bent Backs Two posters advertising the services of slave traders. Both claim they will pay the highest amounts for slaves, and list the locations of the offices of these "dealers in Negroes." Today, proponents of the idea that the United States should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves bolster their argument by citing precedents — e.g., reparations paid to Japanese-Americans interned during WWII — as well as centuries-old economic data showing that slaves, in effect, made America great. As one historian has phrased it: "The slave trade and the products created by slaves' labor, particularly cotton, provided the basis for America's wealth as a nation, underwriting the country's industrial revolution and enabling it to project its power into the rest of the world." Bill of Sale Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images Bill of Sale A handwritten document acting as a bill of sale for two slaves, a boy and girl, purchased for $850 from one Zedekiah Pepper by one James Campell in August 1856. Shackled MPI/Getty Images Shackled A slave in Louisiana, c. 1850. Slavery in Louisiana was an outlier, of sorts, in the Deep South, in part because for hundreds of years before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, slavery in and around what would become the state of Louisiana was controlled by the Spanish and then by the French. Louisiana did not become a state until 1812, several years after the United States banned the importation of slaves. Thus, Louisiana became a major market for "domestic" slaves being bought and sold by owners throughout the American slave states, with the Mississippi serving as the endlessly flowing conduit for the trade. Legacy Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL via Getty Images Legacy A mid-19th century slave whip. The day-to-day reality of slavery in the U.S. included outright violence and the more pernicious, casual degradation visited upon people viewed as chattel. For the slave, literacy was often a crime. Unskilled, unremitting, and remunerated labor was the foundation of the "peculiar institution." The apparatus of the state was designed to keep millions of people in literal and figurative chains. It's no wonder, really, that more than a century and a half after the last shot was fired in the Civil War, the debate around how slavery has shaped American history is still with us.