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New Frontiers in American Slave Revolts

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This post has kindly been written for us by Kathryn Olivarius, Past & Present Fellow.

No champion of American slavery had a larger pulpit or did more articulate and forward proslavery ideology than Senator John C. Calhoun, the former Vice-President and darling of South Carolina’s planter class.[1] With his “positive good” thesis, he was the first Southerner of national eminence to say openly in Congress what historian Richard Hofstadter claimed, “almost all the white South had come to feel.”[2] In 1838, Calhoun claimed “a mysterious Providence” had brought African slaves to America. The parallel lives of blacks and whites had “secured the peace and happiness of both… Each had improved; the inferior greatly… [Achieving] a degree of civilization never before attained by the black race in any age or country.” Calhoun continued, “Every plantation is a little community with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative.” These small communities “aggregated make the State in all, whose action, labor, and capital is equally represented and perfectly harmonized.”[3]

Calhoun enslaved hundreds of people during his lifetime. It is highly doubtful that the people he owned—working under threat of physical, sexual, and psychological violence—would have echoed his idea that the plantation was “perfectly harmonized.” Moreover, it was not a “mysterious providence” that brought Africans to the Americans. Rather, it was thousands of human beings, working at all levels of the vast imperial trans-Atlantic slave trade who unwillingly carried 12 million Africans to the Americas, over 300,000 of whom landed on North American shores.[4] And despite Calhoun’s pious pronouncements, the plantation and larger system of American unfreedom was anything but “peaceful.” Generations of black Americans lived and worked their entire lives in bondage, with no chance at freedom, all to increase the capital—social, political, and economic—of whites.

The “peace” was disrupted in other ways, too. During the period of American slavery (1619 to 1865), hundreds of slave revolts took place – moments of black-on-white violence where enslaved blacks armed themselves, marched on cities, killed whites, destroyed property and crops, and demanded that the ideas of the American Revolution, colour-blind in rhetoric, could be so in fact.

Slave resistance has long been a focus of historical attention. Enslaved persons worked slowly, feigned sickness, ran away, poisoned their masters, and broke machinery. Some slaves (especially women) committed suicide and infanticide and induced abortions – desperate to save their kin from a lifetime of brutality.[5]

Slave revolts, however, have garnered the most historiographical attention, perhaps because they were often violent, white people wrote a great deal about them, and they caused widespread social panic. Moreover, they also almost always ended in extreme legal and extra-legal retribution which saw dozens if not hundreds of allegedly-involved slaves executed.

Historians such as Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts (1943) to Eugene Genovese’s From Rebellion to Revolution (1992) to Junius P. Rodriguez’s Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion (2007) have chronicled between 200 and 300 individual slave revolts that took place in mainland North America, firmly situating these events within a larger Caribbean and South American nexus. Other historians have analysed the motivations of slaves who chose to rise up. Echoing the assertion of C. L. R. James that “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy” in Haiti (1791 to 1803), Virgin Islands (1790s), and Afro-Cuban rebellions (1820 to 1847), historian William Suttles described how African religious traditions infused insurrections in the United States.[6]

Certain large slave revolts have been analysed in great detail. Recent books about the 1739 rebellion in Stono, South Carolina (at least 86 people killed in punishment)[7], the 1811 German Coast uprising in Louisiana (over 200 people involved)[8], and Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Southampton, Virginia (55-65 people killed by the insurgents; perhaps 200 blacks killed by mobs in retaliation)[9] have shown that slaves were highly organized and animated by the actions of slaves elsewhere. Certain revolting slaves like Gabriel Prosser of Richmond, Virginia (1800) and Cinqué of the Amistad rebellion (1839) are now American folk heroes. These rebellious men have been described in mythic, even romantic terms for their actions against a brutal white supremacist regime and the inspiration that they offered to others.

Considering that American slavery lasted for almost two-hundred and fifty years, involved millions of people, was legal (at times) in every American colony and state, penetrated every industry in both cities and rural districts, dictated that in some regions (particularly in cotton and sugar growing districts of the Mississippi River Valley and Carolina Low Country) black people outnumbered whites by over 100 to one, geographically spanned tens of thousands of square miles, and was a brutally violent system, some historians have expressed surprise that only between 200 and 300 revolts occurred. As historian Peter Kolchin wrote in 1987, most “revolts and conspiracies…were minor incidents of unrest that were quickly put down with a minimum of local force or were nipped in the bud before they occurred. Other historians have been more impressed with the paucity than with the ubiquity of American slave revolts.” Kolchin concluded that in comparison with their “Russian counterparts,” American slave rebellions were “small-scale affairs.”[10]

Though future generations of historians have revised the number of slave revolts and their impact on American history, certain questions have persisted: Why were there not many more successful revolts in the United States? Why were there not more Nat Turners? Why were most revolts so easily suppressed? Why were they, apparently, so often betrayed by fellow slaves, free blacks, and poor whites?

These questions run the risk of assigning blame to enslaved persons for not resisting oppression “adequately.” They also privilege insurrection over other, perhaps more personally successful, forms of resistance like running away. Moreover, such questions suggest that slave revolts were only “successful” if they permanently abolished slavery, as in the Haitian Revolution.

But this is an extremely high bar. Perhaps we should be asking a different set of questions: What was a slave revolt? How many people needed to be involved? What legal and social structures existed to curtail more slaves from revolting? Must there have been an ideological, abolitionist component for it to have been a slave revolt? Does our conception of slave revolts change if free blacks or whites were involved? Were there places where slaves were more likely to revolt? What conditions (geographic, climatic, demographic) were more likely to spark a revolt? Why were slave revolts often male-dominated events?

Most of all, historians can shed light on this form of resistance by looking beyond the most famous insurrections to the smaller and often more idiosyncratic patchwork of revolts staged in America. Over the last few years, I have assembled a spreadsheet of every slave revolt that I have found reference to in the archives: in letters, insurance claims, state documents, municipal records, court minutes, doctor’s ledgers, slave narratives, and newspapers. The recent expansion of digitized newspaper and primary source databases has made it possible to trace the wider impact of such events within the South and the larger nation.

I have identified well over 350 discrete actions that we could call “slave revolts” – events that involved three or more people, organised with the express purpose of killing whites, achieving personal or group freedom, pillaging, causing physical damage to property, personal enrichment, or ending slavery altogether. Not all revolts meet all of those criteria. My revolt database is ever evolving, especially as it is difficult to determine whether a revolt was real or just imagined. (Historians are faced with the nearly impossible task of triangulating “truth” from a wide range of rumours, biased sources, and dispatches – almost all of them written by whites seeking to justify their fears and violent retaliation.) But in expanding our definition of slave revolts, we can see that enslaved persons—like all persons—were animated by a wide range of personal and ideological motives and were well-aware of events like the Haitian Revolution, even on isolated plantations.

For example, in December of 1837, a “vague report” in various newspapers across the country that over 50 slaves, free people of colour, and whites were involved in a plot in Alexandria, Louisiana.[11] The (nameless) leader was allegedly seeking revenge after being moved from house to field work. Apparently, the plan was to coordinate an attack from various plantations, kill all the white men but spare the women and children, loot and destroy the surrounding plantations, and march on New Orleans – the region’s economic, cultural, social, and political hub. The plot, however, was betrayed by a slave named Lewis, belonging to Mr Compton of Rapides Parish, who was granted his freedom and $1,500. The rebellious slaves were condemned by an extra-judicial “vigilance” committee comprised of 12 of the area’s “most influential citizens.” At least nine slaves were hung and probably 50 were imprisoned.

This instance shows that slaves revolted for a plethora of evolving reasons. Indeed, slaves revolting together could have very different reasons for joining on. This instance 1837 also illustrates the strong limitations historians face in investigating slave revolts. Was this an actual revolt? Or was this just white imagination run amok, in a frenzy of fear? As the vigilance committee almost certainly used torture to exact confessions, can historians use their “evidence” or even consider the confessions reliable? Could the informing slave have made the whole thing up in order to gain his freedom?

Slave revolts were one end of a spectrum of resistance – moments that often remain vague in the historical record and nearly impossible to substantiate. The fact that they happened at all (not that they happened infrequently)—with uprising slaves knowing almost certainly that they would die—shows just how totalizing and brutal American slavery was. But revolts, even imaginary ones, offer a window into the psyche of this region, betraying exactly what whites were most fearful of. Most of all, revolts open a door into the often-elusive slave experience, showing how slaves communicated across plantations, absorbed news of revolts far away, and identified and exploited the vulnerabilities of America’s slave system.

[1] Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made, Two Essays in Interpretation (New York, 1969), 136.

[2] Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition: and the Men Who Made It (New York, 1948), 78; John C. Calhoun, ‘Speech on Slavery,’ U.S. Senate, Congressional Globe, 24th Congress, 24th Congress, 2nd Sess. (February 6, 1837), 157-159.

[3] Calhoun, ‘Speech of January 10, 1838,’ from Eric McKitrick, Slavery Defended: Views of the Old South (Englewood Cliffs, 1963), 19.

[4] Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, slavevoyages.org.

[5] Herbert Aptheker, “American Negro Slave Revolts,” Science & Society, vol. 1, no. 4 (Summer, 1937), 512-38; Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville, Tenn., 1990), 48.

[6] C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York, 1963), 86; William Suttles, “African Religious Survivals as Factors in American Slave Revolts,” Journal of Negro History, vol. 56, No. 2 (April, 1971), 97-104.

[7] Jack Shuler, Calling Out Liberty: The Stono Slave Rebellion and the Universal Struggle for Human Rights (Jackson, Miss., 2009); Peter Charles Hoffer, Cry Liberty: The Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739 (Oxford, 2010).

[8] Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (New York, 2011); Albert Thrasher, On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt (New Orleans, 1995);

[9] Patrick Breen, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (New York, 2015); David Allmendinger, Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County (Baltimore, 2014).

[10] Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 250.

[11] See for example, “From the National Intelligencer,” Vermont Phoenix, 3 November 1837.

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