Slave rebellion painting by Edouard Antoine Renard
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From the earliest days of the peculiar institution, resistance was a constant feature of American slavery. It took many forms, from individual acts of sabotage, poor work, feigning illness, or committing crimes like arson and poisoning to escaping the system altogether by running away to the North. There were also “marroons”–groups of fugitive slaves who formed independent communities in inaccessible areas like Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp and the Florida Everglades.

But the most dramatic instances were outright slave rebellions. Because American plantations were far smaller than those in other parts of the Western Hemisphere and because in the United States, unlike other areas, whites outnumbered slaves, slave rebellions were smaller and less frequent than in Brazil and the West Indies. (The most massive rebellion outside the United States was the slave insurrection of the 1790s that overthrew slavery and French rule in Saint Domingue and established the nation of Haiti.) Nevertheless, one scholar, Herbert Aptheker, has counted over two hundred plots, conspiracies, and actual uprisings between the early seventeenth century and the Civil War.

The colonial era witnessed two significant slave rebellions. In 1712, some twenty-five slaves armed themselves with guns and clubs and set fire to houses on the northern edge of New York City. They killed the first nine whites who arrived on the scene and then were killed or captured by soldiers. In the aftermath, eighteen participants were executed in the most brutal manner (individuals were burned alive, broken on the wheel, and subjected to other tortures). The event set a pattern for subsequent uprisings–the violence of the retribution far exceeded the mayhem committed by the rebelling slaves.

A second uprising, Cato’s Conspiracy, originated in Stono, South Carolina, in 1739. England at this time was at war with Spain, and a group of about eighty slaves took up arms and attempted to march to Spanish Florida, where they expected to find refuge. A battle ensued when they were overtaken by armed whites. Some forty-four blacks and twenty-one whites were killed.

Two years later, fear of a slave conspiracy swept New York City. After a rash of suspicious fires, a white female servant claimed to have knowledge of a slave conspiracy; those she named implicated others to avoid execution. In the end, thirty-one slaves and four whites were hanged. To this day, no one is certain whether a conspiracy actually existed or whether a cycle of fears, unfounded accusations, and coerced confessions had resulted in the death of innocent men and women.

In addition to a Louisiana uprising in 1811 about which very little is known, three major slave plots took place in the nineteenth century. The first was Gabriel’s Rebellion, organized in 1800 by a Richmond blacksmith, Gabriel Prosser, and his brother Martin, a slave preacher. Gabriel Prosser was, in a sense, a typical Virginian of Jefferson’s day–he couched his opposition to slavery in the language of the rights of man and the Declaration of Independence. Martin Prosser organized slaves at funerals and secret religious meetings, employing the biblical story of the Israelites escaping Egyptian bondage to justify rebellion. The rebels planned to march on Richmond from surrounding plantations, seize the city arsenal, and kill all the white residents except Quakers and Methodists (many of whom were opposed to slavery) and the French (the United States was engaged in an undeclared war with France). No one knows how many slaves the plot involved, for on the night the rebels were to gather, a storm washed out the roads to Richmond and caused those who had gathered at the meeting place to scatter.

Like Gabriel’s Rebellion, Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy drew inspiration from both democratic and Christian beliefs. Vesey was a resident of Charleston, a slave carpenter who had acquired the money to purchase his freedom in 1800 by winning a lottery. A leading figure in the city’s black church life, he “studied the Bible a great deal,” a follower later remarked, “and tried to prove from it that slavery and bondage is against the Bible.” But he also knew of the rebellion in Haiti and followed closely debates in Congress over the expansion of slavery into Missouri. In 1821 and 1822, along with a group of Charleston house servants and artisans, he recruited rural slaves for an armed attack on the city. But the plot was betrayed, and Vesey and other leaders were tried and executed.

The most celebrated slave rebellion in American history, organized by Nat Turner, took place in Southampton County, Virginia, an area of small farms rather than large plantations. Born in 1800, Turner was a slave preacher and something of a mystic. In the 1820s, he began to see visions in the sky: black and white angels fighting, the heavens running red with blood. He became convinced that he had been chosen by God to lead his people to freedom.

In August 1831 Turner and five followers met and, without a plan or a clear objective, launched their rebellion. For twelve hours, they moved from farm to farm, killing every white person they encountered (nearly all women and children, for most of the area’s adult males had gone off to a nearby religious revival). By the time the militia suppressed the uprising, nearly eighty slaves had joined the rebellion, and sixty whites lay dead. A wave of terror swept over the area. Scores of innocent blacks were murdered by bands of vigilantes. Turner himself escaped, remained at large for several weeks, and was finally captured and executed. In the aftermath of the rebellion, Virginia’s legislature debated proposals for the gradual abolition of slavery as a threat to public order. But in the end, it chose to tighten the slave codes, further limiting blacks’ freedom of movement and making it illegal for black preachers to conduct services without a white being present.

Slavery in the United States was so carefully policed that rebellion became a near-impossibility. It is instructive that the three major plots occurred outside the plantation belt–in two cities and a small farming area. Here, controls on slaves were often lax, and the conspirators could move about relatively freely. The leaders of the three plots were, compared to ordinary slaves, skilled, privileged individuals–a blacksmith (Prosser), a free black (Vesey), and a preacher (Turner). Such men had greater opportunities to learn to read and write and greater knowledge of the outside world than plantation field hands. In all three uprisings, religion played a significant role, reflecting its status as a pillar of the slave community and a source of antislavery values among the blacks. When asked whether he regretted what he had done, Turner replied, “Was not Christ crucified?”

If slave rebellions were not nearly so common as individual, day-to-day acts of resistance to slavery, they did keep alive the hope of freedom and expressed in the most dramatic form the discontent that lay just beneath the apparently placid surface of southern slavery.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.