Slave Revolts

Although there is disagreement among scholars about the actual level of rebelliousness among slaves, most agree that during the slaveholding era there was widespread white fear about slave revolts.

Looking at similar time periods and using remarkably similar definitions of what constitutes a slave conspiracy (more than one conspirator involved, freedom as the motivating factor, and contemporaneous recognition of the conspiracy as a conspiracy), scholars have come up with widely varying numbers of historical instances of revolts throughout U.S. history.

While one historian claims to have found records of “approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies”, another asserts that only nine major insurrections occurred.

However, while people might disagree about how many slave conspiracies actually occurred, almost everyone agrees that the fear of such revolts was almost universal in the United States. This is because slave insurrections had more impact on U.S. culture as an idea—“If slaves in Charleston can burn down homes and kill their masters, what is to stop them from doing it here in Savannah?”—than as actual events.

Although tragedies for all involved personally—both white and black—slave conspiracies in the United States were fairly limited in the scope of their activities. All of them were quickly contained by the better-armed, better-equipped white slavocracy. Like all conspiracies, then, U.S. slave revolts had greater potential energy than kinetic energy.

The number of people affected by the paranoia of slave conspiracy was far greater than those ever personally affected by the actual violence of those conspiracies. This anxiety permeating the United States before 1865 certainly makes slave conspiracies one of the most significant cultural phenomena of pre–Civil War America.

Looking at the entire history of slave revolts in the United States, it is easy to generalize some conditions that proved fecund ground for the development of slave conspiracies. These certainly aren’t the only historical circumstances responsible for the development of insurrections. They each, however, contributed significantly to the development of an atmosphere that allowed many slaves to dream of freedom through conspiratorial means.

The first condition involves the number of black citizens in the community that were not slaves. For slave owners, free blacks and maroons—runaway slaves who lived in nearby swamps, mountains, or other inaccessible areas—were the greatest dangers for fostering slave unrest.

The presence of free blacks in the community gave slaves a reason to continue to hope and strive toward freedom. They also often served as a resource for conspiracies in terms of weapons, money, or sanctuary. Escaped slaves often created maroon communities where runaway slaves could find a home.

Often these communities could exist for years hidden in hard-to-reach areas. Such havens were beacons of hope for would-be slave conspirators, serving not only as potential sanctuary but also as additional fighting forces when the time for insurrection came.

Another condition that the slavocracy feared was a disproportionate growth in the black population compared to the white population. As the South began to produce crops—cotton, sugar, and tobacco—that made slavery more profitable, more slaves meant more profit. However, this led to a larger growth in the black population compared to the whites of many southern communities.

The anxiety on the part of white Southerners living in counties where they were outnumbered by their black slaves cannot be overestimated. Such superiority of numbers also gave many slave conspirators hope that they might succeed where so many had failed.

A third condition that greatly increased the potential for slave conspiracies was economic downturns. When the economy worsened, the slave owners had to tighten their collective belts, and one of the first places that they would cut their expenses was the money they spent on and for their slaves.

Consequently, people who never had much at the best of times had even less food and clothing and had to work harder. This periodic worsening of conditions often turned slaves into conspirators looking for an escape.

Another cultural condition that encouraged slave insurrections was the circulation of a revolutionary rhetoric in the public sphere. While often unrelated specifically to the situation of U.S. slaves, such discourse served as a spark to start many conspirators thinking of freedom.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw an explosion of revolutionary thought completely reevaluating the fundamental rights of all people, resulting most famously in the American and French Revolutions. This new discourse of freedom and equality obviously spoke eloquently to slaves in bondage. As the American community as a whole pulsed with such talk, slaves expected to see their own situations improve.

Hadn’t Jefferson said, “All men are created equal”? Such discourse was followed by successful slave revolts in the Caribbean and Latin America, most spectacularly in Haiti. This news of successful slave conspiracies in addition to the general discourse of revolution certainly gave inspiration to many unsuccessful conspirators in the United States.

Last, slave revolts relied upon sympathetic whites as a resource. These whites were in a position to provide much to nascent conspiracies, including weapons and the hope that some of the white community would support the freedom of the conspiring slaves.

While there is a danger of oversimplification to generalize about the motivations of these white supporters of slave revolts, some interesting similarities do suggest themselves. Most of them were poor southerners who apparently saw slavery as an act of class warfare as much as an act of racism.

George Boxley, a Virginian, is a good example of this phenomenon. In 1816, he helped foster a slave revolt and actively took part in the violence. According to an official at the time, Boxley had openly declared that “the distinction between the rich and the poor was too great” and this was his motivation for the insurrection.

George Boxley and other white conspirators in slave revolts suggest a very interesting reading of slavery as a battle between the rich and the poor instead of the whites and the blacks, a reading that seems to have largely fallen out of post–Civil War discourse about slavery.

Faced with these numerous slave insurrections, how did the white slavocracy respond to these threats? It deployed many tools to help maintain the status quo, some of them more obvious and violent than others. The first weapon deployed by slave owners at any sign of conspiracy was a show of force.

The most obvious and most direct form of white control over slaves was physical. Chains prevented movement of suspected slave conspirators and nooses, whips, and other devices wrote the white power directly on the bodies of slaves for all would-be conspirators to read.

There was no doubt what would happen to failed slave revolutionaries. Another form of that force was state-sponsored: the military. Every patrol, every fort, every militia showed slaves that their owners were not the only ones concerned with maintaining the status quo of slavery. The state itself in the form of military bodies patrolled to control possible slave rebellions.

Another way in which the state showed its participation in maintaining slavery was its passage of innumerable laws that regulated every conceivable activity in which slaves might participate. With every major slave conspiracy that was discovered, more laws would be passed, attempting even stricter control of the lives of slaves.

Almost as soon as the military was dispatched the legislature of the state facing the conspiracy would go to work, crafting laws to further control the movements of free blacks, limiting the importation of slaves, increasing the penalties for rebellion, and further curtailing the movements of slaves off of their master’s property. In this way, the state attempted to contain slave conspiracy through sword and pen.

A third method of attempting to derail slave revolts was by creating dissension within the black community itself. In order to create divisions among the slaves, slave owners created different classes within slave society. They did this by treating male slaves differently from female slaves; by treating house slaves differently from field hands.

By making some slaves the personal servants of their masters, often from an early age, they could create a more intimate bond between the servant and master. This proved very successful since the personal servants of whites often proved the downfall of slave conspiracies by informing on nascent insurrections.

A fourth approach the slavocracy took to control slave insurrections was to attempt to control the ratio of blacks to whites in any given community. White slave owners considered a disproportionate growth in the black versus the white population as one of the greatest dangers to inspire would-be conspirators, and so they attempted to limit that ratio to ensure that blacks never became too big a percentage of the overall population.

One way they attempted this was by promoting recolonization plans for free blacks. While returning blacks to Africa might seem to be a movement inspired by abolitionists, it actually was embraced by southern slave owners who saw it as a way to remove free blacks from their communities and thereby remove potential conspirators from their midst.

Various states—even southern ones—also enacted laws to limit the importation of slaves, thus hoping to limit the numbers of the black population. The slavocracy also promoted all plans for the national annexation of land such as Florida or Louisiana.

The South was a huge supporter of the Mexican War, for example, because it hoped to dilute the high concentration of potential conspirators in its midst. By shipping off enough slaves to any newly acquired areas, slave owners hoped to water down the black population proportionate to the white population and thus discourage insurrection.

Last, the slavocracy hoped to control future slave conspiracies by limiting the public discussion of any past conspiracies. Fearing copycat conspiracies, southern states radically limited publication of stories of slave revolts. Because of this official censorship, it is extremely difficult for current-day scholars to know how many conspiracies actually existed and how many insurrections occurred.

Although public discussion of these events was officially discouraged—except after the violence of Nat Turner’s Rebellion—many accounts of these slave conspiracies are found in private venues—letters and diaries, for example.

Why did slave revolts have some dramatic successes in other parts of the Americas—Latin America and the Caribbean—while slave conspirators in the United States never succeeded? There are at least four reasons that allowed Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian insurrection to succeed while Nat Turner’s Virginia rebellion failed.

First, there were greater numbers of potential conspirators in Latin America and the Caribbean compared to slave owners than in the United States. The ratio of black to white was as high as 7 to 1 in the British West Indies, 11 to 1 in Haiti, and 20 to 1 in Surinam.

This huge disparity in numbers was a weapon that slaves in the United States never had. While disparate numbers in population growth was a danger sign for slave owners in the South, they never had to worry about such odds.

Second, nineteenth-century Latin America didn’t have the infrastructure for transportation and communication that the United States did. On top of this, most Latin American plantations had even closer proximity to dense jungles, impenetrable swamps, and unassailable mountains for runaway slaves to hide in.

Thus their problems with maroon communities and isolation made their situation much more dangerous than that of the slavocracy of the United States. Third, unlike the United States, both regions had a chronic shortage of a military presence. This made it nearly impossible to impress the slaves with the power and ubiquity of a state-supported slavocracy in Latin America.

Consequently, would-be conspirators there were more emboldened by this lack of a show of force. Last, since a slave conspiracy never succeeded in the United States, potential conspirators always had to face a history of futility when planning their rebellions. This might well have stopped many potential conspirators from joining the ranks of rebels.

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