Chapter 2 Preface
One of the most significant slave rebellions for the United States took place outside its borders. In 1791, in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue (now the nation of Haiti), tens of thousands of slaves, runaways, and free blacks began slaughtering whites in the northern settlements of Saint Domingue and burning the homes and property of slaveholders. The rebellion was the culmination of years of violent confrontations between black slaves and white slaveholders in the French colony, and it was also inspired in part by the French Revolution of 1789. The rebellion ended when it reached the port town of Cap Français, where whites were well armed and prepared to defend themselves. An estimated ten thousand blacks and two thousand whites were killed, and over one thousand plantations were sacked and razed. The rebellion at Cap Français, though unsuccessful, set in motion the events that led to the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue in 1794 and eventually the Haitian revolution of 1803, from which Haiti emerged as the world’s first free black republic.
The Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 inspired blacks and scared whites in the United States, especially in the South, where in some areas slaves outnumbered whites by a ratio of ten to one. However, the United States never experienced a slave rebellion nearly as large as Saint Domingue’s. The largest slave rebellion within the United States came in 1831, when slave and lay preacher Nat Turner...
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Resistance to Slavery Is Justified
Afflicted and Beloved Brothers:
The meeting which sends you this letter, is a meeting of runaway slaves. We thought it well, that they, who had once suffered, as you still suffer, that they, who had once drunk of that bitterest of all bitter cups, which you are still compelled to drink of, should come together for the purpose of making a communication to you.
The chief object of this meeting is, to tell you what circumstances we find ourselves in—that, so you may be able to judge for yourselves, whether the prize we have obtained is worth the peril of the attempt to obtain it.
The heartless pirates, who compelled us to call them “master,” sought to persuade us, as such pirates seek to persuade you, that the condition of those, who escape from their clutches, is thereby made worse, instead of better. We confess, that we had our fears, that this might be so. Indeed, so great was our ignorance, that we could not be sure that the abolitionists were not the friends, which our masters represented them to be. When they told us, that the abolitionists, could they lay hands upon us would buy and sell us, we could not certainly know, that they spoke falsely; and when they told us, that abolitionists are in the habit of skinning the black man for leather, and of regaling their cannibalism on his flesh, even such enormities seemed to us to be possible. But owing to the happy change in our circumstances, we are not as ignorant and...
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Resistance to Slavery Is Not Justified
When I am writing to you with a design to say something to you for your good, and with a view to promote your happiness, I can with truth and sincerity join with the apostle Paul, when speaking of his own nation the Jews, and say: “That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Yes my dear brethren, when I think of you, which is very often, and of the poor, despised and miserable state you are in, as to the things of this world, and when I think of your ignorance and stupidity, and the great wickedness of the most of you, I am pained to the heart. It is at times, almost too much for human nature to bear, and I am obliged to turn my thoughts from the subject or endeavour to still my mind, by considering that it is permitted thus to be, by that God who governs all things, who setteth up one and pulleth down another. While I have been thinking on this subject, I have frequently had great struggles in my own mind, and have been at a loss to know what to do. I have wanted exceedingly to say something to you, to call upon you with the tenderness of a father and friend, and to give you the last, and I may say dying advice, of an old man, who wishes your best good in this world, and in the world to come. But while I have had such desires, a sense of my own ignorance, and unfitness to teach others, has frequently discouraged me from attempting to say any thing to you; yet when I thought of your...
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The Underground Railroad Aided Many Runaway Slaves
During the 1830–1860 era, fugitive slaves accumulated a literature and lore of their own. Some were famous as cases, rather than individuals. The Prigg Case (1842) referred to the attorney for a slave owner, not to Margaret Morgan, a runaway slave who had fled from Maryland to Pennsylvania, and whose forcible return to slavery tested a Pennsylvania law making it illegal to carry a Negro out of the state for purposes of enslavement. The Latimer Case of the same year did refer to a runaway slave, George Latimer, seized in Boston for return to Norfolk, Virginia. The case caused severe excitement in Boston, and publication of a daily paper, The Latimer Journal and North Star. With Latimer in prison and abolitionists considering desperate actions for freeing him, the owner agreed to payment of four hundred dollars in exchange for dropping his suit.
The Fugitive Slave Law
The Constitution had provided for the return of fugitive slaves. It had not been specific in describing individual cases and conditions affected, and a national law covering such particulars had been demanded. Such was provided in 1793. This first Fugitive Slave Law was partial to the master; for example, it did not stipulate a trial by jury for alleged runaways. On the other hand, although the law supported the master’s right to retrieve a fugitive slave, it placed no significant duties on other citizens to help him in his quest. Over the years this fact...
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The Underground Railroad Was Largely a Myth
Of all the legends growing out of the Civil War era and the slavery struggle preceding it, none has taken deeper root in popular thought than that of the underground railroad. Although details are usually indistinct, the term still suggests a widespread, highly secret conspiracy to transport slaves from southern bondage to northern freedom. The railroad operated a very busy line, despite the constant dangers its employees faced. And the abolitionist operators usually outwitted the road’s would-be sabateurs with such tricks as secret rooms and passageways, instant disguises, and many other devices based on ingenuity and daring. It was an abolitionist institution and most of its willing passengers would have been helpless without the road’s many services.
Exaggeration and Distortion
The underground railroad of legend, like most legendary institutions, is a blend of fiction and fact. Most of the historical source material which provided the basis for the traditional view of the institution was not recorded until long after the events took place, much of it in the post–Civil War era when abolitionists and their descendants wrote their reminiscences or handed down the anecdotes of exciting times by word of mouth. With one major exception, the books published after the Civil War containing firsthand underground railroad accounts view the events from the standpoint of the white abolitionists. As all historical sources reflect the bias of their...
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Black Resistance to American Slavery Was Widespread
Many thousands of slaves chose to fight the system that bound them by running away, so many, in fact, that a regular feature of practically every issue of every Southern newspaper was the listing of runaway slave advertisements. However, only a small fraction of those who made the attempt were able to reach an area where they could be free. Although estimates of the number of fugitive slaves range as high as sixty thousand to one hundred thousand, the most recently published student of the problem, Larry Gara, who wisely does not commit himself to a specific estimate, believes the figure was substantially lower. One thing is certain, however: in the face of overwhelming odds, black men and women, sometimes with their children, persistently tried to escape.
Runaways Were Common
How to keep “De Old Folks at Home” was perhaps the most time consuming and expensive of all the slaveholder’s difficulties in managing his estate. Reluctant to acknowledge any imperfections in the system of slavery or in their own administration of it, many masters (sometimes with justification) blamed outsiders—abolitionists and free Negroes—for putting the idea of freedom in the minds of the slaves. Samuel Cartwright, a doctor of medicine at the University of Louisiana, came up with another diagnosis: runaways, he wrote quite seriously, suffered from “Draptomania, or the Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away.”
Those who attempted escape were...
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Open Rebellion Against American Slavery Was Relatively Limited
The one overriding fact about slave rebellion in the Old South was the almost complete absence of large-scale armed insurrection such as occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean and lay like a horrible specter in the back of the minds of countless southern planters. Explaining nonoccurrences is always difficult, and this case is no exception. But even a partial explanation does shed light on two important components of any historical analysis, the comparative and the temporal. The situation in the South after about 1800 was significantly different from that elsewhere in the Americas. Moreover, one must remember the wide variety of rebellious acts that stopped short of insurrection, rebellious acts as diverse and individualized as the planter-slave confrontations themselves. Yet during the heyday of the Old South, in the final decades before the Civil War when cotton was king and the slave population was at its highest, the broad surface of the plantation society was remarkably smooth and stable despite the many small eddies of unrest and the strong, deep current of slaves’ cultural and psychological rejection of enslavement. That apparent calm, experienced even by those acute observers who suspected the swirling torrents underneath, has helped perpetuate many myths about the Old South and its two peoples, black and white.
Geography and Population Density
Many factors mitigated against successful armed insurrection by slaves in the Old...
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