Why weren't there more slave revolts and rebellions in the South?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think that one of the potential reasons why there were not more slave revolts and rebellions in the South is evident in the measures that slaveowners took in controlling their slaves.  Simply put, the institution of slavery was the epitome of repression and control.  As late as 1850, controlling the slave population through brutality and repression was critical to the institution's sustenance.  Publications during the time period detailed ways in which this could be accomplished and advocated  a "code of conduct" for slaveowners:

  1. Maintain strict discipline and unconditional submission.
  2. Create a sense of personal inferiority, so that slaves "know their place."
  3. Instill fear.
  4. Teach servants to take interest in their master's enterprise.
  5. Deprive access to education and recreation, to ensure that slaves remain uneducated, helpless and dependent.

Through its insistence on control and repression, the culture of the time period ensured that slaves could not wage wide rebellion in the South.  This was enhanced through the repeated and intense passage of slave codes, ensuring that legal practice matched cultural acceptance of brutality and control.

In his writings, Frederick Douglass, a former slave himself, confirmed that the slave owner's control was a critical reason as to why rebellions and revolts were not common in the South.  His analysis suggests that religion played a major role in this element of control.  Douglass argues that the institution of the church, in particular a "false" notion of Christianity, helped to ensure that rebellions were not common in the South:

Slaveholders hide themselves behind the church. A more praying, preaching, psalm-singing people cannot be found than the slaveholders [in] the south. The religion of the South is referred to everyday to prove that slaveholders are good, pious men. But with all their pretensions, and all the aid that they get from the Northern church, they cannot succeed in deceiving the Christian portion of the world.

Through his writing, Douglass suggests that the use of religion was critical in demanding that control was evident, denying the chance for slaves to ever exert any power over their own being.  Douglass frames this paradigm as one in which slaveowners were convinced that the greater their brutality and control over slaves translated into "pleasing" a "false" understanding of Christianity.

Slaveowners were also able to prevent any widespread notion of change and rebellion because of providing a routine that made life so dreary that revolt was almost inconceivable.  Providing a demanding state of being where control was evident in each aspect of a slave's life ensured that rising up en masse would be very, very difficult, as indicated in the writings of Olmstead in 1853:

A cast mass of the slaves pass their lives, from the moment they are able to go afield in the picking season till they drop worn out in the grave, in incessant labor, in all sorts of weather, at all seasons of the year, without any other change or relaxation than is furnished by sickness, without the smallest hope of any improvement either in their condition, in their food, or in their clothing, which are of the plainest and coarsest kind, and indebted solely to the forbearance or good temper of the overseer for exception from terrible physical suffering.

The passing of "their lives" as one interminable channel of control helped to ensure that there could be no literal opportunity for rebellion and revolt.  In the design of such a world, slaves could not imagine the possibility of change because survival was so very difficult.

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rachellopez's profile pic

rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted on

The South relied on slavery for their economy to thrive, and I think that is one of the main reasons that rebellions were kept under control. Slave owners wouldn't want their slaves to go against them, so they would watch very closely to ensure they didn't plan anything. Jim Crow laws were created along with other strict rules, discipline, and fear. Slave owners made their slaves fear them and they didn't allow the slaves to become educated, afraid that they might find hope and escape.    

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