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Although some slaves did revolt, it is clearly true that the vast majority of slaves did not participate in any violent rebellions. Why was this? Different slaves would surely have had different reasons for not rebelling. Let us look at a few of the more common reasons for not revolting.
Some slaves would not have revolted because they would have been relatively happy with their lives. This does not mean that slaves enjoyed slavery or that slavery was not a brutal system. However, there were clearly some slaveowners who were not brutal and there would have been some slaves who were less inclined by temperament to be rebellious. There were also some slaves who were given positions of importance and would not have been inclined to rebel for that reason. So, without claiming that slaves liked slavery, we can say that some slaves would not have hated slavery enough to revolt. This could have been because of their individual personalities, because of their positions on their plantations, or because of the fact that they had relatively “good” owners.
Some slaves would not have revolted because they could find other ways in which to resist slavery. Some slaves escaped or tried to escape. Historians tell us that the majority of slaves rebelled in other ways. They refused to work quickly or well. They intentionally broke tools or damaged crops. They pretended to be sick. They abused the slave owners’ livestock. They did all of these things as ways to push back against the evil system in which they found themselves trapped. Because they had ways other than revolting to push back against slavery, they did not revolt.
Finally, many slaves surely did not revolt because they knew that a revolt could never work and would lead to certain death for them and, most likely, for their loved ones. First of all, it would have been exceedingly hard for slaves to get their hands on many firearms. Therefore, as with Nat Turner’s rebellion, they would have had to use things like knives for their weapons. If they used these things as weapons, they would be able to kill some whites, but they would surely be defeated as soon as any sort of militia with firearms was organized. Even if they won a few victories, there was no way that the United States government was going to allow them to go free or to set up their own country. Therefore, they really had no hope of winning.
Second, once they were defeated, they were almost sure to be killed, along with many other people. For example, we are told that about 70 blacks participated in Nat Turner’s rebellion. In retaliation, it is said that 200 blacks were killed by whites. The fact that a rebellion would surely be defeated and would lead to almost certain death would be enough to prevent almost all slaves from revolting.
Most people do not want to simply throw their lives away without any hope that their side will win in a war. Slaves would have realized that participating in a revolt would be the same as throwing their lives away with no hope of victory. Therefore, slaves chose to rebel in other ways. They tried to escape or they simply engaged in a variety of forms of more passive resistance. These actions could allow them to fight back against slavery in ways that would not get them killed.
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