Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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How did slaves demonstrate their opposition to slavery?

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The most obvious way of showing opposition to slavery is also one of the best documented-- running away. 

"Runaway slave" or "fugitive slave" were the terms given to slaves who tried to escape the institution of slavery in the United States. 

Slaves who escaped their masters generally attempted to reach states, territories, or countries where slavery was illegal.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased penalties against runaway slaves and especially the people who helped them. After this law passed, more slaves attempted to get to Canada or Mexico, so they would be outside the U.S. jurisdiction and have less chance of being forced to return to slavery. An estimated 500,000 slaves attempted to flee. 

There are some historical archives documenting specific slaves who escaped in the National Archives. I have included a link below so you can browse and use them in your report. One worth looking into is Edmund Dye: 

New York was a destination for fugitive slaves escaping to the North in the years before the Civil War. One such fugitive, Edmund Dye, came from as far as Georgia before he was captured. Read about him in the affidavit of James Hope, George M. Newton, and John D. Butt, 1858.

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Despite the fact that the institution of slavery was predicated upon control and repression, there were steps that slaves took to demonstrate their opposition to slavery. None of them were successful enough to dismantle the institution from within. However, slaves were able to demonstrate their own opposition to the institution, reflecting how action could be taken in the most brutal and dehumanizing of contexts.

One way that slaves demonstrated their opposition to the institution of slavery was through escape. Some slaves were able to flee their slaveowner's control. Some of these slaves used established means such as the Underground Railroad to facilitate their escape. "Conductors" such as Harriet Tubman acted as guides on the path to freedom. Tubman herself was responsible for over 300 slaves in finding their freedom. Others such as Dred Scott scrounged to find enough money from any source so that they could buy their own freedom, thereby using economics as a means to escape slavery. Scott failed, but others, though small in number, succeeded. The mere escape from slavery provided an example where slaves demonstrated their opposition to slavery.

Others means of opposition could be seen in daily life. These acts of resistance might not have radically shifted the power balance, but they demonstrated the extent to which slaves exerted their opposition towards slavery. Some slaves simply worked at an agonizingly slow pace to frustrate their masters, while others pretended not to understand instructions given to them. At the same time, some slaves sought to subvert the institution by deliberately breaking machinery that was meant to be used to advance their workload. Communication was another means through which slaves demonstrated their opposition to the institution of slavery. Singing songs in the field called spirituals communicated the struggle of daily life and many of them envisioned a world outside of slavery. While slaveowners thought that the songs simply showed how "happy" slaves were, the spiritual was a critical means of voicing opposition to slavery. Some slaves invented new languages that slaveowners could not understand such as Gullah, which was spoken in the Carolinas and represented an organic means through which resistance was evident. The construction of a new verbal means of communication represented a need to find a sphere of existence apart from the world of the slaveowners. Many slaves embraced religious experience as a way to further voice their opposition to the institution. The Old Testament's narrative of "Exodus" was quite telling for many slaves who likened themselves to the Hebrews and their masters as evil Pharaoh.

Some slaves used murder as a way to demonstrate their opposition to the institution of slavery. Slaves like Nat Turner and slaves aboard the Amistad ship simply killed those in the position of power and control. Other slaves used more subtle means, such as slaves who were confined to domestic duties, poisoned their masters and sought to display resistance in this manner. Others like Margaret Garner killed their own in order to display their resistance to slavery. An escaped slave, Garner was recaptured and rather than see her daughter have to return to the slave life, Garner slaughtered her own child. Garner's actions serve as the basis for Morrison's Beloved and demonstrate the lengths to which some slaves went in order to demonstrate their opposition to the institution of slavery. Frederick Douglass describes the moment in which he embraces his own resistance to the institution of slavery through force:

Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment--from whence came the spirit I don’t know-- I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat and, as I did so, I rose. He held onto me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected, that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers.

Douglass's own moment of resistance parallels the experience of many slaves who used physical force in critical moments that showed their own opposition to the institution of slavery.

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