Slave revolt in Antebellum America

Written by Ellicia Chester. Edited by Emma Ward.

Antebellum American history, particularly in the South, has often been romanticised in popular culture. The idea of hot days and iced tea accompanied with the sounds of the slow southern drawl has been repeated in many forums. However this image is very easily shattered when we begin to look at the reality of life in this period. Quite simply life for most people was not an easy one consisting of long hours spent drinking on the front porch, but was in fact a life of hard labour and exploitation under slavery.

Southern American plantation slavery has long been an area of study for historians. Before the 1960s and 1970s the study had often focused on the harsh reality of life for this group of people. The horrific experiences of those who lived under this oppressive and violent system is of course undeniable; slaves would face backbreaking work, degrading conditions and lived under the constant threat of the whip. This approach to the history will of course always be relevant. However, the start of the civil rights movement and the shifting focus toward social history has marked a new approach amongst historians in the field, that of neo-abolitionists. The aim of this approach was to give a voice to slaves and illustrate their agency within the oppressive system of Southern plantation slavery, and not to focus on the image of slaves as complete victims.  Neo-abolitionists and other modern scholars have attempted to show how slaves did more than just survive, but actually thrived under slavery. John Blassingame’s book “The slave community: plantation life in the antebellum South” is a particularly prominent work to come out of this movement.

The topic of antebellum slavery may not seem to fit well into the theme of “Revolt and Rebellion” as apart from some famous revolts, such as Bacons Rebellion 1676 and the Stono Rebellion of 1739, the history offers surprisingly few examples of out and out slave rebellion. The question of why this may be has proved divisive amongst scholars in the field. Yet whatever the outcome of this question, the rarity of violent slave revolts is undeniable. Because of this we can see the value of the neo-abolitionist approach, and instead look at acts of everyday rebellion.

Examples of everyday rebellion amongst slaves became blaringly apparent when we begin to examine the sources available. One particularly obvious example comes from accounts of slaves using the Underground Railroad. The Railroad was a system of paths and safe houses set up to help provide safe passage for runaway slaves out of the South toward the North and Canada. Harriet Tubman is a particularly famous ex-slave who aided in the escape of numerous runaways. The railroad itself provides us with clear evidence of some kind of slave community. Whilst we should not overlook white involvement in the railroad, it is more important, to focus on the fact such a system developed in the first place. Although planters where using various strategies to deny the idea of slave agency, the fact that slaves were attempting to escape and were being supported by other slaves in this endeavour is extremely valuable in providing evidence of slave rebellion. Everyday rebellion is therefore no less valid than the relatively few examples of more prominent revolts.

Another example of slave rebellion can be seen in sources describing outlawed gatherings of slaves. These gatherings have been cited by some scholars, such as Stephanie Camp, as important arenas for female slaves to express their autonomy and rebel against the absolute power of white masters. Outlawed gatherings allowed female slaves to use fashion to express their identity. Female slaves would work on their clothes in advance of these parties by embroidering and embellishing clothes, which was usually prohibited by their masters. Male slaves would also attend such gatherings and the consumption of stolen alcohol was not uncommon at such events. Gatherings also took on other forms, such as Bible discussion and prayer meetings.

Whilst the conversion of slaves to Christianity by masters was arguably self-serving, using scripture to teach slaves obedience, it is important to recognise the ability of slaves to exploit and adapt the teachings of the Bible. Whilst the white masters clearly intended to cement their own position of power through the word of God, yet many slaves saw the Bible as a story of redemption and a promise of justice in the after life. The interpretation, adaptation and practicing of these new beliefs by slaves became known as the ‘Invisible Church’. Clearly identified here are examples of how slaves were able to rebel against the power of masters without the need for any kind of more visible and violent revolt.

The evidence provided only represents a small number of examples of how slaves were able to express their agency through everyday acts of rebellion, but the weight of such examples cannot, and must not, be overlooked. By focusing on more obvious acts of rebellion we risk undermining and patronising the true experience slaves in the Antebellum South. Whilst we must never forgot the true horror of the institution, historians would be doing a disservice to the memory of these people by not balancing the story of their suffering with the story of their strength.