– Struggle For Black Equality Essay, Research Paper
The Silent Rebellion
On the morning of August 22, 1831, Nat Turner and his followers rose in rebellion against the master class. The mob killed the family to whom Turner belonged and rampaged through Southampton killing nearly sixty whites (Stampp 278). Why was this rebellion one of the few organized attempts to protest slavery? What prevented slaves from overthrowing their masters when they sometimes had over one hundred slaves to one master? The relative lack of slave revolts in the antebellum south was due to the absence of a rebellious influence, the masters? continuous effort to make the slaves submissive, and the strength of the family. The slaves did not accept their lot in life, however, and they rebelled without using violence.
This is not to say that there were not slave revolts. The previously mentioned Turner rebellion was not the first uprising in the South. Several earlier conspiracies could have resulted in something much larger than the Turner rebellion. The Gabriel Conspiracy in Henrico County, Virginia, involved over a thousand slaves. A march on Richmond was barely avoided when two slaves warned the town. Ten years later more than five hundred slaves in the St. John Baptist Parish, Louisiana, marched towards New Orleans armed with various homemade weapons. The planters and some troops were able to stifle the uprising. Furthermore, in 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free Negro, planned a conspiracy which never materialized after it was given away by another slave. More revolts occurred with the creation of the Republican Party in the election years of 1856 and 1860. One of the last slave revolts occurred in October, 1860, around Plymouth, North Carolina. They planned to influence several hundred slaves to join them as they marched to Plymouth and to kill all the whites they met on the road, burn the town, take money and weapons, and escape by ship through Albemarle Sound. Once again a fellow slave betrayed the plot. Most of the slave revolts were followed by severe threats. The heads of sixteen Louisiana rebels were placed on pikes and displayed along the Mississippi River (Stampp 278-281). This evidence may indicate that there were many rebellions in the antebellum south. However, around two hundred revolts have been documented which is almost insignificant when you take into account the size and population of the antebellum south. With a slave population of two to four million and in an area nearly as big as Western Europe about 200 revolts over about 100 years is not a large number (Degler 182-3).
The relative lack of a rebellious influence by example kept slaves from taking arms. The speed with which the Turner rebellion was crushed and the massacre that proceeded it scared many slaves away from a violent revolution. The Negro slaves realized that they must face a unified white community that was well armed and ready to kill as many slaves as necessary (Stampp 280-281). The revolts that did occur were relatively inconsequential and, therefore, the slaves saw no benefit to a revolution. Furthermore, the Border States, which were most susceptible to antislavery influences from the North, were also the states where slavery was the mildest and most humane. The slaves had the least reason to revolt in these areas and the greatest reason to respect their good master. In addition, the Underground Railroad was used heavily in these Border States and the aggressive leaders that could lead a revolt escaped to the North. This left the least capable to attempt to organize a revolt. Finally, the slaves that were born into bondage really had no reason to believe that anything was out of order. Although the slaves might not be satisfied with their situation, they believed they did not have the means by which to spur an aggressive opposition. This relative lack of influence led many slaves to decide against a revolt (Degler 184).
There was also a relative difference in the quantity, quality, and variety of food, clothing, housing, and medical care from plantation to plantation. This put slaves in different situations and, therefore, they had no common situation to revolt against. Some slaves were fed a minimum amount of food and others were fed a decent amount of food. Some slaves lived in crude one-room log cabins with dirt floors. John Brown complained: ?The wind and rain will come in and the smoke will not go out? (Blassingame 254). Most of the cabins contained at least two families. For example, the 260 slaves on Charles Ball?s plantation shared 38 cabins; that is an average of 6.8 slaves per cabin. Some slaves lived in sheds instead of cabins. Slaves usually had to make the furniture and utensils they used. Some slaves slept on the ground or on mattresses of corn shucks without blankets. On the contrary, southern propagandists argued that slaves were much better off than the European peasants and factory operatives. Some modern economists theorized that slaves were better fed, clothed, and housed than the Northern free laborers. This difference in plantation life made it hard for slaves to unite in a revolt (Blassingame 254-255).
Moreover, a black mammy and black playmates for the children would often develop relationships which would keep some from revolting. It was the black mammy that the white child turned to for love and security. The black mammy protected the white children, punished them, nursed them, rocked then to sleep, told them fascinating stories, and served as a more loving mother. The mammy influenced the children?s thought, behavior, language, and personality. One Englishman wrote that in the Carolinas: ?Each child has its Momma, whose gestures and accent it will necessarily copy? (Blassingame 266). Black childhood playmates would create enduring friendships during their childhood. Many white children would intervene to prevent the punishment or sale of their black friends. Rarely could a planter punish a slave if he were the favorite of his wife and children. These relationships created bonds that were hard to leave in order to revolt, thus, limiting the number of revolts in the antebellum south (Blassingame 266-267).
The masters also worked very hard to keep the slaves differential and submissive. Some masters began by impressing white supremacy on the slave. He made the slave bow upon meeting him, stand in his presence, and accept floggings from his young children. The slave was flogged if he fought with the whites. Deference was required no matter what the situation. The slave was flogged for disputing a white man?s word, kicked for walking between two whites on a street, and not allowed to call his wife or mother ?Mrs.? Some masters insisted on demonstrating their own authority. They told the slave he was unfit for freedom, that all slaves who attempt to escape are captured and sold further South, and that the black man must submit to wish of every white man. Planters insisted that their slaves show no signs of dissatisfaction. They were forced to appear cheerful while performing their task. If this attitude the master was building up in his slaves did not work, he would enlist other black men to help him manage. The hardest working slaves would be chosen and shown as models to the rest (Blassingame 256-259).
Black drivers and black domestic servants were used to enforce the plantation rules. Black drivers were forced to keep the slaves at their tasks and flog other slaves for breaking the plantation guidelines. The driver was in a very tough position. If he was too good of a driver, he won praise from the master and hatred from his fellow slaves. If he was easy on the slaves, he received demotion and flogging. The slaves usually hated the drivers and the master treated them as spies. The slaves complained of his exploitation of slave women, his favoritism with rewards, and his brutality in punishment. However, the slaves? assessment of the driver depended on whether or not the master gave him the power to flog the slaves. When flogging was prohibited, the driver had to motivate his fellows with threats to tell the master if they did not work hard. The role of the driver was also largely affected by the size of the plantation, the number of slaves, the crop, the presence or absence of owners, managerial style of masters, and the resort to the task system or gang labor. The drivers provided a work motivator while the domestic servants provided the master?s eyes and ears. Coerced by rewards the domestic servant kept the master informed of the slave?s activities. These servants often foiled plans to revolt. The domestic servant was trained to speak kindly of his master in front of Northerners. These two offices of slavery were very valuable to the plantation owner (Blassingame 258-260).
Occasionally, the only way obedience could be enforced is by constant floggings. Floggings of 50 to 75 lashes were not uncommon. On numerous occasions, planters branded, stabbed, tarred and feathered, burned, shackled, tortured, maimed, crippled, mutilated, and castrated their slaves. For example, consider the treatment of Moses Roper, a steady runaway. He would often receive 100 to 200 lashes from his owner. On one occasion his master poured tar on his head and burned it. Once after Moses had escaped from his shackles, his master beat off his toenails and fingernails. The slaves were punished the most for running away and not completing the tasks they were assigned. Masters often punished their slaves for visiting their mates, learning to read, arguing or fighting with whites, working too slowly, stealing, fighting or quarreling with other slaves, drunkenness, or for trying to prevent the sale of their relatives. They were sometimes punished for asking their masters to sell them, claiming they were free men, breaking household items, or for giving sexual favors to persons other than their masters. Masters often kicked, slapped, cuffed, or boxed the ears of domestic servants, flogged pregnant slaves, and punished slaves so intensely that recovery required weeks. It is no wonder that the slaves were terrified to revolt. The masters worked very hard to gain obedience and it worked (Blassingame 260-263).
However, not all masters resorted to the punishment method of controlling their slaves. Punishment resulted in sullen and discontented slaves who wanted to barely get by without getting whipped. Planters wanted devoted, hard-working, responsible slaves who saw gain for the master as gain for the slaves. To gain this worker, planters implemented a pride and reward system. Owners tried to get the slaves to take pride in their work. The idea was to get the Negro?s to think that their work is better than the rest of the slaves in town. This attitude could not be flogged into the slaves; it had to be evoked through a series of reward programs. Short-term rewards such as prizes for the individual with the best picking record on a day or during a week attempted to motivate fast working for the short term. The prizes were sometimes clothing, tobacco, whiskey, trips to town on the weekends, unscheduled holidays, or even cash. When the slaves worked overtime they received extra cash at the rate of normal hired labor. Slaves were permitted to work overtime at their own leisure to try to earn more money for their family. Bennet Barrow distributed $15 to $20 gifts per slave family in 1839 and 1840. The amounts received corresponded to their performance. $20 in 1840 was the equivalent of $1,000 today. In the intermediate future slaves were given year-end bonuses in either goods or cash. Land was sometimes given to families who performed well. The family could grow marketable crops and the proceeds would benefit solely them. Julian Devereux gave his slaves such land. In a good year some slaves could earn more than $100 a year. Devereux set up accounts by which slaves could obtain the money when they wanted clothing, pots, pans, tobacco, or similar goods. The last category of rewards was the long-term rewards. Slaves could rise in status to a driver, domestic slave, or artisan. Artisans were sometimes allowed to the town where they could work in town. Drivers could become head drivers or overseers. Each office brought more freedom and rewards. Officers received better housing, better clothing, and cash bonuses. The ultimate long-term reward was freedom. This rare occurrence was achieved if the master desired it in his will or the slave was permitted to buy himself out. This money had to come from money that the slaves earned from work on their own. Some skilled slaves could purchase freedom within a decade. For some it took a lifetime. The reward system created a chance to move up the economic ladder and, therefore, helped manage the risk of slave revolts. (Fogel 146-153).
The family was the structure by which the plantation owners could keep slaves committed, and therefore, not revolt. The family was an important instrument for maintaining labor discipline on the plantation. Slave owners attempted to encourage the creation of families in order to reduce the runaway percentage. Families also helped slaves endure the burdens of bondage. Masters permitted families to have partial ownership of their house, furniture, clothing, garden plots, and small livestock. The idea was that if the slaves had an economic stake in the system they would not leave. Another way in which planters promoted the stability of families was to give rewards such as separate houses for married couples, gifts of household goods, and cash bonuses. Often, a marriage ritual was performed to make the marriage a lasting one. The feast and holiday that followed gave an incentive to get married. Adultery and divorce were strongly frowned upon. Some planters even resorted to the whip as a threat against divorce. Even though state law prohibited the existence of slave marriages, they were not only recognized but also promoted in plantation guidelines. Moreover, it did not matter to the slaves because their lives were governed by plantation code, not state code. This is not to say that the family unit was looked at as purely an economic unit. Victorian age attitudes emphasized a strong, stable family limiting sexual activity to the family (Fogel 127-129).
The black family was, in fact, nearly as stable as the white family of this time. Masters held the marriage ceremonies, but it was the slaves that gave their consent to marriage. Herbert Gutman shows in his study of slave plantations that many slave marriages lasted over twenty years. After the Civil War U.S. Army chaplains performed nearly 4,600 marriages in Mississippi and Louisiana, of which 42 percent were marriages that lasted between 5 and 14 years. After emancipation, slaves continued to get marriage licenses to fix their marriage (Degler 476-477). A partial reason for this family strength was the fact that it was not in a master?s best interest to exploit black women. If the masters and overseers sought sexual pleasures with the slaves they would most likely suffer grave consequences. Their entire discipline system that they strive so hard to achieve could be broken down by a seduction of a female slave. Planters would stir up anger with the slaves and they would lose their mystery and authority that they possessed as the owner. The masters? reputation with the public was also at risk. News of this event would most likely spread to other plantations and damage the slave owner?s image. In fact, the masters of these large plantations did not need the black women to satisfy their sexual episodes. They had the income to support concubines and mistresses without the need of slaves for sexual purposes. Concerning the overseer, he would most often lose his job if found to be guilty of a sexual sin with a slave. Among rural slaves between 1620 and 1850, twenty-three decades of contact, only 7.7 percent were mulatto. The fact is that sexual episodes did not occur very often and had a very little effect on breaking up the slave family. With a stable family, slaves of the antebellum south had too much to lose if they revolted. If the patriarch died he would leave his wife and kids alone for the rest of their bondage days. For this reason, planters actively promoted the black family under slavery (Fogel 130-134).
Despite the fact that there was a relative lack of slave revolts, the slaves did not merely accept their lot in life. Many forms of rebellion took place other than violence, most on a more individual level. Slave resistance created for all slaveholders a serious problem of discipline. Masters termed slaves a ?troublesome property.? Slaves always attempted to limit the amount of work they completed. Some slaves stole cotton from the gin to be weighed again the next day. Some concealed dirt or rocks in their cotton to make it heavier and escape punishment. Slaves worked as hard as they wanted to, and the masters could only threaten and punish them. Some slaveholders agree ?that every attempt to force a slave beyond the limit that he fixes himself as a sufficient amount of labor to render his master, instead of extorting more work, only tends to make him unprofitable, unmanageable, a vexation and a curse? (Fogel 270-271). The use of force would most often make the slaves slow down rather than speed up the work. Besides slowing down, some slaves intentionally did careless work and damaged property. Slaveholders had to search for methods to prevent slaves from abusing horses and mules, plowing and hoeing wrong, damaging tools, killing young plants, and picking bad cotton. Not only did slaves wreck things when they worked, but also some did not work at all. Slaves would pretend they were sick to avoid working in the fields. The masters could not tell who was sick and who was faking it. If they made a sick slave work they risked damaging their valuable property. One slave woman was getting out of work because of swellings in her arms until it was discovered that she was sticking her arms into beehives. Slaves would also run away to avoid work. Runaways were generally young male slaves. Furthermore, slaves even seemed to have their own moral code. Stealing was not considered an offense among slaves as long as no one got caught. One master observed: ?To steal and not to be detected is a merit among them? (Stampp 274). Field hands killed hogs and stole corn. House servants stole wine, whiskey, jewelry, trinkets, and anything else that was not locked up. Some slaves even made theft their business by which they could obtain luxuries which they might not normally have. Stolen goods were sometimes traded to whites of to free Negroes. ?Dishonesty,? commented one master, ?indeed seemed to be a common if not inherent trait of southern slaves? (Stampp 274). Arson was also a common revolt among southern slaves. Entire harvests were burned in order to get even with a master. Another crime was self-sabotage and suicide. Slaves would deliberately hurt themselves to avoid working. Some slaves overdosed on medicine, threw out a shoulder, put their arms into beehives, even cut off their own hands to prevent a field hand position. Death was obviously the last alternative.
As we have seen, the slaves did not revolt due to the lack of rebellious influence, the master?s continuous work to keep them obedient, and the strength of the black family. In consequence, 100 years after slavery came to North America, 184,000 African Americans joined the army of the United States. The Civil War was the only way that blacks were able to display their disgust with slavery. How long would this silent rebellion have continued if the Civil War had never occurred?