Resistance to slavery began almost as soon as slavery itself did. This should not be surprising when considering that slaves were treated more as property than as human beings. In the United States, resistance to slavery took up multiple forms. These included large-scale rebellions and smaller, quieter acts of resistance. The “day to day resistance,” to slavery was the most common form of resistance. This type of resistance included playing dumb, not following orders, breaking tools, and faking illness among many other examples.
On the opposite end of resistance were large-scale open rebellions. The most famous of these was the Nat Turner rebellion. On August 22, 1831, Nat Turner and roughly seventy armed slaves and free blacks went on a revenge seeking rampage against the white plantation owners in their area of Virginia. The success of these resistances depended on a case by case basis. For example, the Nat Turner rebellion was successful in that Turner and company accomplished their goal of killing white plantations owners, but most did die in the end.
In addition, other slaves were suspected of rebellion after Nat Turner and Turner himself was hung. In addition, there were many other rebellions after Turner that were not successful in that these rebellions did not accomplish their goal of killing whites. Essentially judging the success of the rebellions depends on the perspective of who is judging it. (Franklin) The most common form of resistance to slavery in the United States by far was the quiet insubordination type. This type of insubordination took up many forms.
The most common type was the “day to day resistance. These acts included playing dumb, not following orders, breaking tools, faking illness, arson, sabotage, practicing African religious ceremonies, theft, and running away. While all slaves would partake in this form of resistance, the majority of this resistance was mostly done by adult males. The reasons for this is that adult males would be most confident in being able to accomplish simple acts of resistance effectively and if they were good workers, a forgiving overseer would more likely than not be willing to look past some level of resistance.
Running away was another common form of resistance, but carried more risk if a slave was captured. For this reason, many slaves would run away only short distances because they need not want to actually escape slavery for good. They would do this as a sort of bargaining tool. If the slaves were unhappy with their current conditions, they would bargain over money, the length and amount of time they were required to work, the freedom to practice religious ceremonies, marriages, burial. Once the slave or slaves got what they wanted from their masters, they would simply return to the plantation and begin work again.
However, some slaves did try to run away for good. While the Underground Railroad was an option for these runaway slaves, many chose to take a different direction. They went southward to large national parks or large cities where they could act as free blacks. (Franklin, Raboteau, Parker) Another type of resistance came in the form of rebellions. While the most famous of the rebellions was the Nat Turner rebellion, there were hundreds if not thousands of other slave rebellions in varying sizes. Common conditions developed in each slave rebellion.
Rebellions were most likely to occur when: slaves outnumbered whites, overseers or plantation owners were away or absent, times of economic hardship, and in case of turmoil at the top of plantation. There is evidence of more than 250 uprisings in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century in the U. S. with each involving at least ten slaves. While these small rebellions were numerous and occurred often, five slave rebellions really stand out in American history. Again, the most famous case of slave rebellion is the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia.
On August 22, 1831, Turner and seventy blacks joined up and went on a killing spree of local whites. After killing Turner’s master and wife, the group moved on and killed between fifty and sixty whites before the rampage ended. Another rebellion was the Stono Rebellion of 1739. This was actually the largest slave rebellion in the U. S. colonies. On Sunday, September 9, 1739, twenty slaves started a revolt after working for free for numerous days. The group started with the killing of their master and moved southward, taking on whites as they came across them.
The group of slaves and free blacks ultimately wanted to make it to a colony in Florida where they would be considered free under the Spanish law that took precedent there. Unfortunately, the group was cut off in South Carolina by English soldiers and managed to fight them off for weeks before being defeated. The third most famous slave rebellion in the U. S. was the German Coast Uprising of 1811. Inspired by the Haitian Revolution by Touissant Louverture, slaves revolted in Louisiana, led by Charles Deslondes.
On January eighth, Deslondes and his group of twenty men killed his plantation owner’s family. However, they carelessly let the master escape which would come back to haunt them. The group recruited more men and loaded up on ammunition and supplies with the intent of traveling the forty miles to New Orleans to take the city. However, the U. S. army intervened and eventually stopped the revolt, but it took the army two whole days to crush the revolt. The fourth largest revolt was the New York City Conspiracy of 1741. In 1741, in New York City, building and places mysteriously began burning to the ground.
As is typical, everyone assumed the arson was done by the angry blacks. With no real knowledge of who was committed the arson, fear spread like fire in the city. Finally, a young servant claimed that the slaves in the city were responsible. After instigation, thirty –four people were put to death; including in this was four white people. The last big revolt in the U. S. was Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800. Gabriel, a literate slave, rallied around 1,000 blacks and was determined to capture the city of Richmond, Virginia. Like the other revolts, Gabriel’s plan failed.
On the day he and his troop marched to Richmond, a huge storm broke and convinced many of his group to stay home. Gabriel and the rest of his group were captured pretty quickly and were executed. Another interesting rebellion from outside the major five was started and led by a white man, which is why it should be considered and studied. John Brown, a white abolitionist, raided Harper’s Ferry in 1859 in Virginia. The raid was done by slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists. Following the example of the top-five rebellions, Brown and his crew were quickly stopped.
However, this raid inspired many other rebellions in Virginia in the years that followed. (Garrison, Engerman, Parker, Gates) Judging the success of these resistances is quite difficult and convoluted. Once again, judging the success of resistances depends on the perspective of who is judging it. To slaves, any form of resistance might be a success regardless of the end result. They might all die as a result of their resistance, but if they inspire others and make light of their horrible conditions, it should be considered a success.
It is hard to say for certain whether any of the large-scale rebellions truly made any difference. Of the five largest rebellions in American history, all ended the same. The black rebels were beaten by the whites and ultimately died as the result of their insubordination. In addition, after the large-scale rebellions, all blacks were on edge in the area where the rebellion just occurred. Any simple act of resistance after the rebellion would most likely end in hanging until at least a couple of months after a large-scale rebellion.
The plantation owners had to shut down any other possible resistance by slaves. The best example of this fact was after the New York City Conspiracy of 1741, eighteen slaves were hanged and thirteen were burned alive simply because they were acting suspicious. However, there is evidence that the number of slave resistances grew in size and number after each well-known large-scale resistance. This proves that, even though the large-scale resistances usually ended in death, other slaves were inspired by the others example and wanted to make a stand against the whites.
On the other-side of resistance, the small, “day to day resistance,” of slaves may have made a greater impact as a whole. For one, the risk was far less than conducting a large-scale open rebellion. If a slave was caught committing a small act of resistance, like stealing or messing off at work, the punishment might be a couple lashes of the whip, at most. If a slave was caught in a large rebellion, the punishment would be death by hanging. Considering all this information, the success of slave resistance depended on if the resistance inspired other slaves to stand up also.
If the specific resistance did this, than it should be considered successful. If the resistance did not, than it is hard to consider it a success. (Ford, Raboteau, Engerman,) Slavery may have begun as an economic need in the United States, but it soon became a way of life in many parts of the country. Not surprisingly, resistance to slavery gained traction as the amount of slaves entering the country grew. Resistance to slavery took up multiple forms in this country. These included large-scale rebellions and smaller, quieter acts of resistance.
The “day to day resistance,” to slavery was the most common form of resistance and arguably the most effective. This type of resistance included playing dumb, not following orders, breaking tools, and faking illness among many other examples. On the opposite end of resistance were large-scale open rebellions. The most famous of these was the Nat Turner rebellion. On August 22, 1831, Nat Turner and roughly seventy armed slaves and free blacks went on a revenge seeking rampage against the white plantations owners in their area of Virginia. The success of these resistances depended on a case by case basis.
For example, the Nat Turner rebellion was successful in that Turner and company accomplished their goal of killing white plantation owners, but most did die in the end. In addition, other slaves suspected of rebellion after Nat Turner were tried and hung and there were many other rebellions after that were not successful. This was a common theme of the large-scale rebellions. Essentially every large scale rebellion ended with the rebels dying at the hands of white armies. After the large-scale rebellions, all blacks were on edge in the area where the rebellion just occurred.
Any simple act of resistance after the rebellion would most likely end in hanging until at least a couple of months after a large-scale rebellion. The plantation owners had to shut down any other possible resistance by slaves. When considering the large-scale rebellions, the success of the rebellion can be boiled down to a simple formula. If the specific resistance inspired other slaves to stand up also, than it should be considered successful. If the resistance did not, than it is hard to consider it a success. The success of other forms of resistance however, depends on the perspective of who is judging it. (Franklin, Parker)