Academic journal article History Review

Slave Resistance in the Antebellum South: Gervase Phillips Examines the Extent and Significance of an Often Misunderstood Phenomenon

Academic journal article History Review

Slave Resistance in the Antebellum South: Gervase Phillips Examines the Extent and Significance of an Often Misunderstood Phenomenon

Article excerpt

Introduction: the Hidden History of Slave Resistance

In the early years of the twentieth century, a Georgia-born historian, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, established for himself a reputation as the outstanding authority on the subject of American slavery. In two studies, American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), he portrayed the South's 'peculiar institution' as a civilising school for a backward people. Although clearly aware of numerous instances in which slaves had offered, or plotted, violence towards their masters, Phillips dismissed such episodes as mere 'slave crimes' rather than as acts of resistance. The laughing, singing field hands of his idealised plantations were sometimes dilatory or lazy, but rarely struggled to break the chains they wore. African-Americans, he insisted, were 'by racial quality submissive rather than defiant'.

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Such crude assumptions were soon challenged. During the 1930s, Harvey Wish and Herbert Aptheker had scoured the archives for evidence of insurrection. In 1942, Raymond and Alice Bauer redefined the debate by identifying 'day-to-day resistance' to enslavement: sabotage, slow working, feigning illness and self-harm. These historians suggested that the American slave was far from submissive and that the Old South was riven by social tension, confrontation and the fear of servile revolt.

Yet the evidence for slave resistance remained problematic. Hearsay and exaggerations found their way into contemporary newspapers, diaries and letters. Genuinely subversive activities, on the other hand, were inevitably shadowy, hidden, disguised. It was often a challenge for historians to identify actual instances of organised resistance and distinguish them from spontaneous acts of violence or even panicky tales of imagined outrages. Nor was resistance always at the forefront of historians' concerns. In the 1950s, Kenneth Stampp's work emphasised the brutal and exploitative nature of slavery but recognised that unruly slaves were 'a troublesome property'. Other scholars placed an unfortunate emphasis on the slave as victim rather than resister. Stanley Elkins controversially argued that the plantation was 'a closed system' (akin to a concentration camp) which psychologically damaged the 'infantilized' slave.

Yet, as John Blassingame noted, whatever difficulties the primary source material presented it nevertheless clearly demonstrated 'the Negro's resistance to his bondage and of his undying love for freedom'. Eugene Genovese looked beyond overtly subversive acts for evidence of 'deeper cultural and social resistance', to be found in folk-ways, religious practices and family life.

Perhaps the most significant development in the recent historiography of slavery, however, has not concerned the extent or the nature of resistance, but rather its political significance. In particular, the furious legal struggles over fugitive slaves heightened sectional tensions. Resisters mattered not simply because they demonstrated the slaves' own spirit of defiance but because they played an active role in the crisis that would eventually lead to Civil War and the destruction of slavery.

Against All Odds: The Slave Revolt

On 1st January 1804, the people of Haiti, formerly a French colony, declared their independence following the most successful servile insurrection in history. The Haitians were not the only rebellious slaves in the New World. From Brazil to the West Indies organised insurrections, sometimes involving thousands of participants, posed a recurrent challenge to slave societies. Besides the revolts, communities of runaways, known in Jamaica as maroons (from the Spanish word cimarron meaning wild), waged guerilla wars against the slave regimes from secure bases in difficult country: mountains, swamps or jungles.

North American slaves seem at first glance to have lacked this revolutionary tradition. …

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