Academic journal article The Historian

Governor James Monroe and Southampton Slave Resistance of 1799

Academic journal article The Historian

Governor James Monroe and Southampton Slave Resistance of 1799

Article excerpt

James Monroe's governorship of Virginia (1799-1802) is best known for the violent suppression of "Gabriel's slave conspiracy" in 1800, in which freedom-seeking slaves from Henrico and neighboring counties plotted to burn the capital, Richmond, kill its white slaveholders, and kidnap Governor Monroe. The rebellion was quickly crushed, and over 30 blacks were executed in its aftermath. Less well known is Monroe's involvement in another case of slave resistance that took place in Southampton County in 1799 shortly after Monroe took office.

On 15 October, Georgia slave traders Joshua Butte and Harris Spears (or Spiers), partners of James Simms, a member of Georgia's legislature, used ten thousand dollars Simms had embezzled from the state treasury to purchase "a considerable number" of slaves in southeastern Virginia's Southampton County.(1) Travelling along the high road leading from Broadwater to Jerusalem, Butte and Spiers also bought several Maryland blacks from Virginia slave dealers William Boykin and Ben Drew, adding them to their Georgia-bound slave coffle. Several of the Maryland slaves, wielding sticks, knives, and pistols, escaped after having robbed and murdered Butte and Spiers. When the slave patrol caught up with them, ten runaways reportedly were killed, but five were recaptured, identified, and tried before the Southampton County court of oyer and terminer (criminal court). Their names--Hatter Isaac, Old Sam, Jerry, Isaac, and Young Sam--suggest family ties between four of them.(2)

The eight-magistrate court, headed by Chief Justice Benjamin Blunt, Southampton's county lieutenant and militia commander during the Revolution, convicted the first four men of "conspiracy, insurrection, rebellion, and murder" on 25 October 1799 and scheduled their hanging for 25 November. Young Sam pleaded benefit of clergy, an option for first-time youthful offenders until 1848, and was released after receiving 39 lashes and a branding on the hand. Governor Monroe reprieved the other four slaves for several months while he determined whether they had perhaps been freedmen defending themselves from kidnappers. In the interim he pardoned one slave, young Jerry; a second slave, Old Sam, died of exposure in the county jail during the winter. On 5 May 1800, Monroe consented to the execution of the two remaining convicts.(3)

In delineating Virginians' nuanced response to African American rebellion in the early republic, the incident furnishes a valuable case study of the interaction between politics, law, and society in the Old Dominion. In comparison to the severity shown a year later after Gabriel's rebellion, white political and judicial authorities, headed by Governor Monroe, behaved far more circumspectly and deliberately in enforcing the letter of the law in the Southampton incident: five slaves were convicted of killing their owners, but two were freed. The moderate, legalistic conduct of the Southampton judges and especially of Governor (later President) Monroe toward the rebels in 1799-1800 evinced no bloodlust against slaves who had murdered their owners, revealing that when no general slave insurrection threatened, Virginia's judicial proceedings against slaves were marked by evenhanded integrity. In his conduct toward the Southampton rebels of 1799, Monroe, implementing emerging humanitarian southern legal precepts, sought to guarantee slave defendants basic legal rights. Over the course of five months, from December 1799 to April 1800, Monroe thoroughly investigated the circumstances of the Southampton slave revolt and the court's conduct toward the rebels, using the law and his legal knowledge to help secure a modicum of civil protection for slaves sentenced to death for capital crimes.

A surprising degree of concern for slave convicts existed in Virginia on the eve of the Southampton murders, a feeling that did not dissipate until the white reaction to Gabriel's Conspiracy "paralyzed antislavery zeal in the South" as historian David Brion Davis puts it. …

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