Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation

Article excerpt

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. By John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xx, 455. $35.00, ISBN 0-19-508449-7.)

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger's ambitious goal is to produce the first full-length study of runaway slaves. The book focuses on the United States in the years 1790 to 1860 and is divided into eleven chapters covering such issues as what motivated slaves to run, how they escaped, characteristics of typical fugitives, masters' reactions, and rates of success for both escape and recapture. The authors have made extensive use of newspaper advertisements, court records, plantation journals, and letters to create a runaway slave database that includes 8,400 runaways advertised in twenty newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Franklin and Schweninger include a thirty-five-page appendix with examples of their data and tables. From this data they estimate that the annual number of runaways exceeded 50,000. Even more important than actual numbers, however, was the impact the fugitives had on the slave system: runaways, even when personally unsuccessful, still threatened the system of bondage by challenging white claims of slave submissiveness.

The book is ultimately less than satisfying. One fault is that, although obviously well-researched and clearly written, it offers little that is truly original. The examples of runaways are generally new, but the conclusions drawn from them are familiar. Most scholars of slavery are aware, for example, that many slaves fled without a plan and stayed away only temporarily, that young, single men were the most likely to flee, and that masters continued to be confounded by the apparently well-treated slave's desire for freedom. Among the numerous examples, readers may wonder, where are the well-known and often important accounts of fugitives. There seems to be an emphasis on unsuccessful runaways. Perhaps the authors have introduced these new accounts in an effort to avoid further repetition of well-worn stories; but if this work is meant to stand as the comprehensive study of runaway slaves, the omission of famous fugitive narratives is problematic. William Wells Brown and William and Ellen Craft are both absent from this book, and Frederick Douglass is mentioned only briefly. …

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