Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Slaves to the Marketplace: Economic Liberty and Black Rebelliousness in the Atlantic World

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Slaves to the Marketplace: Economic Liberty and Black Rebelliousness in the Atlantic World

Article excerpt

Late one night in 1822, a small band of men plotted revolution in a narrow house on Charleston's Bull Street. "[A]s soon as [we] can get the money from the Banks, and the goods from the stores," advised Holla Bennett, the enslaved servant of South Carolina's governor, we "should hoist sail for Saint Doming[ue]" and live in freedom in the Caribbean republic. That came as welcome news to Frank Ferguson, a black artisan, who had grown weary of passing a large portion of his cash earnings on to his owner, Ann Ferguson. He "would pay [her] no more wages," he insisted, for "what would the Whites want with wages, [as] they would soon be no more." Twenty-two years before, and three hundred miles north, an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel had told his brother Solomon of his dream of pulling down "the merchants" and "possess [ing] ourselves of their property." Any rebels who fought with him might "take the treasury, and divide the money amongst" themselves.1

There are numerous ways to interpret these statements. Perhaps the slaves who banded together with Denmark Vesey regarded the specie in Charleston's banks as back pay for decades of uncompensated labor. Perhaps these bondmen recognized how much white men, particularly merchants, coveted cash, and so taking what whites valued was simply sweet revenge. Perhaps it was pragmatic. Vesey understood that Haiti's embattled president, Jean-Pierre Boyer, would be less than pleased to see a small armada of wanted men sail into his harbors, and so the money and goods might persuade him to risk the wrath of white Americans and European statesmen. Or perhaps the most obvious reading is also the correct one: That by the early nineteenth century, many slaves around the Atlantic world were attuned to the claims of money and property, and that regions of rebelliousness correlated to areas where the market economy was most advanced.2

This essay suggests that enslaved rebels throughout the Americas, and particularly those in the early national and antebellum United States, rose in revolt not merely because their urban milieu presented those who lived and labored in close proximity to one another with singular opportunities to organize, or even that city geographies diminished legal controls over them, but also because it gave them a better understanding of cash power. The cumulative experiences of these slaves provided them with a vision of a different class system-one, incidentally, that was emerging in Saint Domingue-in which class position was based upon initiative and economic advancement rather than on the more sluggish, agrarian plantation-based society in the countryside, where prosperity and race were conflated within a static and less dynamic system.3

More than half a century ago, Herbert Aptheker put it best: The "cause" of slave revolts was slavery. At bottom, that was certainly true and well understood by all but the master class. Determined to avoid conceding the obvious, southern whites invariably pointed to foreign causes and outside agitators. In 1822, for example, Carolina authorities blamed their recent troubles on New York Senator Rufus King and "the Missouri poison"; just as, parenthetically, Charleston's mayor insisted in 1963 that "outsiders rather than city Negroes" were responsible for a protest march organized out of Vesey's old African Methodist Episcopal Church. Yet Aptheker's blunt assessment does little to explain why largescale slave conspiracies were more prevalent in some parts of the Americas than in others, or why slave rebellions were virtually absent from the English mainland colonies in the seventeenth century, but almost endemic to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most of all, it says little about the type of person who instigated slave revolts.4

There are numerous possibilities when it comes to explaining the patterns of slave rebelliousness in the Americas, and there are almost as many interpretations as there are historians who have investigated this question. …

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