Freedom of Thought in the Old South

By Clement Eaton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
THE FEAR OF SERVILE INSURRECTION

WITH A KEEN eye for telling detail, Frederick Law Olmsted observed during his visit to Richmond in 1853 an armed sentinel standing by the door of the Capitol. This military figure, he was informed, belonged to the Public Guard of Virginia, a little army of a hundred men enlisted under a law passed after the Gabriel revolt of 1800. To the highly sensitive Northern traveler this disciplined guard was a symbol of the fear of servile insurrection that perturbed the tranquility of Southern society.1

Whether there existed a genuine fear of slave revolt below the Potomac is a question that directly impinges on the freedom of the press and of public speaking. The champion of a free press in the Southern States was continually confronted with the argument that the slaves might be stirred to revolt if radical criticism of slavery should be allowed. No adequate investigation has ever been made to ascertain the effect of the fear of servile insurrection upon the Southern mind. The term "the black terror" is a melodramatic one if applied to the normal state of Southern feeling, but an accurate phrase when applied to the times of abnormal fright which occurred at intervals in the Southern States.2

The fear of servile insurrection was kept alive in the South by a series of actual revolts and by intermittent rumors of others. The horrible massacre perpetrated by the blacks in Santo Domingo left an unforgettable impression on the Southern

____________________
1
Olmsted, Seaboard Slave States, pp. 20-21. Mrs. Basil Hall made a similar observation (The Aristocratic Journey, Being the Outspoken Letters of Mrs. Basil Hall, Written during a Fourteen Months' Sojourn in America, 1827-1828, New York, 1931, p. 197).
2
In 1925 John Spencer Bassett, a pioneer in the critical writing of Southern history, suggested to the writer the need of a study of "the black terror," as he called it.

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