American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War

By David Grimsted | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Black Fears

Mastering Dark Realities

Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies, that I might destroy them that hate me.

They cried, but there was none to save them; even unto the Lord but he answered them not.

Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind; I did cast them out as the dirt in the street.

-- Psalms 18:40-42

We are a band of brothers and native to the soil, Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil. . . . . . . . . . .

Hurrah! Hurrah!

For Southern rights, hurrah!

-- Harry McCarthy, Bonnie Blue Flag

If the impulse behind the South's mobbing of alleged abolitionists was to make any white questioning of slavery unthinkable, the fear driving insurrection scares was black: slaves, working each day near whites in fields, gardens, kitchens, nurseries. Insurrection scares both expressed the darkest fears of a slave society and allowed a sense of mastery over both the realities and nightmares that could never be fully controlled. 1

Just as Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and others proved that the Southern vision of abolitionist slave-theft was not wholly hallucinatory, so Nat Turner underlined insurrectionary possibility in the antebellum South. In Rapides Parish, Louisiana, slave tradition bears out the basis, if not the details, of the white version of an insurrection plot in 1837. 2 Doubtless slaves plotted other uprisings, but the records about other "insurrections" testify to white fears rather than black action. The number of victims killed in these scares proclaims the depth of Southern fears about their slave population. Although there were only thirty-five instances of extralegal action against alleged insurrectionary plots, 448 persons were killed, 447 of them mob victims. Of these only 26 were whites and but 8 statedly free blacks. The Southern press and letter writers gave scant detail about slave victims, including numbers, because of their marginally human social status. Yet there's no question that mobs of this sort destroyed property to the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars, a cost that went largely uncounted because these killings gave illusion of white power. An-

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