Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802

By Douglas R. Egerton | Go to book overview

1
The Revolutionary Storm

Among the many events of the contentious and critical year of 1776, certainly the least noticed was the birth of a boy born into a lie. In that year Thomas Jefferson, a leading white Virginian, pronounced a self-evident truth: that all men were created equal and were endowed with certain natural and inalienable rights, among which were "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But the boy born on the Henrico County plantation of Thomas Prosser was of slave parents and so was heir to none of these rights. A young bondman who believed otherwise was headed for a life of trouble, and the slave midwife who cut his umbilical cord and predicted the child's fate by feeling the shape of his head might have guessed that this boy would become a bold man, doomed to a singular fate. His parents may have agreed. They named him Gabriel, after the divine messenger. 1

Gabriel was born into a unique social environment in eighteenth-century Tidewater Virginia. The Tidewater was the low and often marshy land that bordered the Chesapeake Bay, and its tobacco planters controlled the commonwealth. These men set the social tone, provided the political leaders, and dominated the state's tobacco-driven agrarian economy. It was here that the large plantations and ancestral manors existed, and it was here that the first families of the state resided. 2

The planter families reigned over a society that attached considerable importance to rank. The Virginia gentry accounted for about 10 percent of the colony's population. Class distinctions needed no explanation in this world. There were, as Patrick Henry observed, four classes: the "well- born" planters, the hearty yeomen (who worked their own farms), the "lower orders" (the landless poor whites), and finally the slaves, who numbered roughly 40 percent of Virginia's population. Although Henry's crude classifications did not admit of it, many of those on top had only recently arrived in the ranks of the gentry. More than a few middling planters--the sort of striving, ambitious men with but a dozen slaves and a small brick home--might be more accurately characterized as rising yeomen than as true aristocrats, and whatever their ancestry, the petty planters were far more numerous than were the "well-born" gentry. Yet birth was impor-

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Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • I- Richmond 1800 1
  • 1- The Revolutionary Storm 3
  • 2- An Upright Man 18
  • 3- The Year 1800 34
  • 4- The Preparation 50
  • 5- A Plot Discovered 69
  • 7- A Companion Picture 95
  • II- Halifax 1802 117
  • 8- Recalled to Life 119
  • 9- The Footsteps Die out 132
  • 10- A Place of Asylum 147
  • 11- The Power in That Name 163
  • Appendix 1- Gabriel''s Religion 179
  • Appendix 2- The Frenchmen 182
  • Appendix 3- Virginia Slaves Executed in 1800 and 1802 186
  • Notes 189
  • Bibliography 237
  • Index 253
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