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

By Douglas R. Egerton | Go to book overview

11
The Power in That Name

The steps the Assembly had taken were small enough. The chambers, halls, and cloakrooms had not heard eloquent denunciations of human bondage. The legislature had not openly debated a specific plan for gradual emancipation. But clearly the legislature, terrified by two massive conspiracies launched by charismatic rebel leaders, had hoped that its program of colonization would precipitate numerous private manumissions and provide a homeland for already-free blacks who had grown weary of endless insults and constant demands for deference. But the plan had come to nothing. Now the lawmakers would do all they could to hold the wolf by the ears and make their peculiar system safe and permanent.

For all their pretensions as bookish and philosophical men, members of the Virginia planter class could be hardheaded and pragmatic enough when they had to be. The legislators of 1802 realized they had only two choices. "The question now is a plain one," observed one Virginian, rather bluntly. "Shall we abolish slavery, or shall we continue it? There is no middle course to steer." If slavery was to endure, the relative freedom that slaves had enjoyed during the decades after the Revolution would have to end. "If we continue it," the anonymous writer insisted, "we must restrict it. We must re-enact all those rigorous laws which experience has proved necessary to keep it within bounds. In a word, if we will keep a ferocious monster in our country, we must keep him in chains." 1

More than a few white Americans, north and south, prayed that the conspiracies would shake the Virginians out of their complacency. But these were individuals unaware of what had transpired behind closed doors in the capitol building. Samuel White of Delaware, speaking on the floor of Congress, called upon the national government to strike at the "horrid evil of slavery." Only the "interposition [of] an unusual thunderstorm," he warned, "prevented the Slaves, only two years since, from destroying Richmond." The New England Palladium, gloating over Jefferson's brush with the "spirit of resistance" he routinely advocated for northern states, even waxed poetic:

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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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