Resistance to and the Defense of Slavery

Resistance to slavery took several forms. Slaves would pretend to be ill, refuse to work, do their jobs poorly, destroy farm equipment, set fire to buildings, and steal food. These were all individual acts rather than part of an organized plan for revolt, but the objective was to upset the routine of the plantation in any way possible. On some plantations, slaves could bring grievances about harsh treatment from an overseer to their master and hope that he would intercede on their behalf. Although many slaves tried to run away, few succeeded for more than a few days, and they often returned on their own. Such escapes were more a protest—a demonstration that it could be done—than a dash for freedom. As advertisements in southern newspapers seeking the return of runaway slaves made clear, the goal of most runaways was to find their wives or children who had been sold to another planter. The fabled underground railroad, a series of safe houses for runaways organized by abolitionists and run by former slaves like Harriet Tubman, actually helped only about a thousand slaves reach the North.

Slave revolts. The United States had fewer violent slave revolts than the Caribbean colonies and Brazil, and the reasons were largely demographic. In other parts of the Western Hemisphere, the African slave trade had continued, and the largely male slave populations came to significantly outnumber the white masters. In the United States, with the exception of Mississippi and South Carolina, slaves were not in the majority, and whites remained very much in control. Perhaps most important, marriage and family ties, which formed the foundation of the U.S. slave community, worked against a violent response to slavery.

Nevertheless, in the early nineteenth century, there were several major plots for revolt. Gabriel Prosser recruited perhaps as many as a thousand slaves in 1800 with a plan to set fire to Richmond, the capital of Virginia, and take the governor prisoner. The plot failed when other slaves informed the authorities about Prosser. In 1822, Denmark Vesey's scheme to seize Charleston was also betrayed by slaves who were involved in the conspiracy. Despite these failures, some African Americans, most notably David Walker (in his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World), still saw armed rebellion as the only appropriate response to slavery.

Motivated by religious visions of racial violence, Nat Turner organized a revolt in Virginia in August 1831. He and a close‐knit group of slaves went from farm to farm killing any whites they found; in the end, fifty‐five of them were found dead, mostly women and children. Turner intentionally did not try to gain support from slaves on nearby plantations before the short‐lived revolt began. He had hoped that the brutality of the murders (the victims were hacked to death or decapitated) would both terrorize slaveowners and gain him recruits. Once he had a larger force, he planned to change tactics: women, children, and any men who did not resist would be spared. But only a few slaves joined Turner, and the militia put down the rebellion after a few days. Turner, who managed to elude capture for several months, was eventually tried and hanged along with nineteen other rebels. Other trials of alleged conspirators in the revolt resulted in the execution of many innocent slaves by enraged whites.

The debate over slavery in Virginia. Turner's revolt convinced many Virginians—particularly farmers in the western part of the state who owned few slaves—that it was time to end slavery. Early in 1832, the state legislature considered a proposal for gradual emancipation, with owners compensated for their loss. Although the measure prompted an open debate on the merits of slavery, it failed in both houses, but by only comparatively small margins. Ironically, after coming to the brink of abolishing slavery, Virginia, and then other southern states, moved in the opposite direction and opted for greater control over the black population. New slave codes passed in each state increased patrols to locate runaway slaves and guard against new outbreaks of violence, prohibited African Americans from holding meetings, denied free blacks the right to own any kind of weapon, made it illegal to educate a slave (Turner knew how to read and write), and outlawed the manumission (freeing) of slaves by their owners.

In defense of slavery. The debate in the Virginia legislature coincided with the publication of William Lloyd Garrison's first issue of the Liberator. The moral attack that the abolitionists mounted against slavery called for a new defense from the South. Rather than emphasize that slavery was a profitable labor system essential to the health of the southern economy, apologists turned to the Bible and history. They found ample support for slavery in both the Old and New Testaments and pointed out that the great civilizations of the ancient world—Egypt, Greece, and Rome—were slave societies.

The most ludicrous defense of slavery was that enslavement was actually good for African Americans: slaves were happy and content under the paternal care of their master and his family, toward whom they felt a special affection, and talk of liberty and freedom was irrelevant because slaves could not even understand those concepts. The proponents of slavery also maintained that slaves on plantations in the South were better off than the “wage slaves” in northern factories, where business owners had no real investment in their workers. In contrast, planters had every incentive to make sure their slaves were well fed, clothed, and housed. Harsh masters, more often than not, were northerners who had moved to the South, rather than those born and bred in the region, the proponents claimed. Underlying all the arguments was a fundamental belief in the superiority of whites.

Public discussion of slavery and its abolishment effectively ended in the South after 1832; all segments of white society supported slavery, whether they owned slaves or not. The growing isolation of the region was reflected by splits in several Protestant denominations over the slavery question. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church South was established as a separate organization, and a year later, southern Baptists formed their own group, the Southern Baptist Convention. Not only did southerners try to counter the abolitionists in print, they wanted help in suppressing the antislavery movement altogether. In 1835, the South Carolina legislature called on the northern states to make it a crime to publish or distribute anything that might incite a slave revolt. The resolutions made it very clear that South Carolina considered slavery an internal issue and that any attempt to interfere with it would be unlawful and resisted.

North versus South. The existence of slavery was just the most visible difference between the North and South. The two regions' economies had been complementary, but by most measures—the number of railroads, canals, factories, and urban centers and the balance between agriculture and industry—they were moving in opposite directions. The reform movements that arose in the decades before the Civil War made few inroads in the South because any calls for social change were associated with abolitionism. Although wealthy planters hired tutors for their children, and many of their sons went on to college, even public education was considered not particularly important in the South.

In the North, the rejection of slavery as an institution did not mean there was widespread support for extending full political rights, let alone social equality, to African Americans. Residents of both the North and South believed in democracy, but at the time, the goal that would attain full democracy for the nation was the expansion of the franchise to all white males. Both northerners and southerners took part in the westward movement of the country, looking for better land and greater opportunities, but they could not escape the divisive issue of slavery. It was over the status of slavery in the new territories of the west that the sectional lines dividing the nation became rigid.