Even in the early years of the United States, resistance efforts took place in order to protest taxes, debt, and other issues. One of the largest groups of unfree people in the United States, the slaves, also performed their own acts of resistance in hopes of freedom. While ultimately none of them destroyed the system of slavery, they did have an impact, especially on white Southerners. Often, large scale slave rebellions were inspired by Christian sermons and meetings and small scale acts of individual slave resistance were motivated by a hope to achieve the popularized idea of American freedom.
These actions of resistance caused fear among white Southerners, stricter slave codes, and the continuation of the abolitionist movement. A sense of religiously inspired freedom was a main factor in uniting slaves in large scale resistance. Among both slave and free black communities, a unique version of Christianity had developed. Originally, Christianity had entered into their lives as a result of their slaveholders, so they could hear messages such as”… the Bible required servants to obey their masters” (Foner 422).
However, within slave communities, the worship congregations had their own meetings and a different religious emphasis. Their services were led by a black minister, sometimes even another slave, and were mostly unattended by whites (Foner 421). Often, these ministers focused on the Biblical stories of Exodus and Jesus Christ as a redeemer figure, giving their congregations a message based on “… brotherhood and the equality of all souls before the Creator… ” (Foner 422). These important Christian themes became a strong aspect of the culture of slave communities.
In a few cases, slave resistance was a result of hearing these types of religiously inspired messages about freedom and being organized in a communal meeting place. One case of religiously charged resistance came from Denmark Vesey’s attempted rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, which inspired fear within the white community. Vesey had purchased his freedom from slavery (Foner 427). However, he was unsatisfied with his “… freedom so restrictive in quantity and mean in quality… ” and promised he would help those still in slavery (Grimke 6).
Vesey used his position in Charleston society to promote ideas of freedom and rebellion, specifically preaching to black worship congregations (Foner 427). During his sermons, Vesey encouraged “… the fomenting of hatred among the blacks, bond and free alike, toward the whites” (Grimke 9). This was especially useful as blacks could meet in religious congregations without whites, giving them a space to share ideas freely and form plans for resistance. He preached that “… Jehovah was to go forth to fight against them for poor slaves… (Grimke 12). Vesey’s plot”… to massacre the whites and to put the town to fire and pillage” was discovered before it could take place, although it had spread to surrounding communities and had a major impact on their society (Grimke 19). For a while, the citizens in Charleston lived in an “… awful state of suspense, of the most watchful suspicion and anxiety… ” (Grimke 20). This religiously inspired movement led to fear throughout the city, causing slaveholders to be afraid of possible rebellions among their own slaves.
Both the ability for slaves to congregate in a central meeting place and interpre Biblical stories as a call for freedom helped create motivation for slave revolutions and injected fear into white Southerners. In 1831, another religiously invigorated rebellion was led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, causing new slave codes and more fear of future resistance. Turner, a slave preacher, relied upon visions he had received from God to establish his plans. Turner described visions of”… white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle and the sun was darkened… (Turner 214).
As a result of this vision and others, Turner believed he had been specially chosen by God to lead the slaves in a rebellion. In fact, he claimed that the Spirit told him that “… Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent… ” (Turner 215). Turner spread these messages among the other slaves and”… they believed and said my wisdom came from God” (Turner 213). These visions from Turner led to another example of religiously inspired resistance.
During his rebellion, he and his about eighty followers marched from farm to farm and killed all the whites (Foner 428). Turner’s Rebellion resulted in the introduction of new slave codes. For example, new laws in Virginia “… prohibited blacks, free or slave, from acting as preachers… ” (Foner 429). This new slave law displays the fear this rebellion caused whites by prohibiting one of their common origins. While Turner’s Rebellion did lead to his and seventeen others’ death, it created internal stirrings throughout the South in the conversation about slaveholding, impacting society in many ways.
These large scale rebellions impacted the South by spreading fear of the abolitionist movement and the possibilities of future slave rebellions. Especially with the increase in popularity of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator, white Southerners began to recognize that enemies of slavery included both the slaves themselves and whites”… both within and outside the South” (Foner 429). White Southerners became more afraid of the possibility of slave rebellions, especially in regions where the slave population outnumbered the white population (Foner 399).
After Turner’s rebellion, “… hundreds of innocent slaves were whipped and scores executed” (Foner 429). Slave plots for rebellion were discovered in other places as well, arousing general suspicion. For example, one slave, Israel Campbell, described an evening in 1836 when two white men came to his home, asking about “… the negro preacher… if they talked anything about getting free and killing white people? ” (Campbell 71). Their question is a result of their fear of slave rebellions, knowing their religious origins. This plot was organized by Dr.
Cotton, other white men, and slaves to “… kill off the white people and free the negroes” (Campbell 72). Dr. Cotton was a white man”… and a friend to the slave, and he died a martyr to the cause… the emancipation of the slave” (Campbell 74). This example of slave resistance is unique in that it was led by a white man, showing the passion of some abolitionist whites. While Dr. Cotton’s exact intentions are not included in Campbell’s narrative, he had a relationship with the slaves’ preacher and may have had a moral reasoning for his beliefs (Campbell 71). Many abolitionists held “… hat the slave was a moral being, created in the image of God” (Foner 451). After large scale rebellions, the abolitionist movement became more solidified and a presence in the slavery debate. However, most acts of slave resistance were not group rebellions. Much of the resistance to slavery was small scale, individual acts between a slave and their slaveholder.
Although the slaves knew no maior breakdown of the system could occur as a result of their individual acts and risked fatal consequences, they still resisted to get closer to their dream of freedom. One common way was escaping, which threatened “… he stability of the slave system… ,” as slaves often ran to larger communities of free blacks in the South or the North (Foner 424). For example, Josiah Henson ran away, trusting the North Star to “… guide my feet in the way of hope” (Henson 76). His act of resistance was inspired by the hope of a free future, which also encouraged resistance on the plantation. Many resisted by retaliating against the violence of their slaveholders. For example, in one situation, after a master’s wife became angry at a slave girl, she sent for the slave-driver to whip her (Parker 153).
However, “when he came, the girl refused to be whipped… he beat her so badly that she was nearly killed… ” (Parker 154). In this instance, although the slave-driver hurt the girl, there was resistance in her first refusing to be beaten. Another example from the narrative of Solomon Northup describes a situation when a slave girl denied the charges of misbehavior, causing her whipping by Northup (Northup 255). Northup only did so until “throwing down the whip, I declared I could punish her no more” (Northup 257). As a result, the girl was whipped more harshly.
Both of these slaves showed resistance against the violence of their masters’ orders, refusing to commit these acts. While refusing violence and running away were common ways to resist their slaveholders, other slaves chose to disobey or openly disagree with their master’s orders verbally. Slaves talking back to their slaveholders was another type of small-scale resistance, although it still had dangerous potential for punishment. In one situation, Milton Clarke, a slave, spoke badly of his master, saying “… see if the old man will think that is enough. ” (Clarke 85).
However, his master, unknowingly to Clarke, was able to hear him (Clarke 85). For these words of resistance, he was almost killed, receiving three hundred lashes (Clarke 85). Another situation of slaves speaking against their slaveholder occurred when William Parker told his master he would not work that day because “… it was raining, that I was tired, and did not want to work” (Parker 157). For this comment, the two men fought until Parker was able to run away to freedom (Parker 157). While they could protest against their owners on an individual scale, doing so was still dangerous in case of punishment.
Slaves could somewhat push their boundaries, as slaveholders needed to protect their investments and tried to avoid killing them (Foner 410). However, even the possibility of violence meant that slaves needed a strong reasoning to pursue resistance, such as the popularized idea of American freedom. The idea of American freedom was one reason many slaves individually resisted. While they recognized that these individual acts could not disband the system of slavery, their desire for freedom led them to continue pursuing these small acts in the face of potentially dangerous consequences (Foner 423).
In a country that glorified freedom, it was easy for this topic to influence slaves’ lives. Even when Nat Turner planned his rebellion, he originally chose the date July 4, an obvious connection to the Declaration of Independence, a foundation for the idea of American freedom (Foner 428). In the slave quarters, “… the desire for freedom was the constant theme of conversations… ” (Foner 423). For example, as one slave, Solomon Northup, stated about the topic: “they do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest white man’s, and to realize the injustice of laws… (Northup 260).
Freedom was their constant motivation to utilize these small opportunities for resistance. They held that it “… would bestow upon them the fruits of their own labors… the enjoyment of domestic happiness” (Northup 260). For the slaves, freedom was a symbol of hope for the future. Their strongly held dream of freedom, rooted in American ideas, caused resistance even in potential danger. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “the silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness” (Douglass 199).
Like Douglass, many slaves knew about the concept of American freedom and it was at the eart of their acts of resistance. The dream of freedom was also preached in sermons among slave congregations. This interpretation of Christianity encouraged and united slaves in group resistance. Resistance, large and small, created a lasting impact on the treatment and view of slaves. One common cause of large scale slave rebellions was religious meetings and sermons and small scale resistance was often inspired by the dream of American freedom. Resistance encouraged fear among white Southerners, new slave codes, and the continuation of the abolitionist movement.