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Servile Insurrection - Introduction

The fear of servile insurrection haunted the antebellum South. If servile insurrection was looming, firm and decisive action was required. Southern writers and government officials were constantly aware of the possibility of insurrections. Publicity in regard to unrest and discontent among the slaves was avoided because of its effect upon the slaves. Nevertheless, there was a widespread and constant fear of servile insurrection.

The decades of the 1830s marked a turning point in the history of the Peculiar Institution. The rapid growth of large scale industrial plantation slavery was a dramatic departure from the paternalistic artisanal slavery of earlier times. And this mature slavery evolved sophisticated tools of social control that rendered servile insurrection a thing of the past. Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 is probably the best known insurrection, but it was also the last.

The term "uppity" was used by southerners for black people who didn't know their place - an "uppity nigger" - the first step on the path to servile insurrection. In Nights with Unlcle Remus [1881] the reader learns of "dat nigger gal be a-holl'in' en a-bawlin' atter you all 'roun' dish yer plan'ation. She de mos' uppity nigger on de hill..."

As recently as 1922, one observed noted that "... the American negro is changing rapidly. The old type is not often found, but a lot of stuff has been written about their servitude to-day in the south. A well behaved negro is liked by the southern people in a way that none but a southern man can understand. It is only the 'uppity' type that is disliked."

The elaborate machinery of control was based upon the assumption that "social inertia" was not sufficient to maintain the subordination of the slave population. The constant recurrence of rebelliousness among the slaves all over the South justified this assumption of the white masters. They generally recognized that there were forces within the slave system tending to cause discontent and unrest.

Slavery was not a perpetual race riot. In his book on the colonization of Africa, Sir Harry Johnston stated that the African was a "born slave" and enumerated, among the qualities which fitted him for his naturally servile condition, his "great physical strength, docility, cheerfulness of disposition," and "short memory for sorrows and cruelties." Although the experiences of the slavers on the African coast, and even the experiences of slave-buyers and of slave-holders in the United States, would have contradicted Johnston's preconceptions, the notion had been generally accepted in the United States that Africans responded to their enslavement with passivity and docility.

Herbert Aptheker (pronounced AP-tek-er), the prolific Marxist historian best known for his seven-volume "Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States". In September 1939, just after he began working toward his doctorate, he joined the Communist Party, and remained a member until 1991. He was a dominant voice on the American left in the 1950s and 1960s and as one of the first scholars to denounce American military involvement in Vietnam. Because of his politics he was excluded from academic life until 1969. Herbert Aptheker was a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. His works include American Negro Slave Revolts, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement, and The Correspondence of W.E.B.DuBois. His book, "American Negro Slave Revolts", was a pioneering work that demolished the widespread claims that African Americans accepted slavery and were passive.

In order to give a more realistic account of the response of the African to enslavement, Aptheker made a thorough and comprehensive study of practically all the available sources of information bearing on the question. He reached the conclusion that "discontent and rebelliousness were not only exceedingly common, but, indeed, characteristic of the American Negro slaves." This conclusion was at variance with the generally accepted opinions concerning the contentedness of the slaves, up to the later years of the 20th Century.

James Hugo Johnston's Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, 1776-1860, first appeared as an unpublished dissertation in 1937 at the University of Chicago. Johnston's essay on the participation of white people in slave insurrections which appeared in The Journal of Negro History in 1931. Johnston in that work repeatedly called attention to the fear of slave outbreaks and to the "many attempt and plots to bring about the freedom of the slaves by concerted action".

Herbert Aptheker wrote "Slavery, being violative of central religious concepts and of the founding principles or this nation, required an elaborate rationalization ... this mythology had its contradictions: thus, while it was generally insisted that the black was especially and naturally meek and docile, on the other hand, and simultaneously, it was held that he was - or could be - particularly brutal and "savage." But in accordance with the central myth for the United States - the idyllic character of plantation slavery - discontent and rebelliousness were held to be altogether rare and exceptional - whatever might have been true elsewhere and at other times. The centrality of this for the slaveholding class and for their apologists is clear.

Aptheker wrote in 1941 in Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life "The Negro people persistently fought against enslavement. One of the most interesting features of the record of this fight is the fact that in several instances of organized attempts at rebellion an important precipitant appears to have been the firm conviction that they had already been freed but were being illegally held by their masters, or that great movements to set them free were in motion and needed but their active support to accomplish the object. That is, the idea of freedom seems to have pervaded the Negro's mind to such an extent that events having no direct relation with his condition of servitude were often seized upon by him as excuses for attempting to realize the idea."

"The classical proponent and defender of this viewpoint in historiography was Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, whose American Negro Slavery (1918) was the bible of white supremacy in the area of history, as, in about the same period, was Bean's work in anatomy, Burgess' in political economy, and Ferguson's in psychology. Bean was a fraud, Burgess a medievalist, Ferguson a charlatan, and Phillips a devout white supremacist who was as incapable of writing truth fully of what it meant to be a Negro slave in the Unittd States as it would have been for Joseph Goebbels to have written truthfully of what it meant to be a Jew in post World War I Germany."

Some regional historians, while implying that discontent and disaffection may have been common elsewhere, affirm that in the locality of their particular interest these conditions were rare or non-existent. Others, dealing with a brief period of time, declare that signs of unrest were lacking therein, but they often admit that this may not be true for other eras. Many eminent historians, discussing more general subjects, assumed a similar position on this particular question, a few expressing very strong opinions. Thus John Fiske thought "that the rarity of manifestations of slave unrest was one of the remarkable facts in American history." James Schoulcr, reaching a similar conclusion, based it upon " the innate patience, docility. and child-like simplicity of the negro" who, he felt, was "an imitator and non-mora list", learning "deceit and libertinism with facility," being "easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots"; in short Negroes were .. "a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, children in imagination ... ".

Slavery was based in large part on the systematic dehumanization of African Americans. To that end, the tensions and antagonisms between African Americans and whites sometimes culminated in conflict. Although there were no successful revolts in the United States, open defiance, or even a rumor of revolt had residual effects that increased planter paranoia.

Through all of this, African Americans and masters continued to live together in a social structure marked, above all, by distrust. Slaveowners organized patrols, restricted African American travel and gatherings, controlled African American access to weapons and information and inspected the enslaveds quarters. Slaveholding elites also regulated white behavior in attempts to increase security. One example among many occurred in 1739, when the South Carolina legislature passed the Security Act. A response to white fear of insurrection, the act required that all white men carry firearms to church on Sundays. Whites caught ignoring the law were subject to fines.

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Page last modified: 21-10-2017 19:08:31 ZULU