Resistance and Rebellion Overview

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Resistance and Rebellion Overview

The scholarship of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (1877–1934) dominated the historical perspective on slavery for the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in the 1910s and 1920s, Phillips referred to plantations as being schools "constantly training and controlling pupils who were in a backward state of civilization" (1918, p. 290). Indeed, according to Phillips, slaves were happy-golucky "savages" who were well taken care of by kindly masters; as the purported beneficiaries of slavery, they had no desire to escape from what was fundamentally a benign institution. Phillips took this argument further by refusing to categorize incidents of slave resistance as a legitimate reaction to an inherently repressive system, instead dismissing them as indefensible crimes that fully justified whatever punishment was deemed necessary by whites, including lynchings. Herbert Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts, first published in 1943, was the first monograph to reject the portrayal of slaves as docile beings, which was implied by Phillips and his adherents; on the contrary, he argued, slaves constantly sought to undermine the authority of the plantation through daily shows of defiance. Indeed, resistance to slavery was so widespread that Aptheker was able to amass evidence of approximately 250 alleged slave plots and uprisings. In an unmistakable rebuke of Phillips, Aptheker concluded that the "fundamental factor provoking rebellion against slavery was the social system itself, the degradation, exploitation, oppression, and brutality which it created, and with which, indeed, it was synonymous" ([1943] 1969, p. 139).

Despite the persuasiveness of Aptheker's work, however, many historians of the time questioned both his methodology and his political sympathies and it was not until Kenneth Stampp published his book The Peculiar Institution in 1956 that the paternalistic view of slavery was finally shattered. Deliberately mimicking the organization of Phillips's American Negro Slavery, Stampp refuted Phillips point by point, using advertisements for runaway slaves published in newspapers and slave autobiographies to paint a very different picture of plantation life. Assuming that "the slaves were merely ordinary human beings, that innately Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more nothing less" (p. vii), Stampp flatly rejected the notion that the plantation system served to civilize the slave and instead graphically portrayed a repressive system that subjected its victims to daily indignities. Both Aptheker and Stampp sought to portray slaves as fully cognizant of the fact that they were the victims of a system that relied on their absolute submission to the demands of whites; that slaves remained a troublesome property for many masters is testament to their natural reaction against an inhumane system.

Although the work of Aptheker and Stampp laid the groundwork for much of the subsequent scholarship on slavery and slave resistance, later historians have sought to acquire a more nuanced understanding of the mental world of slaves by considering the influence of African culture in encouraging—or impeding—rebellious thoughts and actions. Eugene Genovese (1979), for example, has observed that in the prerevolutionary period, African-born slaves took the lead in mounting "the most dramatic insurrectionist thrusts" (p. 6), whereas second- and third-generation slaves took a more accommodationist stance aimed at ensuring "their survival as a people even as slaves" (p. 18). Gerald Mullin, meanwhile, maintained in his 1972 book Flight and Rebellion that the modes of resistance employed by newly arrived Africans were generally more random, more unfocused, more violent, more individualistic, and less of a threat to slavery as an institution than the types of resistance undertaken by those who had been successfully assimilated into American culture. This argument was further developed by Richard Dunn (1972) and foreshadowed by Stanley Elkins (1959), who both have argued that the necessity of overcoming linguistic barriers and tribal rivalries made it substantially more difficult for African-born slaves to mount organized revolts against slaveholders. The more recent scholarship of Walter Rucker (2006), however, has made a convincing case that, far from creating obstacles, the rich African culture nurtured by even American-born slaves facilitated the creation of a strong collective movement.

Although they were, by necessity, forced to outwardly accommodate the roles dictated by their masters, slaves were in fact able to nourish a concept of freedom and found numerous ways, both subtle and not so subtle, to resist the institution of slavery. Indeed, the records of slavery are full of the sorts of violence and brutality that slave owners periodically resorted to in order to discipline their slaves. Such abuse would have been unnecessary if slaves had willingly submitted to the roles assigned to them by masters and if they were willingly diligent in their labor. On a daily basis slaves found ways to affect the operation, and thus the profitability, of the plantation; they broke or lost tools, feigned ignorance or even illness, and worked at a deliberately slow pace, all to undermine the authority of their overseers.

Some slaves took more direct actions, such as assaulting overseers, absconding from the plantation for extended periods of time, and sometimes even committing suicide as a final act of defiance. Although many runaways ultimately returned to the plantation of their own volition and the chances of successfully evading the numerous slave patrols and of escaping north to freedom were slim, the relatively high incidence of runaway slaves—Mississippi Governor John Quitman (1799–1858), testifying for the need for a strong fugitive slave law in 1850, claimed that as many as 100,000 slaves had run away between 1810 and 1850—is further evidence to dispel the notion of African American docility and submission to slavery. Religion provided another avenue of resistance for many slaves, with the church frequently operating as a revolutionary black institution that allowed many slaves to assume leadership roles within their communities while also offering an opportunity to fashion a belief system that emphasized the future salvation of an entire people. Not coincidentally, three of the major slave insurrections or scares of the nineteenth century had significant religious overtones.

Despite daily acts of sabotage, the frequency with which slaves ran away, and the numerous plots and attempted uprisings, slave resistance was never a serious threat to the system of slavery in any locale. Yet the fact that enslaved blacks never stopped exerting this constant pressure against their master's control over them is proof of the discontent and rebelliousness that was characteristic of slaves in the American South.


Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts [1943]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Elkins, Stanley. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Genovese, Eugene. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Mullin, Gerald W. Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Régime. New York and London: D. Appleton, 1918.

Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Rucker, Walter C. The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

                                   Simon J. Appleford