White Fears of Rebellion

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White Fears of Rebellion

Most white Southerners, if directly questioned on the matter, would not have admitted that they held any fear of a slave insurrection. To have done so would have been to deny one of the central tenets of their way of life: that slaves were fundamentally docile and content beings who fully accepted the notion that they were the primary beneficiaries of the "peculiar institution." Southern newspapers, when they addressed rumors of impending slave uprisings at all, generally absolved slaves of responsibility for leading these conspiracies, instead accusing outside agitators—most commonly Northern abolitionists or free African Americans—of being responsible for stirring discontent. Yet the general hysteria that inevitably followed news of an actual attempted rebellion—or even vague rumors of such a plot—demonstrates the self-deception that lay at the heart of this reassuring claim, while private correspondence reveals the depth of concern felt by many Southerners over the slave population's potential to rise up in rebellion.

The root of this dread lay in simple mathematics. For every one slaveholder living in the South on the eve of Civil War in 1860, there were ten African Americans, whether free or enslaved (or just under 400,000 slaveholders against 4.2 million blacks). Although the total white population of the South stood at 8 million, African Americans actually outnumbered whites in South Carolina and Mississippi and came close to doing so in several other states. And in certain districts, whites made up only a tiny portion of the total population. What they lacked in numerical strength, however, slaveholders made up for in superiority of arms. From colonial times onward, Southern legislatures enacted and enforced a variety of increasingly stringent slave codes designed to keep African Americans firmly under control: They were generally forbidden from traveling without their master's explicit permission; they were not allowed to be taught to read or write; large gatherings and some religious activities were prohibited; they were not permitted to carry a weapon; and their masters could discipline them in whatever manner they deemed appropriate. In order to enforce these rules and avert a full-scale rebellion, regular slave patrols were organized. Normally tasked with the responsibility of monitoring the movement of slaves, at times of crisis these patrols took the lead in gathering evidence of wrongdoing and in hunting down those slaves involved in a conspiracy; their other responsibility was to alleviate the local population's fears of further trouble. Punishments for those found guilty of conspiring against the white population were severe. After one such event in North Carolina resulted in two whites being poisoned, for example, one female slave was burned alive, several more hanged, another banished from the state, and one was "pilloried, whipped, his ears nailed down and then cut off" (Aptheker 1969, p. 242). During larger scares, regular slave patrols were frequently augmented by poor whites, who took the opportunity to run rampant through the local black community, making no distinction between the innocent and alleged conspirators. For a week following the failure of the Turner rebellion of 1831, whites in Virginia massacred numerous slaves and free blacks innocent of any involvement in the plot; at the same time, every leader of the failed uprising was hunted down and executed as an example to any other would-be Spartacus.

The brutality that frequently occurred after the uncovering of even small-scale slave conspiracies conclusively demonstrates deep-rooted white fear of a Southern slave rebellion. Indeed, so ingrained was the fear of a slave-led revolt that it outlived even the Confederacy; the last such scare occurred over Christmas 1865, when many white Southerners believed that the newly emancipated African American population was planning a general insurrection, resulting in several counties authorizing additional patrols to safeguard their communities.


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

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

Grimsted, David. American Mobbing, 1828–1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hadden, Sally E. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

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

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

                                   Simon J. Appleford