Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the English textile industry grew at an incredible pace. Work was reorganized so that a relatively small number of individuals controlled the buying of cotton and its spinning, weaving, and sale as cloth. Some of the new technologies were simple, others, complex, involving large factories. But the new industry was characterized by a heightened specialization of labor, the ability of some men to purchase the time of others as cheaply as possible, and the need of masses of people to sell their labor in order to make a living. The growth of the textile industry signaled the beginnings of a general reorganization of production under capitalism.
The freedom of individuals to buy and sell labor—of owners to hire and fire whomever they pleased and of workers to work for whomever they chose—was central to the system. But most of the individuals who produced the raw cotton that eventually became cloth were slaves, people without such freedom. First, long-staple cotton, which grew only in the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia, fed the textile business. Short-staple cotton was hardy and could grow in varied climates, but the seeds stuck in the cotton bolls, making it unfit for spinning. Then, in 1793, an American inventor, Eli Whitney, developed his famous cotton gin, which easily separated fiber from seed. Now cloth could be produced from any kind of cotton.
Soon the cotton culture spread inland from the southern coast, overrunning Alabama and Mississippi by the 1830s, Texas and Louisiana slightly later. Textile mills opened in America and England, and despite ups and downs, the overall demand for cotton products in world markets seemed unlimited. The new industry spurred the expansion of other businesses, including banking, shipping, and insurance, as well as retailing, importing, and exporting. Thus, cotton was one of the most important ingredients in the development of modern capitalism, and where cotton spread, so did slavery. Here was an irony: The same product that had nurtured a free-labor capitalistic economy also was essential to the growth and extension of slavery, an ancient system antithetical to the free-labor marketplace. If cotton cloth production was the great engine of modern capitalism, enslaved men and women drove that engine. Freedom for some, then, depended on the bondage of others.
Before the great boom in cotton demand, the institution of slavery had been on the defensive. Especially in England, evangelical Christians, reformers, and advocates of free labor were beginning to push for outlawing the slave trade with Africa and, in some extreme cases, for the manumission of slaves in the Americas. The new American Constitution allowed Congress to prohibit the slave trade after 1808, and by 1820, the northern states had either outlawed servitude or were in the process of doing so. In the South, however, slavery had always been stronger, and if many whites justified it as a necessary evil, they nevertheless were not about to divest themselves of their most important form of productive property. Once the demand for short-staple cotton developed, slavery in the South became linked with opening up new western lands and providing economic opportunity for ambitious white men. By the early nineteenth century, bondage and a distinct southern way of life were joined, and before long, whites spoke of the enslavement of blacks as a positive good.
It was not a positive good for the slaves. When the importation of new Africans slowed early in the century, black culture began to change. Many African practices, customs, and beliefs remained, but large parts of the culture of whites became part of black ways. English—although in the form of a patois filled with African words and grammatical constructions—became the dominant language of African Americans. Many slaves were converted to Christianity, though in their own religious services, they incorporated African ideas about God and the spiritual world. Memories of an African homeland never disappeared, but increasingly these remembrances were secondhand, passed through the generations. Blacks forged a distinctive hybrid culture, including their own music, family structure, worship, humor, and social hierarchy.
African Americans needed all of their resources to survive a cruel system. At its worst, slavery meant the breakup of families on an owner’s whim, whippings to enforce discipline, and even death for insubordination. Perhaps the daily grind was worse than the atrocities, for African Americans lived with being stigmatized as an inferior race, having no control over their work or the products of their labor, and having little hope that their lives would get better. Most masters provided roughly enough to eat, but the food was too often an unchanging regimen of corn meal, fat pork, molasses, and, for the lucky ones, the produce of their own small gardens. Sometimes work clothes barely kept them covered through the seasons, and housing often consisted of one-room dirt-floor slave cabins, places impossible to keep dry and disease-free. Slaves generally worked from sunrise to sunset, planting, hoeing, and harvesting, mostly in the brutal southern summers. Women labored alongside men except just before and after childbirth; the very elderly took care of the very young, though both groups were given their own tasks.
There was, of course, variation within slavery. Staple crops like rice, indigo, and sugarcane dictated rhythms of production different from those of cotton; slaves on large plantations had the most distance from the whites, meaning less personal kindness if there was any to be had, but also more independence. A minority of blacks worked as house servants or as skilled laborers, jobs with more diversity than field work, but with greater scrutiny by whites. Some sadistic masters worked their slaves nearly to death, but these were relatively rare. In most cases, a battle of wits was waged constantly, African Americans doing their best to preserve a bit of autonomy, free time, or pleasure, masters trying to get as much labor out of their slaves as possible.
It was a common sight in the Old South: slaves chained to each other enroute to being sold away from family and friends. (© Bettmann/Corbis)
Most African Americans never openly rebelled against the system. Slave codes did not allow blacks to have weapons, use drums (important signaling devices in Africa), or congregate in large numbers. Whites were well armed, outnumbered blacks in most states, and had organized patrols to discourage insubordination. While slaves certainly would have preferred freedom to bondage, the risks of death or of being sold away from loved ones were overwhelming. If day-to-day life was harsh, it was usually stable enough to allow for the shared joys of conversation, play, and worship with kin and neighbors—humble pleasures, but not worth risking. Opposition to the slave system therefore took small and underground forms: resting as the overseer looked away, telling jokes about particular whites, stealing a hog for meat, running off for a few hours or days to get a bit of freedom, or in more extreme cases, secretly destroying tools and other white property, burning down a barn, and even poisoning individual masters.
Occasionally, too, there were organized rebellions. None of those in the United States were ever as massive or successful as those in Latin America. Both blacks and whites spoke in hushed tones of the revolution in Saint Domingue (Haiti) during the 1790s. There, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a long and bloody rebellion that resulted in the overthrow of French rule and freedom for the slaves. Southern states banned refugees from Saint Domingue, but the revolts in Latin America had become legendary events for many blacks. The largest attempt at rebellion in the United States was the conspiracy of 1800, in which preacher and blacksmith Gabriel Prosser organized hundreds of slaves in a plan to seize Richmond, Virginia, set fire to the city, and capture the governor. Heavy rain prevented the planned attack, after which the conspiracy was betrayed. Nat Turner, literate and charismatic, led the bloodiest rebellion on these shores. On August 22, 1831, this preacher and religious mystic led dozens of others on an attack through Southampton County, Virginia; sixty whites died before the rebellion was crushed, and as many as two hundred blacks were executed in the aftermath.
The documents in this chapter come from the 1822 trial of Denmark Vesey, and from David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Like Gabriel Prosser, Vesey was a free black, a man of unusual learning, skill, and independence. As in the Richmond plot of 1800, Vesey’s rebellion was betrayed before it could begin, and it is therefore very difficult to know just how large it might have been. His lieutenants were able and persuasive men, though it is hard to credit claims that thousands had been enlisted for the rebellion. Particularly interesting, however, were the sorts of appeals made by the conspirators. One leader, Gullah Jack, offered magical invulnerability, and his legendary abilities as a conjurer embodied the slaves’ African heritage. Vesey pitched his appeals on several levels: The Bible, he taught, sanctioned rebellion against bondage; the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were antithetical to slavery; and the Caribbean revolts offered precedents for rebellion. Walker, too, justified black rebellion with the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. He also appealed to a glorious African past (but rejected colonization of American slaves back to Africa) and declared that the United States rightfully belonged to blacks as well as whites.
Introduction to Document 1
If open rebellions were not common in North America, they nonetheless revealed the desperation some slaves felt and the fears of whites that blacks longed to be free. When the Vesey conspiracy was over, thirty-five slaves were hanged and thirty-one banished from the United States. The following are excerpts from the published report of the June 1822 trial of Vesey and his lieutenants on the charge of inciting an insurrection. It was originally entitled An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged with an Attempt to Raise an Insurrection (Charleston, South Carolina, 1822). It was written by the two presiding magistrates, Lionel H. Kennedy and Thomas Parker, both local attorneys. While not a verbatim transcript of the proceedings, it summarized much of the case against the conspirators.
We must read this testimony carefully, always questioning the witnesses’ motives, for both blacks and whites saw incidents through a veil of fear. Masters wanted to make an example of slaves, while slaves sought to protect each other and themselves. What is unmistakably clear, however, is that several blacks had thought long and hard about their plan, had worked out a sophisticated ideology of freedom, and had been quite persuasive in gaining converts, despite the desperate odds against them. As you read these selections, try to imagine how great the risks were that the slaves took. What sustained them as they gambled with their lives? And what kept other slaves from joining them?
DOCUMENT 1 The Trials
The Court organized for the trial of sundry Negroes apprehended and charged with attempting to raise an Insurrection amongst the Blacks against the Whites, and of such others as might be brought before them on the same charge, met on Wednesday, the 19th June, 1822. . . .
THE TRIAL OF ROLLA, a Negro man, the slave of His Excellency, Governor Bennett—Jacob Axson, Esq., attending as counsel for his owner.
Witness no. 1 A Negro man testified as follows: I know Rolla, belonging to Mr. Thomas Bennett, we are intimate friends; all that I know of the intended Insurrection I got from him. About three months ago he asked me to join with him in slaying the whites, I asked him to give me time to consider it; a week after he put the same question to me, and at the end of another week he again came to me on the same subject. I told him “take care, God says we must not kill”; you are a coward he said and laughed at me. He said he would tell me how it was to be done. There are said he, white men who have come from off, and who say that Santo Domingo and Africa will assist us to get our liberty if we will only make the motion first. I advised him to let it alone, and told him I would oppose them if they came to kill my owner, when he again laughed at me as a coward. He summoned me to go to their meetings where said he you will hear what is going on and be better informed; I told him yes, I would go. Friday night about three weeks ago he appointed to take me with him to their meeting; at that night he came to me and again summoned me to go to the meeting, I went away from him, I went out of his way. The next day he came to me and said the meeting had been expecting me and I must send my name to be put down as one of the band—this thing has been going on for four months. He told me that at the meeting it was said that some white men said Congress had set us free, and that our white people here would not let us be so, and that Santo Domingo and Africa would come over and cut up the white people if we only made the motion here first—that last Saturday night (the 15th June) might be the last he had to live, as they were determined to break open the thing on Sunday night (the 16th June). I told him it could not be done, it would not succeed, that our parents for generations back had been slaves, and we had better be contented. . . . I asked Rolla what was to be done with the women and children? he said, “when we have done with the fellows, we know what to do with the wenches.” He said there are a great many involved in it in the country; that Mungo from James’ Island was to come over to Charleston with 4,000 men, land on South Bay, march up and seize the Arsenal by the Guard House and kill all the City Guard; that another body was to seize upon the Powder Magazine, and another body to take the United States’ Arsenal on the Neck, then march to town and destroy the inhabitants, who could only escape by jumping into the river. My Army he said will first fix my old buck and then the Intendant. I asked him if he could bind his master or kill him; he laughed at me again; I then told him I would have nothing to do with him. He said he was going to John’s Island to hasten down the country Negroes, as he feared they would not come. I felt that it was a bad thing to disclose what a bosom friend had confided to me, and that it was wicked to betray him, and I suffered a great deal before I could bring myself to give information, but when I thought on the other hand that by doing so I would save so many lives and prevent the horrible acts in contemplation, ’twas overbalanced, and my duty was to inform. I refused to go to the meetings as Rolla wished, as I feared if I opposed them there, they might make away with me to prevent me from betraying them. . . . I know Denmark Vesey—I was one day on horseback going to market when I met him on foot; he asked me if I was satisfied in my present situation; if I remembered the fable of Hercules and the Waggoner whose wagon was stalled, and he began to pray, and Hercules said, you fool put your shoulder to the wheel, whip up the horses and your waggon will be pulled out; that if we did not put our hand to the work and deliver ourselves, we should never come out of slavery; that Congress had made us free. . . .
Rolla’s threats are that if any black person is found out giving information or evidence against them, they would be watched for day and night and be certainly killed. Even now the friends of those in prison are trying about the streets to find out who has given information—If my name was known I would certainly be killed. . . .
The voluntary confession of Rolla to the Court, made after all the evidence had been heard, but before his conviction: I know Denmark Vesey. On one occasion he asked me what news, I told him none; he replied we are free but the white people here won’t let us be so, and the only way is to rise up and fight the whites. I went to his house one night to learn where the meetings were held. I never conversed on this subject with Batteau or Ned—Vesey told me he was the leader in this plot. I never conversed either with Peter or Mingo. Vesey induced me to join; when I went to Vesey’s house there was a meeting there, the room was full of people, but none of them white. That night at Vesey’s we determined to have arms made, and each man put in 12 1/2 cents towards that purpose. Though Vesey’s room was full I did not know one individual there. At this meeting Vesey said we were to take the Guard House and Magazine to get arms; that we ought to rise up and fight against the whites for our liberties; he was the first to rise up and speak, and he read to us from the Bible, how the Children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage. He said that the rising would take place, last Sunday night week, (the 16th June). . . .
The court unanimously found Rolla guilty. After sentence of death had been passed upon him, he made a confession in prison to the Rev. Dr. Hall, who furnished the Court with it in writing, and in the following words: “I was invited by Denmark Vesey to his house, where I found Ned Bennett, Peter Poyas, and others, some were strangers to me, they said they were from the country. Denmark told us, it was high time we had our liberty, and he could show us how we might obtain it. He said, we must unite together as the Santo Domingo people did, never to betray one another, and to die before we would tell upon one another. He also said he expected the Santo Domingo people would send some troops to help us. The best way, said he, for us to conquer the whites, is to set the town on fire in several places, at the Governor’s Mills, and near the Docks, and for every servant in the yards to be ready with axes, knives, and clubs, to kill every man as he came out when the bells began to ring. He then read in the Bible where God commanded, that all should be cut off, both men, women and children, and said, he believed, it was no sin for us to do so, for the Lord had commanded us to do it. But if I had read these Psalms, Doctor, which I have read, since I have been in this prison, they would never have got me to join them. At another meeting, some of the company were opposed to killing the Ministers, and the women and children, but Denmark said, it was not safe to keep one alive, but to destroy them totally, for you see, said he, the Lord has commanded it. When I heard this, master Hall, my heart pained me within, and I said to myself, I cannot kill my master and mistress, for they use me, more like a son, than a slave. I then concluded in my mind, that I would go into the country, on Saturday evening, before they were to commence on Sunday, that I might not see it. Some of the company asked, if they were to stay in Charleston; he said no, as soon as they could get the money from the banks, and the goods from the stores, they should hoist sail for Santo Domingo, for he expected some armed vessels would meet them to conduct and protect them.” . . .
THE TRIAL OF DENMARK VESEY, a free black man—Col. G. W. Cross attending as his counsel. . . .