Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991)
The Prerevolutionary South: Foundations of Culture and Community
This chapter describes the landscape and characteristics of the South before the Revolution. The Chesapeake was much different from the lower South, which depended on the production of rice for economic competition. Rice cultivation was common in states like South Carolina and Georgia, but less common in states like North Carolina. Virginia and North Carolina grew tobacco. In some places in Virginia, the slave population equaled the white population; in some places in South Carolina, slaves outnumbered whites. Whites and blacks worked together and lived in close proximity, but they developed different cultural norms. Big homes, churches, and courthouses served to unify the white community. Symbols of power like plantation homes served to unite whites. The bigger the plantations, the greater the separation between masters and slaves. Criminal codes for slaves expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the slave population increased. The Stono Rebellion of 1735 led Southern states to pass laws to deter slave insurrection. County courts retained ultimate punishment power over slaves. The most common religion in the South at this time was Anglicanism, although religion generally was spread out and not institutionalized. The gentry tended to be Anglican. The first effort to Christianize slaves in the South came from a missionary sect of Anglicans called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. This sect evangelized to blacks from roughly 1705-1760, at which point other denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists took up that role. As whites gradually sought to ensure their dominance through institutions, laws, and architecture, they also allowed slaves to cultivate a unique culture. The emerging black culture fused West African traditions with various, competing African American practices and with a new religious culture centering on the church. By the late eighteenth century, most slaves in America had been born in America. Slaves in the lowcountry, especially in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, were able to nourish and sustain an African-influenced culture. Family became the site of cultural cohesiveness for slaves and even helped to determine which African customs to retain and which to discard. By the eve of the Revolution, the monogamous slave family was not an established model partially because slaves lacked the legal and religious protocols for marriage. Polygyny was common among slaves and in keeping with West African traditions. Many slaves sought to preserve West African religious traditions. Gradually slaves adopted a Christian religion alongside but not within white Christianity. The growth of organized religion among slaves was a product of the Revolutionary era and was spearheaded by slaves themselves. The synthesis of republican ideals and religious sentiment emanating from the Great Awakening made for the budding antislavery movement.
Toward Independence: The Conflict over Slavery in a Revolutionary Context
The dislocations of the Revolutionary period were felt more in the South than elsewhere.
Quote: “Actual or potential resistance was a main factor in the development of Britain’s southern strategy. Influenced in part by slaves’ combative and aggressive behavior, British military leaders and Crown officials seized upon the idea of intimidating independence-minded white southerners with the threat of a slave rising without, however, actually inciting one. In the end the British strategy of manipulating conflict between the races became a rallying cry for white southern unity and impelled the South toward independence. The need to weaken slaves’ zeal for service with the British, which threatened to expose the moral absurdity of a society of slaveholders proclaiming the concepts of natural rights, equality, and liberty, formed part of the complex interaction of events that constituted the revolutionary war in the South. To that extent, the American Revolution in the South was a war about slavery, if not a war over slavery.” (45)
Whites’ fear of slave rebellion was not unfounded, especially in light of the number of insurrectionary plots that historians have uncovered. Not enough scholarship has addressed slave resistance in African slavery, but it appears that slave revolts in Africa were relatively uncommon. African slaves may not have had a revolutionary tradition, but they had a military tradition. From 1765-1785, slave uprisings became more common and widespread. Slaves in the North tried to take advantage of the rhetoric of Revolutionary ideology; slaves in the South probably did too, despite widespread slave illiteracy there. Runaway slaves formed towns for maroons, and these towns resembled maroon towns in places like Brazil and the West Indies. Increasingly the colonists associated slave militancy with British plots. Anxieties about slave uprising and slave alliance with the British were most intense in South Carolina and Georgia. That is probably because of slave rebellions on Sullivan’s Island, Tybee Island, and Savannah. London merchants and some figures of British Parliament expressed indignation at the idea of recruiting black slaves to fight against Americans. This indignation had to do with the social status of military men, the subordinate role that slaves traditionally played during warfare, and the precedent of slaves taking up arms against masters. Britons were bothered by the idea of arming slaves because of the near uprising of armed slaves in Jamaica in 1776. The British doubted the long-term viability of an alliance with slaves. The British, like the Americans, believed in the biological inferiority of blacks. The American decision to enlist volunteer slaves in the military helped the British make their decision to enlist slaves. George Washington realized that slavery was a military weakness because it encouraged slaves to side with the British; therefore, he advocated for the recruitment of black soldiers. Both the British and the Americans accused the other side of having forced them to enlist slaves in their military.
The Struggle for Freedom: British Invasion and Occupation of Georgia
In Georgia, slave resistance defined and motivated Britain’s slave strategy. Georgia had a large population of loyalists. Exaggerated reports of the number of loyalists, however, led the British to quixotically rearrange their military tactics to renew operations in Georgia and thereby restore the royal government. Georgia was not in a good financial situation, and the large population of slaves and natives there meant that Georgia would likely experience insurrections during the war. The coming of the British raised fear among American whites but hope and expectation among American slaves. Slave flight at this time was so common and widespread that it could, by definition, be called a revolt. Anticipating the oncoming British, many plantation owners and their families simply abandoned all their slaves, who fled to other places. Fugitive slaves were vulnerable to white violence. The British and Americans used slaves as prizes and rewards to please friends or to punish enemies. The slave flights and revolts resulted from British invasion and occupation of Georgia, although the British did not plan for such phenomena. The British were not necessarily pleased by these phenomena either, since such phenomena potentially meant a total collapse of the economic system. British victories resulted in the taking of American property, including slaves. Most slaves in the military served as laborers who built roads, supplied food, felled trees, and so on. Georgians sought to prevent the mass exodus of slaves because the Georgia economy depended on slavery. The British restored royal power in Georgia, and vigilante groups of rebels and loyalists rose up against one another in what essentially became a fratricidal campaign. Slaves were caught in the middle of this turmoil. Blacks were important to the defense of Savannah against the British, and blacks were also killed while serving in the ranks of the British. Slaves volunteered to defend Savannah in order to secure their freedom. Some of these slaves formed outlaw bands that neither army could regain control over. As a result, white gangs emerged to counteract the outlaw slaves. The recovery of Georgia’s economy depended on the recovery of Georgians’ slave system. A mass exodus of slaves occurred in Savannah in 1782. Ultimately, the British failed in their tactics to use slaves to ensure occupation of Georgia and to reinvigorate the Southern campaign. By forcing slaves to perform labor jobs in the military, the armies perpetuated the practice of keeping slaves. By treating slaves as war contraband, the British turned the Revolutionary War into a war over slaves and slavery. Slaves tried to capitalize on the advantages brought about by the war, but results were mixed.
The Triagonal War: British Invasion and Occupation of South Carolina
In South Carolina, a “triangular” situation defined British occupation. At two points of the triangle were white belligerents and at one point were at least 20,000 black slaves. As soon as British troops landed outside Charleston, they looked for spies, guides, and laborers among the slaves. At first contact, the British and African slaves could not understand each other, partially because of linguistic differences (many of the slaves spoke Gullah). When the British began their siege against Charleston, they went up against some 5,000 slaves among the rebel forces. The British began demanding allegiance and, in other places throughout Georgia and the Carolinas, prohibiting slave importation. Many whites moved north to Virginia. The British tried to use slaves as weapons against masters. The British tried to demoralize and weaken colonials by enlisting slaves in the British ranks. Many Charleston slaveowners fled north temporarily and left their slaves behind. Some slaves took advantage of this situation and fled for freedom; others stayed put. Many slaves distrusted the British. Because of the war, slaves did not find the conditions off the plantation desirable or favorable for escape. The British plundered South Carolinians’ property and took food that would have gone to slaves. Some slaves joined the Revolutionaries; some joined the British; most maintained cautious neutrality. There were more fugitive slaves than the British army could take in, so some British leaders suggested establishing a British plantation made up of former slaves. The British army employed strategies to maintain order in occupied territories such as Charleston; these strategies took the form of rules resembling American slave codes. To maintain the economy, which suffered from a sudden lack of slave labor, the British implemented a system that would restore slaves to loyalist owners.
If blacks joined the British army voluntarily, they were more likely to fight; if they were taken as prisoners, they were employed in menial jobs such as labor, housework, meat cutting, and so on. Many blacks took garrison duties to free up white troops for service. The British treated slaves as prizes of the war. Slaves were forced to make supplies for the British troops. By organizing slave labor and enlisting the most courageous slaves, the British defused the chances of slave rebellion. Army treatment of slaves was roughly similar to the army treatment of whites except that facilities and troops were segregated and the British believed slaves to be inferior. Disease rates among blacks were higher than among whites. Both fugitives and contrabands joined the British military. During a policy of systematic destruction of American property, the British confiscated slaves. Some blacks were given to loyalist families as gifts or as remuneration for support of the British; other slaves were given as rewards for officers who served extraordinarily. The army even sold some slaves for much needed profit. The British destruction of property energized the American cause and put slaves on plantations in dangerous positions. Slaves, for instance, constantly feared abduction. The British made some slaves retrieve deserters or plunder Revolutionaries. During the late stages of the war, the British proposed enlisting even more slaves. Britain’s losses in the South were outcome determinative for the war because the South had more loyalists than other regions. The British tactics both preserved and challenged the system of slavery. Slaves faced a dilemma: stay on plantations and enjoy relative freedoms made possible by the war, and yet risk remaining a slave forever; or chance freedom and risk death by enlisting in the army or otherwise siding with the British. Many attempted a third way by becoming fugitives.
The Ending of the War: Tragedy and Triumph at Yorktown
The Chesapeake was generally a site for periodic harassment rather than for a concentrated war effort by the British. Slaves suffered at the hands of British raiding parties. Rivers flowing through the Chesapeake allowed the British to conduct raids against Virginians. The British blockade of the Chesapeake in 1777, meant to thwart French aid to the American cause, ended blacks’ hope for freedom. During the British invasion of the Chesapeake, slave defections were rare. British raiders took colonists’ slaves throughout the Chesapeake region. Virginia slaveowners feared the British raids because slaves made up roughly half the population in Virginia. British raiders often perpetuated the institution of slavery by kidnapping and selling slaves they stole from Virginians. Many black Virginians chose neutrality because the British “liberators” seemed no different from their current masters. Benedict Arnold’s raids resulted in slave escapes; some of these escaped slaves joined British forces in the fight against colonists. There is no evidence to support the American claim that the British systematically transported and sold slaves as spoils of war. Evidence does suggest that a wartime slave market existed. Cornwallis saw an influx of slaves in his ranks and so decided to expel those slaves who were not “profitable” to him. Although small slave risings occurred throughout Virginia, there were no mass uprisings. Slaves frequently deserted the British army.
The Coming of Peace: British Evacuation and African-American Relocation
The war caused mass exiles among the Southern population, both black and white. Some blacks resettled in England, and some repatriated to Africa. Loyalists “stored” slaves in Savannah, and when rumors spread about an evacuation of Savannah, the British and loyalists disputed ownership of certain slaves. The British removed thousands of slaves from Savannah. Roughly 10,000 slaves were evacuated, some by military vessels, from Charleston. The British military promised freedom to slaves who joined its ranks but sold captured slaves to slave traders. British military leaders such as Carleton Leslie were tasked with distributing slaves between loyalists and the military or freeing slaves outright. In East Florida, where blacks outnumbered whites three to one, Governor Tonyn authorized the seizure of slaves to defend the colony. Bandits eventually began to raid East Florida. The Revolution brought about an influx of population, including slaveowners, in East Florida. Only a few slaves were removed to Jamaica. The disputes between loyalists and non-loyalists grew more heated, and lawsuits over slaves became more frequent. In the Bahamas, the black ratio of the population increased exponentially. Racial consciousness heightened as miscegenation became more common. Slave numbers increased throughout the Caribbean. Many Caribbean slaves became military slaves. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars created a demand for manpower that Caribbean slaves helped to satisfy. In 1791-92, there was a mass exodus of blacks from the Caribbean to West Africa. This migration stripped the Caribbean of much of its skilled labor. Black migrants to Sierra Leone brought revolutionary ideals with them. These migrants and migrants to Nova Scotia settled in neighborhoods along family lines. Black preachers brought Christianity to these regions. In the West Indies, British slaveowners discouraged the spread of Christianity among slaves.
The Aftermath of War: Demographic and Economic Transformations
The war had a devastating impact on the South and its economy. Crime increased in the South, and roads, shops, and infrastructure fell into disrepair. Livestock and agriculture was depleted. Staple crops declined. Eventually Northern banking and credit became bound up in the agriculture of the South. The flight of slaves during the Revolution contributed to planters’ loss of confidence. Whites began to think that the economy would recover only if slavery were restored. Whites sought to replace their slave losses by demanding an influx of slaves from Africa. Importations of slaves increased. At times that pace became so frenzied that it threatened economic stability. Thus, South Carolina temporarily suspended the slave trade. Slaves in Georgia began to move from the coastal areas to the backcountry. Bounties in slaves probably led to more slaveholdings in Georgia and South Carolina. Populations both white and black moved inland in Virginia. Planters began to fill rural Virginia, and merchants rushed to do business with the planters. The general westward population shift brought about changes in the way agriculture was conducted. The tobacco industry slowly revived. The Chesapeake began to compete with South Carolina and Georgia over tobacco production. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney changed patterns of agricultural production. In the Chesapeake, renting slaves became a more common practice. In the South, slaves were made to work in groups or gangs. The war caused these changes insofar as it forced westward migration and affected population. The war brought about an increase in unsanctioned commercial activity by slaves. This development suggests that slaves gained assertiveness during or after the war. Urban centers were the most ripe for development. During the war, slaves were willing to work for lower wages—or forced to work for free—and this trend meant that poor whites grew more hostile toward blacks. In Virginia in particular, slave rebelliousness increased. Christianity provided an ideology in keeping with Revolutionary ideals that slaves were able to harness as a source of agency. The postwar period ushered in maroon activity, slave plots, and insurrections. In Georgia and South Carolina, slave insurrections rose nearly to the level of warfare. To put down these insurrections, Georgia dispatched forces made up of state troops and Indians. Insurrection in Saint Domingue inspired insurrection in the U.S. South. Southern slaveowners sought to cut off communication with Saint Domingue as a result. The ideology of paternalism began to take root. The postwar period saw the development of racism in unified law. Black codes sprung up across the South. White society used law as a surveillance system that controlled blacks.
Two systems of law emerged: formal law and plantation law. The latter was unconcerned with justice and sought instead to punish and police. Some codes incorporated protective features to prevent overly harsh mistreatment of slaves. The law made it difficult if not impossible for slaves to defend themselves in court. Most state constitutions excluded blacks from voting. Slowly the idea caught on that blackness was a sign of inherent inferiority rather than merely slave status.
The Christian Social Order: Reformulating the Master’s Ideology
Struggling to reconcile the competing ideas of common humanity and human bondage, whites looked to Christianity to validate their dominance over slaves. Masters began to see the advantages of converting slaves. Revivals had to be cast so as to avoid association with the Northern antislavery movement. The Methodists were the first evangelical sect to denounce slavery. Few sects took definite, official stances on slavery. A small antislavery movement picked up but quickly died down. Church access to courts suggested a new political role for congregations. Soon Baptist speakers like Richard Furman sought to disassociate themselves for antislavery movements. Furman interpreted slavery as divinely ordained. Methodist preachers such as Reuben Ellis went great lengths to show that Methodism was not a threat to slavery. The Methodists and Baptists converted many slaves. Preachers like Furman attempted to legitimize slavery as a Christian practice and yet to insist on the humanity of slaves. Whites accepted blacks for church membership. There were even several black preachers in biracial churches. Nevertheless, blacks lacked major control over church affairs. Churches tried to inculcate values of submissiveness in slaves. For utilitarian reasons, religion served to facilitate social control and to reinforce plantation discipline. Several court cases began noting the humanity of slaves and establishing mutual obligations between slaves and masters.
The African-American Response: Black Culture within a White Context
Blacks created their own religious cultures within white Protestantism. The black Baptist church expanded. Some blacks separated from their white congregations to form their own congregation. Black itinerant preachers brought about a religious awakening. Congregations and styles differed from place to place. Gradually blacks began to prefer worshipping in black-only settings. Black Methodists were particularly successful in establishing their own churches. Afro-Christianity spread all across the South in both urban and rural settings. By the 1820s, black churches had established a unique identity based on African cultural elements blended with Christian tradition. Black congregations placed particular emphases on song and music. Death rights retained traditions passed down from Africa. Records of black churches and cemeteries tell us a lot about black adaptations of worship and Christianity. Black churches made events out of funerals. Slaves like Anthony Burns began to use Christianity to justify running away to freedom. White Baptist churches tended to punish slave thievery, but black Baptist churches defended slave thievery as compatible with natural law and divine will. Slaves maintained the African tradition of communal punishment, and the community was, according to tradition, made up of both the living and the dead. Black Baptist churches encouraged marriage, even though state law did not recognize marriages between slaves. The evangelical influence reinforced family, kinship ties, and community life. Black churches implemented education programs for, among other things, reading and writing, but it would be wrong to exaggerate the success of these and other church programs. The churches did form a collective social identity among blacks. This identity allowed blacks to challenge and grapple with the system that kept them in bondage. Sometimes blacks fused Christian theology and African tradition to forge military alliances such as those employed (and deployed) during Gabriel’s Revolt and the Vesey Plot.