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280 pp.

$70.00 cloth
ISBN 978-0-8078-2113-8

$22.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-4422-9

Published: Fall 1993

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Gabriel's Rebellion
The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802

by Douglas R. Egerton

Copyright (c) 1993 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


The spring of 1800 found Richmond, Virginia, a feverish tribute to partisan politics; the April elections for the General Assembly were crucial for both Federalists and Republicans in the upcoming presidential contest. The accompanying unrest, discord, and rumors of impending disunion inspired a young slave named Gabriel to conceive of what was perhaps the most extensive slave conspiracy in southern history. Most of his contemporaries, white as well as black, believed that his plan stood a good chance of succeeding. Had it done so, it might have changed not only the course of American race relations but also the course of American political history.

It is peculiar, therefore, that Gabriel's conspiracy has been either ignored or misunderstood by historians. Despite a wealth of documentation, the plot and its tragic aftermath have never been treated in full. True, Gabriel typically receives a perfunctory mention in most American history textbooks, although many identify him as Gabriel Prosser, thus giving him the surname of his owner, Thomas Henry Prosser (which no extant contemporary document does). Far too many scholars identify him as a free man, although his tenuous ties to his master make this error somewhat understandable. One writer has even insisted that Gabriel must have been Haitian, although the Virginia census of 1783 clearly places the then-seven-year-old boy on the Prosser plantation nearly a decade before Saint Domingue exploded into revolution. But of all the myths surrounding the events of 1800, surely the most durable is the erroneous idea that Gabriel was a messianic figure, an early national Nat Turner who wore his hair long in imitation of his biblical hero, Samson.

Several fictional treatments have attempted to rescue the slave rebel from the Samson legend, but in the process they have led readers and audiences into yet new myths. Arna Bontemps's vivid 1936 novel, Black Thunder, depicted Gabriel as a meek, apolitical bondman driven to revolt only by his master's cruel murder of an elderly slave. Thirty-two years later, Clifford Mason's powerful play Gabriel: The Story of a Slave Rebellion, placed the Virginia revolutionary in a generic plantation setting. By day, Mason's Gabriel was a common laborer in "Charlie" Prosser's cotton fields. By night, Mason's hero—in a development oddly reminiscent of the fiction that justifiably offended critics of William Styron's Nat Turner— was a sexual athlete who attended to the needs of the love-starved plantation mistress.

The historical Gabriel who emerges from the voluminous trial records was none of these things. The young husband was no rustic farmhand but a highly skilled blacksmith who hired out his time around the Richmond area. Far from being meek or timid, this born rebel had so little prejudice against violence that he once bit off the left ear of a white neighbor during an angry dispute over a stolen hog. Most of all, the Gabriel who engineered a complex conspiracy with branches in at least three Virginia cities was no apolitical servant but a literate artisan whose breadth of vision was truly international. Far from praying for the religious day of jubilee, the black Jacobin labored to gather together "the most redoubtable democrats in the state" to destroy the economic hegemony of the "merchants," the only whites he ever identified as his enemies.

This book unapologetically tells a story. This currently unfashionable approach need not, of course, eschew analysis. But Gabriel's short life— and the chain of events he precipitated—were dramatic, and it would be a nearly criminal act if the story did not unfold for the reader as it did for those who lived through it. In hopes of giving equal attention to both story and interpretation, the book is presented in two sections. Part 1 seeks to re-create the context of the conspiracy. The first chapters explore the political and economic landscape of Virginia during the two decades following the Revolution. The disorder of war and the climate of insubordination produced by the rebellious patriots, as well as the gentry's growing recognition of the hypocrisy in yelping for liberty while denying it to others, served to break down the old controls that held slavery in place, even as it emboldened bondmen to free themselves by tramping north— or by picking up a musket in the name of King George.

The pervasive language of liberty and equality, which reached its rhetorical peak during the overheated partisan warfare of the late 1790s, could not help but politicize black Virginians. This was particularly true of urban slaves and freemen who labored alongside stalwart white artisans, many of whom were members of the Democratic-Republican societies of Richmond and Norfolk. Most urban bondmen lacked a sophisticated understanding of the political issues they overheard, but that is hardly the point; popular revolutions often arise from conjunctions between the aspirations of the disenfranchised majority and the demands of the politically conscious minority. Only when Gabriel's plan is placed against the turbulent political background of 1800 does the logic of his conspiracy emerge.

By taking advantage of what he believed to be an impending civil war between Republicans and Federalists, Gabriel hoped his urban followers could force the Federalist "merchants" to yield to his simple demands for justice. It was not merely that the conspiracy developed during a time of division among whites; it was that artisan Gabriel, sharing the same small-producer ideology of many urban Republicans, hoped to join in and exploit that division. His faith was that white mechanics would see in his own struggle for liberty and economic rights grounds for accepting his support— and that of his soldiers. The remaining chapters of Part 1 chronicle the collapse of the plan and the execution of most of Gabriel's followers.

Part 2 carries the story beyond Gabriel's death; history, unlike literature, invariably fails to tie together all of its loose ends. The narrative moves through a second plot, an even more widespread—if less coherent and politically conscious—attempt to bring down the peculiar institution. Organized in late 1801 and early 1802 by Sancho, a minor recruiter who stood on the periphery of the earlier conspiracy, the Easter Plot, as it came to be known, finally grew so unwieldy that it snapped into three semiautonomous schemes, thus diminishing its chances for success.

The final chapters examine the unhappy legacy of the two near revolts. Between 1801 and 1805, the Virginia Assembly, terrified by the recurrent specter of true revolution, quietly debated the possibility of gradual emancipation—albeit with the qualifying tie of colonization. Following the failure of President Thomas Jefferson to implement its recommendations, the state legislature decided against any further plan of reform and chose instead to restore the old colonial instruments of control in order to better discipline a troublesome labor force and crush its rebellious spirit.

Although this book is the product of research conducted in ten repositories spread across five states and the District of Columbia, the fundamental source was the voluminous trial records stored in the Virginia State Library, in Richmond. Depositions and confessions taken by white authorities in courtrooms and jail cells are, of course, hardly neutral or objective documents. But a careful reading of these sources clearly indicates that Virginia jurists were honestly determined to get to the bottom of the affair. If they were terrified by the specter of black revolution, they were also tough, pragmatic men who wished to discover precisely what had happened so they could prevent its recurrence. Much of the courtroom testimony corroborates information supplied by other accused insurgents during pretrial questioning, yet there is no indication that white authorities asked leading questions. Slaves were questioned in isolation and (with only a few exceptions) without beatings. None of this is to imply that the accused received anything approaching a fair trial—or that they were indeed guilty of any crime. But it does indicate that the court records provide a generally sound window into the southern past and are not the wild transcripts of a witch-hunt organized by frightened planters determined to manufacture a slave conspiracy where none existed. When possible, I have supplemented the trial sources with material drawn from turn-of-the-century African American autobiographies and the Virginia slave narratives.

Because I wish to convey a sense of the time in which Gabriel lived, I have made no attempt to modernize or correct the spelling and grammar found in the trial records and correspondence relating to the conspiracy. I have also avoided the admonitory "[sic]" except when quoting recent historians. All additions within quotation marks appear in brackets.

In the writing of this book I have incurred more debts than mere acknowledgments will allow me to repay. Robert McColley, Graham R. Hodges, and Sylvia Frey provided detailed comments on the early portions of the work; Professor Frey also kindly allowed me to read portions of her then unpublished Water from the Rock, from which I profited enormously. Ronald Hatzenbuehler and Robert Paquette read Chapter 3 and supplied me with information about the political and international context of the conspiracy, and Clifford L. Egan caught more than one error in my discussion of the diplomatic consequences of the plots. Philip J. Schwarz read much of the manuscript in one form or another and generously shared some of his research with me. Jeffrey J. Crow and Bertram Wyatt-Brown read the material on the Easter Plot before it was presented to the Southern Historical Association and supplied me with pages of wise suggestions.

Most of all, I wish to thank those who have lived with this project the longest. Alan Gallay and Carolina Coleman waded through the entire typescript one chapter at a time, encouraging me in my work yet taking me to task for poorly defined ideas and even poorer prose. Richard R. Duncan, with unfailing good humor, set aside his own work on the last valley campaign to read yet another manuscript by his former pupil. The many references to Marcus Rediker in my footnotes are but small indications of the extent to which I have plundered his ideas on the Atlantic world in the Age of Revolution; his ready support and judicious counsel are ever appreciated. I am grateful also to Henny and Dave Yaworsky for the use and abuse of their Richmond home, and to my colleague Edward Judge for helping me to understand the complexities of WordPerfect. Peter Schroth supplied the excellent maps. Sarah Huggins, of the Virginia State Library, aided me in my efforts to locate the streets of turn-of-the-century Richmond, and Billy G. Smith performed a similar kindness in helping me identify the alleys of late-eighteenth-century Philadelphia. John Langdon proofed the galleys, a task that he also performed, regrettably unacknowledged, on a previous occasion. Lewis Bateman and Pamela Upton have my thanks for their support and patience with my chronic disregard for deadlines. I am grateful also to Jan McInroy for her help in transforming a manuscript into a book. As always, my greatest debt is to my wife, Linda. As recompense for her love, support, and sharp red pen, I hereby promise to stop living in Gabriel's century.

Parts of Chapter 3 appeared in the Journal of Southern History under the title "Gabriel's Conspiracy and the Election of 1800." Chapter 8, in a slightly different form, was published in the North Carolina Historical Review as "'Fly across the River': The Easter Slave Conspiracy of 1802." This material is reprinted with the kind permission of editors John B. Boles and Jeffrey J. Crow.

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