Let Your Motto Be Resistance
Emancipation was not the product of one act, but many Americans, enslaved and free, chipped away at slavery through daily acts of resistance, organized rebellions, and political pressure. Some were small steps, others were organized actions taking advantage of national debates to fracture and destroy the peculiar institution.
Acts of Defiance
Enslaved black southerners fought slavery in ways large and small—from open rebellion to subtle acts of resistance. Some ran away, poisoned food, or preached freedom at religious services held in secret. Yet for many people survival itself was a form of resistance. While their lives were curtailed by the institution of slavery, freedom was never far from their thoughts.
Harriet Tubman escaped the bonds of slavery as a young woman in the early 1800s. She returned to the South many times as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad to lead other African Americans to freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a spy, nurse, and cook for Union forces. In 1863, she helped free more than 700 African Americans during a raid in South Carolina—a feat that earned her the nickname “General Tubman.”
Slave rebellions carried bloody consequences. Rebels were executed. Family, friends, and neighbors might be beaten and killed. In some cases, slaveholders placed the bloodied and dismembered bodies in public view to remind passersby of slavery’s awful power. Nevertheless, against terrible odds, enslaved people rebelled.
The largest slave rebellions included Stono (South Carolina, 1739), New York City (1741), Gabriel’s Rebellion (Richmond, Virginia, 1800), St John’s Parish (Louisiana, 1811), Fort Blount (Florida, 1816), Vesey’s Rebellion (Charleston, South Carolina, 1822), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Southampton County, Virginia, 1831), Amistad Mutiny (slave ship, 1839), and the Creole Revolt (slave ship, 1841).
Nat Turner’s Rebellion
Enslaved people rose up against slaveholders in Southampton County, Virginia, on August 21, 1831. Led by Nat Turner, rebels moved from plantation to plantation, murdering roughly 55 whites and rallying enslaved people to their cause. They planned to move on to Jerusalem, Virginia, seize supplies, and then make a permanent home in the Great Dismal Swamp. By August 23, the rebels had been defeated. More than 200 black men and women, both enslaved and free, were executed. Nat Turner’s Rebellion alarmed Americans and inflamed the debate over the future of slavery.
In the North, abolitionists used many strategies to attack slavery. Like William Lloyd Garrison, some advocated the gradual emancipation of enslaved people. Others took direct action, such as Harriet Tubman who led enslaved people to freedom. John Brown attacked slavery with guns, swords, and pikes. Some tried politics, writing so many letters to Congress that work in the Capitol ground to a halt. Black or white, radical or conservative, abolitionists formed a small but potent force that shifted the political rhetoric in the United States and helped end slavery.