governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a "vacuum." The Indians, he said, had not "subdued" the land, and therefore had only a "natural" right to it, but not a "civil right." A "natural right" did
not have legal standing.
Puritans also appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: "Ask of me,
and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance,
and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession."
And to justify their use of force to take the land, they
cited Romans 13:2: "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power,
resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall
receive to themselves damnation."
Collier, an American scholar who lived among Indians in the
1920s and 1930s in the American Southwest, said of their
spirit: "Could we make it our own, there would be an
eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace."
There is not a country
in world history in which racism has been more important,
for so long a time, as the United States.
A Congolese leader,
told of the Portuguese legal codes, asked a Portuguese once,
teasingly: "What is the penalty in Portugal for anyone who
puts his feet on the ground?"
In the year 1610, a Catholic priest in the Americas named Father Sandoval wrote back to a church functionary in Europe to ask if the
capture, transport, and enslavement of African blacks was legal by church doctrine. A letter dated March 12, 1610, from Brother Luis Brandaon to Father Sandoval gives the answer:
Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply
that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point, because this
is a matter which has been questioned by the Board of Conscience in Lisbon, and all its members are learned and conscientious men. Nor did the
bishops who were in Sao Thome, Cape Verde, and here in Loando -- all learned and virtuous men
-- find fault with it. We have been here ourselves for forty
years and there have been among us very learned Fathers ... never did they
consider the trade as illicit. Therefore we and the Fathers of Brazil buy these slaves for our service without any scruple.
James Madison told a British visitor shortly after the
American Revolution that he could make $257 on every Negro
in a year, and spend only $12 or $13 on his keep.
was an intricate and powerful system of control that the
slaveowners developed to maintain their labor supply and
their way of life, a system both subtle and crude, involving
every device that social orders employ for keeping power and
wealth where it is. The system was psychological and
physical at the same time. The slaves were taught
discipline, were impressed again and again with the idea of
their own inferiority to "know their place," to see
blackness as a sign of subordination, to be awed by the
power of the master, to merge their interest with the
master's, destroying their own individual needs. To
accomplish this there was the discipline of hard labor, the
breakup of the slave family, the lulling effects of religion
(which sometimes led to "great mischief," as one slaveholder
reported), the creation of disunity among slaves by
separating them into field slaves and more privileged house
slaves, and finally the power of law and the immediate power
of the overseer to invoke whipping, burning, mutilation, and
death. Dismemberment was provided for in the Virginia Code
of 1705. Maryland passed a law in 1723 providing for cutting
off the ears of blacks who struck whites, and that for
certain serious crimes, slaves should be hanged and the body
quartered and exposed.
Whereas many evil disposed servants in these late tymes of
horrid rebellion taking advantage of the loosnes and liberty
of the tyme, did depart from their service, and followed the
rebells in rebellion, wholy neglecting their masters
imployment whereby the said masters have suffered great
damage and injury...
leaders of early Boston were gentlemen of considerable
wealth who, in association with the clergy, eagerly sought
to preserve in America the social arrangements of the Mother
the very start of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, the
governor, John Winthrop, had declared the philosophy of the
rulers: "... in all times some must be rich, some poore,
some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane
and in subjection."
may be pleased to know that the very principle and best of
the land; the best for soile; the best for situation; as
laying in ye center and midle of the town: and as to
quantity, nere half, belongs unto eight or nine
town meetings, while ostensibly democratic, were in reality
controlled year after year by the same group of merchant
aristocrats, who secured most of the important offices."
1770, the top 1 percent of property owners owned 44 percent
of the wealth.
colonies, it seems, were societies of contending classes --
a fact obscured by the emphasis, in traditional histories,
on the external struggle against England, the unity of
colonists in the Revolution. The country therefore was not
"born free" but born slave and free, servant and master,
tenant and landlord, poor and rich.
Through this period, England was fighting a series of wars
(Queen Anne's War in the early 1700s, King George's War in
the 1730s). Some merchants made fortunes from these wars,
but for most people they meant higher taxes, unemployment,
poverty. An anonymous pamphleteer in Massachusetts, writing
angrily after King George's War, described the situation:
"Poverty and Discontent appear in every Face (except the
Countenances of the Rich) and dwell upon every Tongue." He
spoke of a few men, fed by "Lust of Power, Lust of Fame,
Lust of Money," who got rich during the war. "No Wonder such
Men can build Ships, Houses, buy Farms, set up their
Coaches, Chariots, live very splendidly, purchase Fame,
Posts of Honour." He called them "Birds of prey ... Enemies
to all Communities -- wherever they live."
One fact disturbed: whites would run off to join Indian tribes,
or would be captured in battle and brought up among the Indians, and when this happened the whites, given a chance to leave, chose to stay in the Indian culture. Indians, having the choice, almost never decided to join the whites.
Jean Crevecoeur, the Frenchman who lived in America for almost twenty years, told, in Letters from an American Farmer, how
children captured during the Seven Years' War and found by their parents, grown up and living with Indians, would refuse to leave their new
families. "There must be in their social bond," he said, "something singularly captivating, and far superior to anything to be boasted among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans."
Around 1776, certain important people in the English
colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful
for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating
a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States,
they could take over land, profits, and political power from
favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could
hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a
consensus of popular support for the rule of a new,
Privates Committee drew up a bill of rights for the
convention, including the statement that "an enormous
proportion of property vested in a few individuals is
dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common
happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a
right by its laws to discourage the possession of such
On March 5, 1770, grievances of ropemakers against British
soldiers taking their jobs led to a fight. A crowd gathered
in front of the customhouse and began provoking the
soldiers, who fired and killed first Crispus Attucks, a
mulatto worker, then others. This became known as the Boston
Massacre. Feelings against the British mounted quickly.
There was anger at the acquittal of six of the British
soldiers (two were punished by having their thumbs branded
and were discharged from the army). The crowd at the
Massacre was described by John Adams, defense attorney for
the British soldiers, as "a motley rabble of saucy boys,
negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack
tarrs." Perhaps ten thousand people marched in the funeral
procession for the victims of the Massacre, out of a total
Boston population of sixteen thousand. This led England to
remove the troops from Boston and try to quiet the
"The people" who were, supposedly, at the heart of Locke's theory of people's sovereignty were defined by a British member of Parliament: "I don't mean the mob.... I mean the middling people of England, the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman...."
In America, too, the reality behind the words of the Declaration of Independence (issued in the same year as Adam Smith's capitalist
manifesto, The Wealth of Nations) was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history. Indeed, 69 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office under England.
When the Declaration of Independence was read, with all its
flaming radical language, from the town hall balcony in
Boston, it was read by Thomas Crafts, a member of the Loyal
Nine group, conservatives who had opposed militant action
against the British. Four days after the reading, the Boston
Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up
on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out,
could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor
had to serve. This led to rioting, and shouting: "Tyranny is
Tyranny let it come from whom it may."
lords, new laws. The strictest government is taking place
and great distinction is made between officers & men.
Everyone is made to know his place & keep it, or be
immediately tied up, and receive not one but 30 or 40
Americans lost the first battles of the war: Bunker Hill,
Brooklyn Heights, Harlem Heights, the Deep South; they won
small battles at Trenton and Princeton, and then in a
turning point, a big battle at Saratoga, New York, in 1777.
Washington's frozen army hung on at Valley Forge,
Pennsylvania, while Benjamin Franklin negotiated an alliance
with the French monarchy, which was anxious for revenge on
England. The war turned to the South, where the British won
victory after victory, until the Americans, aided by a large
French army, with the French navy blocking off the British
from supplies and reinforcements, won the final victory of
the war at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.
southern lower classes resisted being mobilized for the
revolution. They saw themselves under the rule of a
political elite, win or lose against the British.
There is a mean low dirty envy which creeps thro all ranks
and cannot suffer a man a superiority of fortune, of merit,
or of understanding in fellow citizens -- either of these
are sure to entail a general ill will and dislike upon the
Edmund Morgan sums up the class nature of the Revolution
this way: "The fact that the lower ranks were involved in
the contest should not obscure the fact that the contest
itself was generally a struggle for office and power between
members of an upper class: the new against the established."
Looking at the situation after the Revolution, Richard
Morris comments: "Everywhere one finds inequality." He finds
"the people" of "We the people of the United States" (a
phrase coined by the very rich Gouverneur Morris) did not
mean Indians or blacks or women or white servants. In fact,
there were more indentured servants than ever, and the
Revolution "did nothing to end and little to ameliorate
Carl Degler says (Out of Our Past): "No new social class came to power through the door of the American revolution. The men who engineered the revolt were largely members of the colonial ruling
class." George Washington was the richest man in America. John Hancock was a prosperous Boston merchant. Benjamin Franklin was a wealthy printer. And so on.
Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the
American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy
elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for
middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base
of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this
base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians,
the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control
with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law -- all made
palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity.
many as half the people were not even considered by the
Founding Fathers as among Bailyn's "contending powers" in
society. They were not mentioned in the Declaration of
Independence, they were absent in the Constitution, they
were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the
women of early America.
Ez fer war, I call it murder, --
There you hev it plain an' flat;
I don't want to go no furder
Than my Testyment fer that....
They may talk o' Freedom's airy
Tell they'er pupple in the face, --
It's a grand gret cemetary
Fer the barthrights of our race;
They jest want this Californy
So's to lug new slave-states in
To abuse ye, an' to scorn ye,
An' to plunder ye like sin.
The puberty ceremony of the Sioux was such as to give pride to a young Sioux maiden:
Walk the good road, my daughter, and the buffalo herds wide and dark as cloud shadows moving over the prairie will follow you.... Be dutiful, respectful, gentle and modest, my daughter. And proud walking. If the
pride and the virtue of the women are lost, the spring will come but the
buffalo trails will turn to grass. Be strong, with the warm, strong heart of the
earth. No people goes down until their women are weak and dishonored.
unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probibility of
you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that lone of the unhappy
Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the
Horses druggery, with only this comfort that you Bitch you do not
halfe enough, and then tied up and whipp'd to that Degree that you'd
not serve an Annimal, scarce any thing but Indian Corn and Salt to
eat and that even begrudged nay many Negroes are better used, almost
naked no shoes nor stockings to wear ... what rest we can get is to
rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground.
I saw pregnant women give birth to babies while chained to corpses
which our drunken overseers had not removed.... packed spoon-fashion
they often gave birth to children in the scalding perspiration from
the human cargo.... On board the ship was a young negro woman
chained to the deck, who had lost her senses soon after she was
purchased and taken on board.
But I now entered on my fifteenth year -- a sad epoch in the life of
a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young
as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import.... My master
met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and
swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to
him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of
unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother's
grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which
nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings.
For a woman to have a child out of wedlock was a crime, and colonial
court records are full of cases of women being arraigned for "bastardy"
-- the father of the child untouched by the law and on the loose.
In this consolidation which we call wedlock is a locking together. It is
true, that man and wife are one person, but understand in what manner. When
a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber, or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth her name.... A woman as soon as she is married, is called
covert ... that is, "veiled"; as it were, clouded
and overshadowed; she hath lost her streame. I may more truly, farre away, say to a married woman, Her new self is her superior; her companion, her
The father's position in the family was expressed in
The Spectator, an influential periodical in America and England: "Nothing is more
gratifying to the mind of man than power or dominion; and ... as I am the father of a family ... I am perpetually taken up in giving out orders,
in prescribing duties, in hearing parties, in administering justice, and in distributing rewards and punishments.... In short, sir, I look upon my family as a patriarchal sovereignty in which I am myself both king and priest."
A best-selling "pocket book," published in London, was widely read in the American colonies in the 1700s. It was called Advice to a Daughter:
You must first lay it down for a Foundation in general, That there is Inequality in Sexes, and that for the better Oeconomy of the World; the Men, who were to be the Law-givers, had the larger share of Reason bestow'd upon them; by which means your Sex is the better prepar'd for
the Compliance that is necessary for the performance of those Duties which seem'd to be most properly assign'd to it.... Your Sex wanteth our
Reason for your Conduct, and our Strength for your Protection: Ours wanteth
your Gentleness to soften, and to entertain us.
interesting and important are the duties devolved on females
as wives ... the counsellor and friend of the husband; who
makes it her daily study to lighten his cares, to soothe his
sorrows, and to augment his joys; who, like a guardian
angel, watches over his interests, warns him against
dangers, comforts him under trials; and by her pious,
assiduous, and attractive deportment, constantly endeavors
to render him more virtuous, more useful, more honourable,
and more happy.
"What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a
nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to
live freely and unimpeded."
way, and the only way, to check and to stop this evil, is
for all the Redmen to unite in claiming a common and equal
right in the land, as it was at first and should be yet; for
it was never divided, but belongs to all for the use of
each. That no part has a right to sell, even to each other,
much less to strangers -- those who want all and will not do
Listen.... The United States would have been justified by
the Great Spirit, had they taken all the land of the
nation.... Listen -- the truth is, the great body of the
Creek chiefs and warriors did not respect the power of the
United States -- They thought we were an insignificant
nation -- that we would be overpowered by the British....
They were fat with eating beef -- they wanted flogging....
We bleed our enemies in such cases to give them their
I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets
flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the
wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell
around me.... The sun rose dim on us in the morning, and at
night it sunk in a dark cloud, and looked like a ball of
fire. That was the last sun that shone on Black Hawk.... He
is now a prisoner to the white men.... He has done nothing
for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for
his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men,
who came year after year, to cheat them and take away their
lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to
all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. Indians are
not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian and
look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies.
Indians do not steal.
Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our
nation; he would be put to death, and eaten up by the
wolves. The white men are bad schoolmasters; they carry
false books, and deal in false actions; they smile in the
face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the
hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to
deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to leave us
alone, and keep away from us; they followed on, and beset
our paths, and they coiled themselves among us, like the
snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We
lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and
liars, adulterous lazy drones, all talkers and no
white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse -- they
poison the heart.... Farewell, my nation! ... Farewell to
the Indians would only move to new lands across the
Mississippi, Cass promised in 1825 at a treaty council with
Shawnees and Cherokees, "The United States will never ask
for your land there. This I promise you in the name of your
great father, the President. That country he assigns to his
red people, to be held by them and their children's children
council of Creeks, offered money for their land, said: "We
would not receive money for land in which our fathers and
friends are buried."
According to one Georgia bank president, a stockholder in a
land company, "Stealing is the order of the day."
Brothers! I have listened to many talks from our great white
father. When he first came over the wide waters, he was but
a little man ... very little. His legs were cramped by
sitting long in his big boat, and he begged for a little
land to light his fire on.... But when the white man had
warmed himself before the Indians' fire and filled himself
with their hominy, he became very large. With a step he
bestrode the mountains, and his feet covered the plains and
the valleys. His hand grasped the eastern and the western
sea, and his head rested on the moon. Then he became our
Great Father. He loved his red children, and he said, "Get a
little further, lest I tread on thee."
Brothers! I have listened to a great many talks from our
great father. But they always began and ended in this --
"Get a little further; you are too near me."
interminable history of diplomatic relations between Indians
and white men had before 1832 recorded no single instance of
a treaty which had not been presently broken by the white
parties to it ... however solemnly embellished with such
terms as "permanent," "forever," "for all time," "so long as
the sun shall rise." ... But no agreement between white men
and Indians had ever been so soon abrogated as the 1832
Treaty of Washington. Within days the promises made in it on
behalf of the United States had been broken.
soul of man, the justice, the mercy that is the heart's
heart in all men, from Maine to Georgia, does abhor this
business ... a crime is projected that confounds our
understandings by its magnitude, a crime that really
deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country for how
could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor
Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their
parting and dying imprecations our country any more? You,
sir, will bring down that renowned chair in which you sit
into infamy if your seal is set to this instrument of
perfidy; and the name of this nation, hitherto the sweet
omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world.
December 1838, President Van Buren spoke to Congress: "It
affords sincere pleasure to apprise the Congress of the
entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their
new homes west of the Mississippi. The measures authorized
by Congress at its last session have had the happiest
the great measure of annexation be accomplished, and with it
the questions of boundary and claims. For who can arrest the
torrent that will pour onward to the West? The road to
California will be open to us. Who will stay the march of
our western people? ... It was shortly after
that, in the summer of 1845, that John O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, used the phrase that became famous, saying it was "Our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Yes, manifest destiny.
fer war, I call it murder, -- There you hev it plain an'
I don't want to go no furder
Than my Testyment fer that....
They may talk o' Freedom's airy
Tell they'er pupple in the face, -- It's a grand gret
Fer the barthrights of our race;
They jest want this Californy
So's to lug new slave-states in
To abuse ye, an' to scorn ye,
An' to plunder ye like sin.
"Every lover of Freedom and humanity, throughout the world,
must wish them [the Mexicans] the most triumphant
success.... We only hope that, if blood has had to flow,
that it has been that of the Americans, and that the next
news we shall hear will be that General Scott and his army
are in the hands of the Mexicans.... We wish him and his
troops no bodily harm, but the most utter defeat and
us go to war. The world has become stale and insipid, the
ships ought to be all captured, and the cities battered
down, and the world burned up, so that we can start again.
There would be fun in that. Some interest, -- something to
can easily defeat the armies of Mexico, slaughter them by
thousands, and pursue them perhaps to their capital; we can
conquer and "annex" their territory; but what then? Have the
histories of the ruin of Greek and Roman liberty consequent
on such extensions of empire by the sword no lesson for us?
Who believes that a score of victories over Mexico, the
"annexation" of half her provinces, will give us more
Liberty, a purer Morality, a more prosperous Industry, than
we now have? ... Is not Life miserable enough, comes not
Death soon enough, without resort to the hideous enginery of
Neither have I the least idea of "joining" you, or in any
way assisting the unjust war waging against Mexico. I have
no wish to participate in such "glorious" butcheries of
women and children as were displayed in the capture of
Monterey, etc, Neither have I any desire to place myself
under the dictation of a petty military tyrant, to every
caprice of whose will I must yield implicit obedience. No
sir-ee! As long as I can work, beg, or go to the poor house,
I won't go to Mexico, to be lodged on the damp ground, half
starved, half roasted, bitten by mosquitoes and centipedes,
stung by scorpions and tarantulas -- marched, drilled, and
flogged, and then stuck up to be shot at, for eight dollars
a month and putrid rations. Well, I won't.... Human butchery
has had its day.... And the time is rapidly approaching when
the professional soldier will be placed on the same level as
a bandit, the Bedouin, and the Thug.
have called you [Indian chiefs] together to have a talk with
you. The country you inhabit no longer belongs to Mexico,
but to a mighty nation whose territory extends from the
great ocean you have all seen or heard of, to another great
ocean thousands of miles toward the rising sun.... I am an
officer of that great country, and to get here, have
traversed both of those great oceans in a ship of war which,
with a terrible noise, spits forth flames and hurls forth
instruments of destruction, dealing death to all our
enemies. Our armies are now in Mexico, and will soon conquer
the whole country. But you have nothing to fear from us, if
you do what is right.... if you are faithful to your new
rulers.... We come to prepare this magnificent region for
the use of other men, for the population of the world
demands more room, and here is room enough for many
millions, who will hereafter occupy and till the soil. But,
in admitting others, we shall not displace you, if you act
properly.... You can easily learn, but you are indolent. I
hope you will alter your habits, and be industrious and
frugal, and give up all the low vices which you practice;
but if you are lazy and dissipated, you must, before many
years, become extinct. We shall watch over you, and give you
true liberty; but beware of sedition, lawlessness, and all
other crimes, for the army which shields can assuredly
punish, and it will reach you in your most retired hiding
General Lane ... told us to "avenge the death of the gallant
Walker, to ... take all we could lay hands on". And well and
fearfully was his mandate obeyed. Grog shops were broken
open first, and then, maddened with liquor, every species of
outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of
their clothing -- and many suffered still greater outrages.
Men were shot by dozens ... their property, churches, stores
and dwelling houses ransacked.... Dead horses and men lay
about pretty thick, while drunken soldiers, yelling and
screeching, were breaking open houses or chasing some poor
Mexicans who had abandoned their houses and fled for life.
Such a scene I never hope to see again. It gave me a
lamentable view of human nature ... and made me for the
first time ashamed of my country.
are under very strict discipline here. Some of our officers
are very good men but the balance of them are very
tyrannical and brutal toward the men.... tonight on drill an
officer laid a soldier's skull open with his sword .... But
the time may come and that soon when officers and men will
stand on equal footing... A soldier's life is very
As the veterans returned home, speculators immediately showed up to buy the land warrants given by the government. Many of the soldiers, desperate for money, sold their 160 acres for less than $50. The New York Commercial Advertiser said in June 1847: "It is a well-known fact that immense fortunes were made out of the poor soldiers who shed their blood in the revolutionary war by speculators who preyed upon their distresses. A similar system of depredation was practised upon the soldiers of the last war."
say slaves are happy, because they laugh, and are merry. I
myself and three or four others, have received two hundred
lashes in the day, and had our feet in fetters; yet, at
night, we would sing and dance, and make others laugh at the
rattling of our chains. Happy men we must have been! We did
it to keep down trouble, and to keep our hearts from being
completely broken: that is as true as the gospel! Just look
at it, -- must not we have been very happy? Yet I have done
it myself -- I have cut capers in chains.
One recent book on slavery (Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross) looks at whippings in 1840-1842 on the Barrow
plantation in Louisiana with two hundred slaves: "The records show that over the course of two years a total of 160 whippings were administered, an average of 0.7 whippings per hand per year. About half the hands were
not whipped at all during the period." One could also say: "Half of all
slaves were whipped." That has a different ring. That figure (0.7 per hand per year) shows whipping was infrequent for any individual. But looked at another way, once every four or five days, some slave was whipped.
conspiracy of Denmark Vesey, himself a free Negro, was
thwarted before it could be carried out in 1822. The plan
was to burn Charleston, South Carolina, then the
sixth-largest city in the nation, and to initiate a general
revolt of slaves in the area. Several witnesses said
thousands of blacks were implicated in one way or another.
Blacks had made about 250 pike heads and bayonets and over
three hundred daggers, according to Herbert Aptheker's
account. But the plan was betrayed, and thirty-five blacks,
including Vesey, were hanged. The trial record itself,
published in Charleston, was ordered destroyed soon after
publication, as too dangerous for slaves to see.
Harriet Tubman, born into slavery, her head injured by an
overseer when she was fifteen, made her way to freedom alone
as a young woman, then became the most famous conductor on
the Underground Railroad. She made nineteen dangerous trips
back and forth, often disguised, escorting more than three
hundred slaves to freedom, always carrying a pistol, telling
the fugitives, "You'll be free or die." She expressed her
philosophy: "There was one of two things I had a right to,
liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the
other; for no man should take me alive...."
One overseer told a visitor to his plantation that "some
negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them
and will resist you, when you attempt it; of course you must
kill them in that case."
tropical product with a sensuous receptivity to the beauty
of the world, he was not as easily reduced to be the
mechanical draft-horse which the northern European laborer
became. He ... tended to work as the results pleased him and
refused to work or sought to refuse when he did not find the
spiritual returns adequate; thus he was easily accused of
laziness and driven as a slave when in truth he brought to
modern manual labor a renewed valuation of life.
Religion was used for control. A book consulted by many planters was the Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book, which gave these instructions to overseers: "You will find that an hour devoted every Sabbath morning to their moral and religious instruction would prove a great aid to you in bringing about a better state of things amongst the Negroes."
to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a
day that reveals to him more than all other days of the
year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the
constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your
boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness,
swelling of vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and
heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted
impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow
mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and
thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity,
are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and
hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would
disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the
earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are
the people of these United States at this very hour.
where you may, search where you will, roam through all the
monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through
South America, search out every abuse and when you have
found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday
practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for
revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns
without a rival.
Edmund Wilson put it in Patriotic Gore (written after World
War II): "We have seen, in our most recent wars, how a
divided and arguing public opinion may be converted
overnight into a national near-unanimity, an obedient flood
of energy which will carry the young to destruction and
overpower any effort to stem it. The unanimity of men at war
is like that of a school of fish, which will swerve,
simultaneously and apparently without leadership, when the
shadow of an enemy appears, or like a sky-darkening flight
of grass-hoppers, which, also all compelled by one impulse,
will descend to consume the crops."
New York, several thousand gathered at Tompkins Square. The
tone of the meeting was moderate, speaking of "a political
revolution through the ballot box." And: "If you will unite,
we may have here within five years a socialistic
republic.... Then will a lovely morning break over this
darkened land." It was a peaceful meeting. It adjourned. The
last words heard from the platform were: "Whatever we poor
men may not have, we have free speech, and no one can take
it from us." Then the police charged, using their clubs.