S1: Hello and welcome to the fifth episode of The History of American Slavery a Slave Academy. My name is Jamelle Bouie. I am a Slate staff writer. And I’m Rebecca Onion and Slate’s history writer. In each episode of this series, we are looking at a different chapter in the history of slavery in America and starting the conversation with the life of a single person. This episode, that person is Charles de Lund.
S2: On January 8th, 1811, on a plantation northeast of New Orleans on Louisiana’s German coast, a group of conspirators began the largest slave revolt in United States history.
S3: One of its leaders was Charles de Lond, who historians believe was born around 1787, possibly on the island of San Domingue as a young person. He might have witnessed the successful revolution of send Hemings and slave population that culminated in the founding of the Republic of Haiti in 1884. That revolution caused thousands of people to flee San Domain. Both slave holders and enslaved people carried off in bondage. Many of them landed in Louisiana, where Charles de Land worked as an enslaved overseer on a plantation owned by Manuel Andry.
S4: He was a commander in charge of driving groups of enslaved laborers to cut and refined sugar cane. People in similar positions in Haiti were the leaders of the rebellion there, and de Land and his co-conspirators may have known about their tactics and organization. When they planned their own revolt, about 15 men began the rebellion by killing the plantation owners son. They plan to march 30 miles to New Orleans. Take the city and orchestrate a larger revolt from there. Making it the capital of the resistance has de laundered as rebels march toward the city. They burned plantations and recruited more slaves. They killed another white man on their way. Soon, outraged plantation owners had raised a militia and they trapped the rebels against a force of American soldiers marching from New Orleans. The rebellion came to a swift end. Between 200 and 500 slaves had joined the fight.
S3: Ninety five of them were executed. Charles de Dylon was captured and beat a bloody end after a speedy judgment rendered by a group of white landowners de land. One witness had his hands chopped off, then shot in one thigh and then in the other until they were both broken, then shot in the body, and for he expired, was put in a bundle of straw and roasted. Others involved in the rebellion were hanged, then beheaded, and their heads were placed along the levee as a warning to others.
S5: On today’s installment of The History of American Slavery, we’re going to talk about the specter of slave revolts and the impact they had on the institution of slavery in the early years of the 19th century. We’ll consider the German coast rebellion, which Dawn was one of the leaders of. And then we’re gonna talk about a situation in Mississippi in the 1830s in which slave holders convinced themselves that a revolt was brewing and initiated a purge that had bloody consequences for many enslaved people in the area. But first, I wanted to try to step back and talk about some of the context of this time. So the German coast rebellion is in 1811. So what’s sort of going on historically around this time that we should be thinking about now?
S6: Well, in the preceding 20 years, a whole host of of events have happened, basically. You have the pattern of the cotton gin in 1793, which as I think we all learned in our middle school, American history classes really does change the shape of the slave economy, makes specifically cotton cultivation much more profitable and thus help sort of generate the expansion of slavery, not just on the coastal south, but throughout the south into you know what? Wolf later discusses the southern frontier. In 1887, as we discussed in episode two there, there’s the abolition of the international slave trade, at least by Great Britain. And in the U.S. Constitution, we were getting to the point where the United States is banned from engaging in national slave trade as well. And so the slave trade in the United States in particular is moving from international to pretty much a domestic trade and slaves. Yeah. And then in 1883, we have the Louisiana Purchase, which double the size the United States and again opened up a ton of new land to slavery and also arguably began the long process of political conflict over slavery, because all of a sudden the potential for vast expansion of slavery is now a live issue, a life question.
S7: Right. So since the time that we were looking at in the last episode, you know, in the late 18th century where there’s like a sort of more of a settled or relatively settled plantation economy in the old upper south. Now, there’s all of this sort of possibility on a number of different levels. There’s a, you know, much more land, there’s much more possibility to make cotton and make money. And people are very aware of the fact that slavery is tied up in that.
S8: That’s right. And again, that that new awareness, that new expansion, the fact that slavery, after a decade of the 1790s, when it looked to a lot of observers that the institution would be, if not dying, then just gradually petering out. Didn’t happen to you. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Yeah. Bathing hundreds kind of provide a jolt to be institution itself. And then Jolt simultaneously begins to kind of generate anti-slavery activity once everyone kind of realizes that this is going to be with us possibly for the duration.
S7: Right. So there’s all this sort of broader context going on. But I think the historical event that’s sort of the most directly related to the Charles Along story is the revolution in Santa Mang in the Caribbean, which is the place that we now know is Haiti.
S5: And so when we come back from the break, we’re where and talk to Ed Baptist, who’s a historian at Cornell who book The Half has never been Told Slavery in the Making of American Capitalism is where both Jamal and I first heard about Charles Daunte.
S2: Looking forward to episode six of the Academy, you can prepare by reading ahead, Rebecca and Jamelle. We’ll talk to Diana Raimy Berry about how the ascendancy of the cotton crop fueled the spread of America’s internal slave trade. Find an excerpt from Diana’s book, The Chattel Principle in our show notes or at Slate.com Slash Academi.
S9: Hey there and welcome back to Episode 5 of the History of American Slavery. A Slate Academy. I’m Jamelle Bouie.
S5: And I’m Rebecca Onion. In the first part of the show, we get the outlines of the German coast rebellion of 1811 de Melena. I had the opportunity to hear a little more about the story from the author of one of the most acclaimed recent books on slavery. That book is The Half has Never Been Told. Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. And its author is Cornell historian Ed Baptist. Here’s Ed.
S10: I think the first thing to understand about the 1811 rebellion in Louisiana is that Louisiana would not have even been part of the United States without the success of the Haitian revolution in 1791. SAN Dummying This French colony is the most prosperous sugar plantation society in the world and some people would argue, is the most profitable piece of real estate on the planet Earth. In 1791, the western third of the island of Hispaniola, about 450000 enslaved Africans were there and only about 40 or thousand whites, about 20 to 40000 free people of color there. And this society, which was so prosperous for whites and so important to the French economy as well, was overthrown really. And in the course of the work of one night in August 1791, when thousands of enslaved Africans on the northern plain of what is today Haiti San Dimming rose up and started to torch the plantations and eventually gathered together and marched on the colonial capital. And what follows after that is about a 13 or 14 year process in which the rebels surge back and forth across the island. Various European powers tried to defeat them, try to subdue them. They end up defeating both a British army and a series of French armies, including dealing Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies. Their first real defeat is at that point that Napoleon, who had hoped to expand and expand the investment of France, in fact, in their North American possessions. That’s that’s the point where he gives up on his dreams of an American empire, which would have included, it seems today, Louisiana, but not just Louisiana, the state, but Louisiana, and a much broader territory which included the whole western half of the Mississippi Valley. So in 1884, because he’s been defeated in his attempt to suppress the Haitian revolution and Haiti has become an independent country, it’s at that point that he decides to sell the colony to actually 2:42 when he decides it’s an 18 0 3 when he decides to sell not just Louisiana, but the whole Western drainage area of the Mississippi Valley to Thomas Jefferson in the United States. And, you know, another thing that has happened in the course of this whole process from 1791 to 1884, when Louisiana actually becomes a U.S. territory. Another thing that’s happened is part of that process is that large numbers of whites from San Domingue who had been slave owners there have come to music into to New Orleans. And they brought ideas, they brought assumptions, and they’ve also brought enslaved Africans, including, it appears from the records, a very young man named Charles de Lawand, whether he remembered the revolution in 1791, the start of it or not. He was certainly among people who did remember it and had in some cases been present for the launching of it.
S9: So what Professor Baptiste is describing essentially is a migration of former slave holders and survivors of the Haitian revolution to the United States. And they bring with them basically raw fear. They tell their peers, they tell the new people they meet. Listen, this is what happened not far from here in circumstances not unlike these. And you should keep your business on lock because look what happened down in Haiti. What could happen to us?
S7: Right. One of my sort of biggest questions about it is what people who are enslaved actually knew about Haiti because there was like the fear that they knew something. And then there’s the actual knowing. And we asked about this, whether we, looking back into history, can tell what kind of information was actually circulating among people who were enslaved in the U.S. about Haiti, enslaved people, formerly enslaved people who often had relatives who were enslaved.
S10: These folks make up the crews of many of the merchant vessels that travel around the Caribbean and around the Atlantic, in fact. And so they’re bringing the news. You know, you can tell them, you can’t learn to read. You can confiscate pamphlets that they carry. You know, you can try to lock them up when you come into port. But news is gonna find its way out that that clearly happened around all the ports of the. World, but we don’t have so much direct evidence that it happened, mostly evidence that we have is as the constant fear that enslavers are talking about their constant attempts to suppress the news of what had happened and punish those who, you know, are carrying that particularly. You see this when they’re carrying pamphlets and and documents like that. But maybe the best evidence I would argue that that word of this got out is the very obvious fact. In 1811, you had large numbers of enslaved people in Louisiana who had been in San Domingue or had parents who’d been in San Demming or knew people who had been in San Dimming and who then participated in a rebellion. Then in a lot of ways replicated the strategy of the 1791 rebels.
S6: So the effort to suppress news of the Haitian rebellion isn’t just out of a vague sense that we don’t want you know, we don’t want enslaved people to know that there is a successful slave rebellion in Louisiana in particular. It owed itself also to the fact that the social landscape of slavery in Louisiana was not dissimilar to what it was in Haiti. You had black people on plantations who were in power within the system, who had access to information, who had access to some kind of education, who could take leadership roles. You had sort of many of the factors that allowed the Haitian rebellion to both grow and ultimately be successful. And we we asked Professor Baptist about exactly about this. What more were that the stew or factors that led to the rebellion? And, you know, in that way as well, how it connects back to the situation in the United States, just as the rebellion in San Domingue, just as the rebels had planned there.
S10: The plan seems to been in Louisiana and 1811 to gather as much force as possible and march as quickly as possible on the colonial capital, which in this case was New Orleans. And it was very simple. You get all of the sort of noncommissioned officers of slavery, right. The sergeants and the corporals and so on. And these would be enslaved people themselves. They would be the people who are responsible under the overseers for driving people. Minute to minute and hour to hour across the fields. And labor, you know, whatever kind of labor they were doing that day and the sugar cane plantations. So these were enslaved people who had been given some authority in the system. These were people who had the ability to move around and communicate with each other. And in January 1811, just as it happened in in 1791, they got together. And in fact, we we know was on the night of January 5th and they planned a rebellion. And another another fact, which is important is that the enslaved rebels plotted to do this, to launch this attack. Right at the moment when the local government was distracted in 1791 and Santa being the distraction had been over the French Revolution. You had royalists who were fighting Republicans in the streets of the various towns and ports in San Domingue. And in 1811 in Louisiana, the territorial government was really focused on conflict or incipient conflict with Spain over who would control Florida. So enslaved people seem to been aware of this. They wait. They take the opportunity to strike when it seems like the attention of the enslavers is is somewhere else. And for about two days in 1811, in January, 1811, they’re pretty successful. They get very close to New Orleans before they’re ultimately defeated.
S11: And how how exactly are they defeated? How do the slave holders stop the rebellion?
S10: That is a great question and gets us to what enslavers had learned. The mistake that enslavers made in Santa meeting was they they were never able to unite against this rebellion even after 1791. What you see is the Spanish and the eastern part of the island where fighting gets the French in the western part of the island. The French were fighting against each other because of the revolution. The British came in and tried to grab what they could. And instead, what you see is that the whites in Louisiana, whether they’re ethnically French, ethnically Anglo, ethnically Spanish, they unite with each other to suppress the rebellion. And in addition to that, the U.S. federal government intervenes, and that enables enslavers to quickly concentrate so much force that they’re able to squash the rebellion, which by that point is about 500 rebels strong and is, as I said, right on the outskirts of New Orleans. I think what you see when when you look at the history, the United States and you say, why weren’t there? More slave rebellions, it’s partly because there wasn’t the same kind of numerical imbalance that you see in the history of SAN dummying and a lot of the Caribbean islands like Jamaican 1760s, where literally 90 percent of the island’s population will be enslaved Africans in the South. There’s only three states in 1860 where you have a black majority. Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. And these are very narrow majorities. But also the U.S. federal government is always ready to intervene on the side of the planters of these Labor native southern whites in general when it comes to suppressing slave rebellion. You don’t have this this opportunity to pit those groups of whites against each other.
S7: So I think these reminders of the difference between the situation in Haiti and the situation in the United States are important because, you know, one of the things about the Charles Allen story that is sort of hard for us to process, looking back at it, is the ambition of his plan or the plan that he came up with along with his co-conspirators, which was to take New Orleans and hold it, as, you know, a place from which they could administrate a large scale rebellion. And that seems misguided to us. I guess, looking back, you know, knowing the forces they had arrayed against them. But then again, there was Haiti, right?
S12: There is this real example, this real recent example of a successful large scale slave rebellion. So why wouldn’t you give it a shot, especially in a place where you you have the numbers. You probably could create the will. So why not go for it? I think it also helps explain the sheer, I guess the word looking for us, his viciousness of the reprisal. The B word or some part of slave holders that in fact, this was a live possibility in places like Louisiana and places like Mississippi.
S7: Yes. And speaking of the sort of the ways that slaveholders learned new ways of repression coming off of these revolts and revolts scares, you asked at a really good question about the lessons that slaveholders might have learned from both the incidents and the plans that they uncovered for revolts. So let’s listen to that.
S11: One thing I’m I’m curious about is how much fear of a Haiti situation happening in the south. How much of that influence other aspects of the slave system that it influence sort of laws about literacy. Slave literacy did influence the systems of tracking slaves as they moved between plantations. Like did it become the psychological fuel for should have like the police state aspects of American slavery?
S10: I think that the police state aspects are present in U.S. slavery long before there’s a United States. But the actual deployment of some of the the capacities of that police state is episodic and tends to be reactive in many cases. So yeah, certainly after 1791, I think you see an upsurge in concern about rebellion now. And I know that after 1811, after Nat Turner in 1831, you know, after these these large outbreaks, what you see is a a new intensity of policing. So you have much greater efforts to get white men to actually participate in the patrol system, which is essentially a whole bunch of George Zimmerman’s riding around the various neighborhoods of the south every night in and tracking down any African-Americans who are moving around after dark outside of one property between properties and doing whatever they want to them in some cases. But certainly they’re supposed to keep down the possibility that you’re going to have what it happened in in Louisiana and on January 5th, 1811, where you have this group of people get together and plot a rebellion.
S7: So one of the most interesting takeaways from the half has never been told, which is Ed’s book for me was this idea that slaveholders were adaptive, that they were able to figure out new ways to make the system work better for them based on what had been going on. There was a couple of sentences in his book about the importance of understanding. That’s how he writes by reputation. Slaveholders were stubborn traditionalists who forgot nothing and learned nothing. In reality, they continued to learn and adapt to promote their own interests.
S12: All right. And this I mean, this makes total sense. The slave holders maybe in the old south, in in Virginia and in North Carolina and Charleston, may cultural reasons may have been more hidebound and reaction there. I mean, there are reactionary but reactionary within the context of being slave holders. But. The men who traveled out west, who traveled out to Louisiana, into Mississippi, who went to the frontier of slavery. They were entrepreneurial. They were trying to start sort of a new slave economy in this newly acquired land of the United States until almost by definition, these are these are men who are very adaptable, very able to respond to circumstances, very able to maximize whatever advantages they had. And they were, you know, and given their eventual wealth and prosperity and political power, one possible analogue for the kinds of people they were would be our Silicon Valley high industrialists. People went out west to make a fortune in one of the growth areas of their economy completely.
S7: I mean, this was the going thing. The next thing to do to make a bunch of money, because the land and, you know, the land in Virginia and the upper south was getting tired out. You couldn’t make as much that way.
S13: Right. We’re going to take another quick break now, but stay with us when we get back. We’re going to hear the story of an apocalyptic slave revolt that frightened countless white Southerners and also only existed in their imaginations. If you want to write to her, Becca and me about this episode, you can send us an email at History Academy at Slate.com and listeners will know we’ve also launched a private Facebook group just for Academy members. You can find that group at Facebook.com Slash Group’s Slash History Academy.
S2: You can read an excerpt from Edward Baptist book. The half has never been told as part of the Slate Academy.
S14: Find the link in our show notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academy.
S15: And we’re back. I’m Rebecca Onion.
S16: And I’m Jamelle Bouie. In the first part of today’s podcast, we talked about an unsuccessful slave rebellion in Louisiana in 1811 and how it ratcheted up the already outsized fears of rebellion among Southern whites. But now I’m going to turn to a story that suggests that these fears just continue to swell in the decades that followed until he became kind of insane, far from insane to worse, maybe, right?
S15: Right. Yeah, that’s right. Broader context. Yeah, insane. But it became more insane. So this next story takes place in the 1830s. So we’re flashing forward a little bit. And it centers on a young man from Georgia who was named Virgil Steward. So Virgil set out to get a piece of the action on the frontier of western Tennessee, where there is a lot of fresh land being taken from Native Americans who had been living there and had been removed. And so we read about Stuart’s story in a book called Flush Times and Fever Dreams A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson. And that book is by Joshua Rothman, who’s a historian at the University of Alabama. And I sort of stayed up late reading it in a way that I did not expect to do when I read it. It’s a excellent sort of fast moving story. So Dr. Rothman joined us on the phone to tell us a little more about this guy, Virgil Stewart.
S17: He tries making a go of it as a cotton farmer. It seems he doesn’t really do that well at it. It’s more work than he anticipated. He really doesn’t have a whole lot of money to get off the ground. So he’s kind of sort of fishing around for things to do. And one thing that he he realizes about the frontier is that it’s not really as wide open as the stories you hear back in the east would make you believe it really is a place where men who already have money, men who already have power, accumulate more of those things to themselves than most people do. And so what he tries to do is sort of insinuate himself with those people thinking that being buddies with them can only do good things for you.
S18: So hanging around these rich guys in 1835, one of them tells Stewart about a local man named John Murle. Now, the thing to know about this period and in sort of the entire period is that people ran scams to try to steal slaves. Like you would run a scam to try to steal someone’s, I don’t know, Social Security. Check this rich guy talking to Stewart thinks Merle is one of those scammers. And here’s how the scam would work. The scammer, Merle, would tell the enslaved person is going to set them free. And instead of set him free, he kidnaps them and then sells them to someone else. Dead rich slave owner who suspects Merle of stealing some of the slaves. He sends his son out to find him to find this. You know, this thief, he has virtual store.
S17: He’s like, you know, this could be kind of dangerous. Would you mind going with my son and sort of trying to basically catch this guy? And Stewart, who, like I said, is trying to become buddies with these wealthy man, says, sure. You know, I basically, like, got nothing else to do. I’ll be happy to do you a favor. And so he goes out. He’s gonna meet this guy’s son. The guy’s son never shows up where they’re supposed to meet. So Stewart’s like, well, I’ll just go after myself. And he goes and he meets up with John Murle. He basically meets him on the road, introduces himself, pretend he’s a stranger, and basically kind of sweet talks the guy. And Merle says, well, why don’t you come with me? You know, I’m going across the Mississippi River here into Arkansas. You know, why don’t you know? We’ll have a good time. You know, we’ll meet some ladies will feel some horses. It’ll be a blast. And Stewart basically goes with em. He travels with them for about two weeks. He comes back, he reports back to the planter that, you know, I saw your slave. He’s definitely stole them.
S19: And they go and they arrest John Murle. So that’s how the story gets started. Right.
S17: But then over the course of time, Stewart starts making the story about what happened when they were on this trip. Bigger and bigger and crazier. And he starts saying and he he starts sort of elaborating this at John Morells trial, but he basically kind of plays it out and keeps telling the story over and over and over again. He tells it at trial. Then he tells it to some guys in the neighborhood. Then he decides he’s going to write a pamphlet about it. And basically, as the story goes on, instead of it just being. Yeah. You know, I rode with this criminal and, you know, I met some of his buddies and, you know, they steal slaves and they had this kind of ring out in the Arkansas territory. He starts telling the story about how John Merlis is is basically a master criminal. He runs this criminal syndicate. They have a thousand white men scattered all over the south. And what their big plan is, is they’re gonna launch a slave insurrection. They’re going to start going in and trying to entice slaves to run away. And instead, what? They’re going to do is they’re going to entice slaves all over the south to rise up all at once. They’re going to burn all the cities down. And then Merle and his men are going to rob all the banks and rip off all the plantations while the insurrection is going on.
S20: Pick through the ashes, basically. Yeah. Exactly. We’ll take advantage of the chaos. More than anything.
S11: I just I just I laugh just because it sounds like the plot of a supervillain.
S20: It’s a crazy story. Yeah.
S17: And when he starts telling the story, the thing about it is that where he lives in west Tennessee, the people who knew this guy. They hear him telling this story and they’re like, this is bananas. There is no way that this is true. But in other parts of the south, as he decides he’s going to publish this as a book, which he probably does, at least in part for the money he does in part because he’s really angry that he doesn’t seem to get the sort of respect and the kind of accolades that he thinks he deserves for having caught this guy in the first place. He starts sort of going around different parts of the south selling this book. And there are parts of the south. In the early 1830s that are even more fragile and more kind of unsettled than west Tennessee, where rumors about a giant slave insurrection are going to send people into a tizzy. They’re going to freak out. They’re gonna panic. And one place in particular that really gets set off is in Madison County, Mississippi, which is about 200 miles from where he is in west Tennessee. And a number of people in Madison County, they thought they’d heard some slaves kind of whispering about some things. They thought, well, maybe they’re plotting something.
S19: Maybe we need to pay attention to it. And through a variety of reasons, they begin to connect this kind of whisper campaign that they think they hear among some slaves to Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet. And next thing you know, it becomes just mass hysteria.
S18: So the immediate question here is what exactly is inspiring this to borrow Rothman’s term, this mass hysteria? This should have deep seeded fear that a plot like this, which, as we said, sounds insane, would even be possible or plausible.
S5: So four years before is the Nat Turner rebellion in South Hampton County, Virginia. And this had a major impact on people’s slaveholders mentalities in Virginia and then in Mississippi. You have an even more what might have looked to a white slaveholders to be an even more volatile situation, which is frontier, where the people who live there longest have only lived there, you know, between five and 10 years. And so why people don’t really know each other.
S7: And then also the white people who are there feel outnumbered and anxious about the number of enslaved people that they’ve brought with them.
S19: Enslaved people are being brought onto the cotton frontier in massive numbers and they’re being brought in either by slave traders and therefore are unknown to planters. There’s there’s not a lot of time to kind of develop any kind of relationship between, you know, masters and slaves. Slaves come to outnumber white people in some places pretty substantially. I mean, this part of Mississippi, you know, slaves come to outnumber white people by about three to one within a very short period of time. That the ratio of white to black gets flipped totally upside down very, very quickly. And, you know, if they’re not being brought by slave traders, you’re they’re being brought by slave holders from one plantation to another plantation, but they’re being yanked out of where they came from. Right. They’re either being taken from Virginia or the Carolinas, sometimes Georgia. And, you know, you pick up and you go, you leave your family behind, you leave your community behind. You leave everything behind. You’re plunked down in the middle of Frontier, Mississippi, where there’s there’s nothing really. There’s nothing but forests. And then you’re worked unbelievably hard. The work not just in planting and picking cotton, but chapter. Remember, you have to clear a field in order to have a cotton field in the first place. So you’re you’re you know, you’re cutting down trees, you’re tearing out stomps, you’re making fields flat. It’s brutal, brutal labor. And it’s the regime is designed to do nothing but extract maximum labor as quickly as humanly possible.
S6: What is so interesting about Rothman’s discussion here is how he’s talking about what I think to most people is a familiar image, a plantation. And he’s talking about it in terms of a slave labor camp where brutal labor happens, where people are worked nearly to death doing incredibly hard work. And, you know, I think it’s interesting and I like it in part because I think it puts the reality to the fore that plantations were actually slave labor camps. That’s what happened him, that that’s what their purpose was.
S5: You know, at Baptist, use that term slave labor camp to describe plantations in his book and not just the plantations in Mississippi that we’re talking about now, but also the more established plantations in the upper south. And it really flip the script for me and a lot of ways to think about it that way. You know, I feel like the usual image of pioneering is very like Little House on the Prairie, sort of everyone’s working together. It’s all about self-sufficiency. And there’s like an authenticity to it in some way. And then this story is just horrible. I mean, you know, first pioneering, basically. And so it really changed my perspective not only on what it means to be a plantation, but also on what it means to be a frontier.
S18: That’s right. And the same for me as well.
S7: So let’s go back to 1835 in Mississippi and here a little bit more from Josh Rothman about how the Virgil Stewart story caught fire.
S19: The rumors start to spread sort of late June. They get it in their minds that the insurrection is going to happen on the Fourth of July. Even though Stewart said it was going to happen at Christmas, but they get it in their minds, can start earlier than that because right away. And so because they’re so afraid that this is going to happen immediately, they feel like the only way that they can prevent it from happening is to get as much information about the plot as quickly as possible. And so what they start to do essentially is torture people. They round up the slaves that they thought they’d heard whispering about the insurrection. They start beating them. They start whipping them. They start saying, look, we know this is going to happen. Tell us about Virgil Stewart. Tell us about John myrl. We know that you’re involved with his men. And essentially, as often happens when men get tortured is they will say whatever it takes to stop them from torturing them. And so enslaved people start implicating other enslaved people. Those people then get beaten and whipped in order to extract information from them. And essentially what happens is this this idea that comes from white people is then extracted from black people. And it’s basically a kind of plot that’s I think is mostly the invention of the white imagination. And what starts to happen is that enslaved people start getting executed for being part of this plot. They start implicating white people as well. Right. Because ultimately the story here isn’t that the slaves are going to rebel. That’s only part of the story. The story is that there are white men among us who are inciting slaves to rebel. And so the attention falls on it, on a few white men in particular who are kind of transient, kind of, you know, their their commitment to slavery for various reasons, depending on the person, are a little bit questionable. And so then they start getting tortured. Some of them start getting hanged. And before you know it, over the course of about a week and a half in the middle of July, there’s hysteria in Madison County in particular. But then that starts to spread beyond Madison County. It starts to spread down into Hinds County, where the where the capital of Mississippi is. It starts to spread to all the counties up and down the Mississippi River. Bits and pieces of it start to spread to other states. I’ve seen it as far flung as Florida, as far away as Virginia. People become convinced that John Marella has men are everywhere. They’re going to strike at any time. And the only way to stop it is to figure out who’s involved. And if you have to kill them, you kill them.
S5: So this society out in Mississippi wasn’t established enough to have a really strong court system, or at least the the landowners who were worried about this insurrection, suppose it insurrection didn’t trust the court system that there was. So they created these tribunals, which were sort of groups of wealthy men, landowners who sort of took the power into their own hands to try the people who were accused of participation in this phantom insurrection. And they would deputize people to go riding out and looking for suspects. And Josh compared them to witch trials or called them witch trials, in part because in some cases, the whole system ended up turning on the very wealthy landowners who were sort of instigating the trials.
S19: So there’s one guy, for example, who among the first slaves who is suspected of being involved in this. His owner is a man named Rule Blake. And Rule Blake. They haul this guy’s slave into this tribunal. It’s almost even before the tribunal is formed. They start beating it and rule. Blake is like, you guys got to stop. If anybody else touches my slave, we’re gonna have problems right now. Now, you could do this. It’s your property, right? You can do this. You don’t want to see people beating your property. So then they say, OK, well, then you beat him because we’re gonna get this information one way or the other. And rule-breaking like, okay, I’ll do it then. But they. Think he’s not beating him hard enough, right? He’s not really trying. He’s just going through the show of it. And so then they start to think, hmm, maybe he’s not just trying to protect his property. Maybe he knows something. And so then they start coercing his slave to to basically snitch on his master and then his master gets implicated. So you could be a slave holder and still get in trouble here.
S9: This story also reminds me of sort of behavior in very authoritarian police states or totalitarian states, right where there word that the populace itself is engaged in trying to police that the structure of this society. Right. Yeah. And I think this gets to what scholars are trying to communicate a bit when they say that the slave south wasn’t just a society with slaves, it was a slave society. It wasn’t enough for you just to own slaves or to be okay with that institution or committed to go along. Go on your way. You had to be all in and invested completely in the society, in the institution. It was yeah. It was a total commitment. Almost like almost like Project Mayhem and Fight Club. Yeah. So we have this mass hysteria tribunals, people being executed, suspicion.
S18: How did it all wind down? Well, what what happened as he sings often do is that they got even more out of control and these posses began attacking influential people. And that’s when I gets the big boy stepped in the governors and and tried to wrap this thing up, tried to put an end to it.
S5: Yeah. And while all this was going on, the real morale was in prison, kind of incapable of doing anything, let alone orchestrating this fantastic conspiracy.
S9: That’s right. He was dying of tuberculosis more or less.
S5: Yes. And he was released early because of that. And then he ended up dying before he turned 30. And Stewart kind of got a bunch of approbation for a while from the story and was, you know, welcomed town to town as the guy who exposed this grand conspiracy, but then handled his money really poorly and and just sort of died a pauper as we were finishing up our conversation with Rothman.
S6: We were actually Tyrus stepped back from particular personalities like Stuart and Merle and talk a bit about sort of the broader context for this panic. What was it about the 1830s in particular and now beyond the experience of Nat Turner revolt? What was it about the period that this would take hold and kind of grabbed the public’s imagination in a really violent way?
S19: So there is a kind of big picture thing and then there’s this sort of small picture of the frontier. Right. The big picture, obviously, is the emergence of the abolitionist movement. Right. That really starts to come into its fore in the 1830s. Right. The liberators founded in 1831, the Anti-Slavery Society founded in 1833, the postal campaign of 1835. All of a sudden there are, you know, growing numbers of very loud, immediate test abolitionists, not colonization as people who are like slavery is a moral, it’s a sin. It ought to end today. And as those people get louder. There is a kind of siege mentality that takes hold among white southerners. All of a sudden, the idea that you could be a white person and maybe say out loud that you think slavery isn’t for the best. Maybe you even think slavery is wrong. The South ought to maybe abolish slavery, even saying that would get you in trouble by the middle of the 1830s and that only gets worse as time goes on. So there’s a kind of big sort of political context for this. There’s a kind of ideological war that begins to rage, basically a propaganda war between anti and pro-slavery forces in the United States. So that that’s one thing that kind of limits the scope of acceptable debate among white people. So that is definitely one thing that’s going on. But I actually think in Mississippi, there’s something more kind of material based and more specific than that. And that’s the idea that this is a place where law& order is very ill formed. Settlement is a very new. We are white men who are surrounded by growing numbers of black men who we do not know. We need to all be on the same team if we’re gonna get this done right. And it’s both an individual and collective enterprise. Right? There’s individual plantations. But, you know, one, an insurrection on one plantation isn’t just gonna stay on that plantation. And so the idea here on the frontier in particular is that white men really need to be united. It’s an economic imperative and it’s a question of personal safety. And so there’s I think that takes the kind of the violence that normally comes with slavery and. Really takes it up to a whole other level. It becomes absolutely imperative that slaves do what they are told and that all white men are involved in making sure that they do exactly that.
S5: I was curious to Mal since we started the episode off talking about revolts in general and sort of the way that a bunch of them have fallen out of our understanding of the history of slavery. How did this story, both of Charles Allen and the story of the morale and Stewart panic change your understanding of what it meant to start a revolt? How do you think differently about revolts and rebellions after hearing about this?
S18: I think it’s easier for me to understand why enslaved people wouldn’t revolt, right? Revolt isn’t just risking your life. It’s risking the lives of everyone around you. It could easily spiral into mass reprisals that could affect your friends, could affect your family, could affect this community that you’ve built. There’s a small chance that any revolt will be successful and a pretty good chance and it’s going to end in disaster and probably death for you and those around you. So why would you why would you try it? The best option for trying to get away or trying to escape is actual running away. That way, if you get captured, it’s really only on you.
S7: Right. And that I mean, that’s something that, you know, if I’m thinking about the history of gender and slavery, there’s a lot of evidence that women didn’t really run or couldn’t run away as much because they had children or they had other people they were supposed to be taking care of. But, you know, hearing about these sort of more dramatic revolts, both the real one in Louisiana and the fake one in Mississippi, as I was sort of we’re working on this episode.
S5: I was reading some really amazing work by a story, a name, Stephanie Camp. And her book is called Closer to Freedom. And the book is about what she calls everyday resistance. And this is sort of acts that people carried out on plantations. So it’s things like not running away permanently, but running away for a night or, you know, being slow at work or, you know, stealing small things. So there’s sort of a range of things that you could do that would not be like wielding a knife, basically.
S18: Right. There are plenty of other ways to resist. And B, stories make it clear why enslaved people would opt for those as opposed to violent resistance. And I’ll kind of add as well that, you know, for as much as B stories make it easier to understand why enslaved people wouldn’t revolt or engage in power resistance. It’s really not that difficult if you think in kind of a broader sense why they wouldn’t. I mean, humans can get habituated to a lot of different kinds of conditions.
S16: Sadly, this is true. Yeah. This is this is very true in. So if you think of the experience of an enslaved person in 1830 there their parents probably enslaved.
S18: Good chance that their parents were enslaved to this seems just to be way in order of things. And even if you know what’s wrong, it’s not actually clear to you that there’s anything you can do about it into why riskin.
S13: With all of that, I think we are finished with this episode of conversation. But we are not finished on the frontier. We still have a lot more to talk about and explore both the outer edges of American slavery.
S21: The next episode we’re going to be talking about Charles Ball, who’s a person who was sold several times and was sold basically because of the cotton, the revolution and cotton planting that allowed people to make a lot of money. And so he is sort of another story that shows the effect the expansion of migration had on enslaved people’s lives.
S13: You’ll find that in our podcast feed in a couple of weeks time. Until then, however, this is the history of American slavery. Slate Academy, my name is Jamelle Bouie.
S21: And I’m Rebecca Onion. Thanks for listening.
S3: You can read an excerpt from Joshua Rothman’s book Flush Times and Fever Dreams as part of the Slate Academy. Find the link in our show notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academi.