Monthly Archives: March 2011

“Testing the Chains” (and the Edwards Thesis)

In Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Cornell, 1982), Michael Craton provides remarkably deep analysis of Caribbean slave resistance movements from 1600 until the 1830’s.  Its pertinence to Rugemer, however, lies primarily in his final section, on “Slave Rebellions and Emancipation, 1816-1832.”  After describing the previous two hundred years of slave resistance in the British West Indies, Craton here emphasizes slave agency, and slavery itself as the primary motive for rebellion, stating, “the fundamental motivation for slaves’ resistance in the last two decades of slavery remained, as it had always been, a determination to make, take, or recreate a life of their own.  This impulse owed little or nothing to metropolitan inspiration or aid” (243).

Despite this assertion, however, he does attest to the manner in which newspaper articles addressing political developments in Britain may have provided impetus for slave rebellion, and the way in which planters may have overstated this as a causal factor.  “Change was clearly impending, posing a threat to the masters and offering hope for the slaves.  But rumors of change played an even more important role in slave unrest than actual changes, becoming a part of a common syndrome” (243-4).  Craton goes on to explain, like Rugemer, how after plots or actual revolts planters would point to evidence that information, true or not, about emancipation had been circulated among the slaves, leading to the unrest.  Craton provides a more plausible motive for this reiteration of the Edwards thesis, however.  He describes how “by stressing the effect of mere rumors of change, the planters hoped to forestall actual changes.  They also hoped that by attributing slave unrest to actual or imagined changes imposed from outside they might draw attention away from local causes and deflect blame from themselves” (244).

Craton then hedges this bet by clarifying that “if they overemphasize talk among the slaves, the planters did not invent its substance.  The rumor syndrome in the late slave rebellions was far more than a mere plantocratic ploy,” highlighting the important role played by literate slaves, and the existence of an “effective network of communication” among slaves (244). In this way, reconciles the sides of this debate in much the way Rugemer does.  While he acknowledges that abolitionist agitation and its reporting in newspapers circulated in the Caribbean – misunderstood by the slaves as these reports may have been – contributed to the radicalization of the “black Atlantic to a certain extent, noting how the circulation of this (mis)information highlighted a “degree of concurrence between elite and ordinary slaves that deeply disturbed the master class,” and the way in which the “inaccuracy” of rumors about emancipationist developments in Britain “might serve the cause of slave resistance” (244).  Despite this, however, Craton also notes that whatever degree of legitimacy the Edwards thesis had in reality, planters overemphasized the effect of mere abolitionist agitation and rumor on slave resistance to serve their own self-interested ends.  Unlike Rugemer and Johnson, Craton seems to suggest that, realistic or not, planters highlighted the Edwards thesis in an effort to delay emancipation, not because they truly though it represented the whole story.

‘Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement’ — How Did I Not Find This Book Until Now?

In Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement, Gelien Matthews argues for the reverse of the Edwards thesis outlined in Rugemer.  While she acknowledges the argument by contemporaries and historians alike, that abolitionist agitation in British Parliament influenced slaves to seize opportunities for revolt, she asserts that the opposite is no less true.  Specifically, she notes how, especially after the 1816 Demerara rebellion, abolitionists used the periodic slave uprisings to support the shift in their positions from ones of slave code reforms and gradual emancipation to one of the immediate abolition of the slave regime.

Matthews outlines how the relationship between abolitionist activity in England and slave rebellions in the Caribbean were subject to competing interpretations from pro- and anti-slavery advocates, obviously with the pro-slavery folks arguing that agitation led to rebellion, and the anti-slavery folks arguing that rebellion indicated slaves were fit for freedom and that immediate abolition was necessary.

For Rugemer’s purpose – outlining how the seeds of sectional conflict and secession were sown in the Caribbean – I don’t think it truly matters who is right or wrong here.  Regardless of if abolitionist agitation inspired revolt, or revolt gave ammunition to abolitionists, Southern planters would seen and read about how slave insurrections in the Caribbean led to significant losses to life and property, and that abolition came not long after, both events southern slave holders wanted to avoid at all costs.  So on the one hand, given the Caribbean pro-slavery interpretation most easily visible in Rugemer’s treatment of the Edwards thesis, southerners would have had the desire to secede to avoid further slave revolts stemming from Congressional discussion about the future of slavery in the United States – regardless of whether this was the actual sequence of events.  But on the other hand, even if southern planters understood and accepted the argument Matthews and abolitionists put forward –that insurrection proved slaves’ fitness for freedom and was instrumental in achieving abolition –I think slave holders would have felt the same animosity towards the north and the same impetus to secede so that if another insurrection did occur it wouldn’t lend credence to the abolitionist position.

Nonetheless, the pro-slavery/Edwards position has received far more treatment as the “true” sequence of events than the mirror image proposed by Matthews.  While both seem equally plausible, and Matthews agrees with thiat interpretation, The Problem of Emancipation seems to be more in conversation with those treating the Edwards thesis more seriously (Michael Craton, Hilary Beckles, and others I will be dealing with in the coming weeks).

Ultimately though, and maybe this is negating everything I just typed out, I don’t really think any of this matters all that much for Rugemer’s argument.  Despite some level of historiographical disagreement about what caused what, the Rugemer all that matters is that the pro-slavery faction thought abolitionist agitation was reaching slaves in some manner, and that this led to insurrection.  This is the interpretation planters in the South latched onto, and in that way, the Civil War genuinely had roots in Caribbean slave society.

The Problem of Emancipation and Winthrop Jordan’s ‘Tumult and Silence at Second Creek’

One of the major elements of Edward Rugemer’s The Problem of Emancipation is his analysis of slave insurrections and insurrection conspiracy.  The Edwards thesis which he relies on so heavily to ground his analysis of the influence of British abolition and events in the Caribbean on the Civil War basically asserts that discussion of abolition, or sometimes slavery more generally, in the press gets filtered through literate slaves and free blacks, spread throughout slave communication and information networks, and ultimately leads to slave insurrections.

Thus, for the next few blog posts I am going to address the historiography of slave insurrections, and see how they fit into Rugemer’s narrative, especially in regards to the Edwards thesis.  I want to look at what white planters perceived as the causes of the insurrections, what historians say the “actual” causes may have been, and the repercussions these insurrections (or plans for insurrection) had on laws, race relations, and political developments.

Last semester in Dr. Boles’s US South seminar, we read Winthrop Jordan’s Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy.  In it, Jordan argues that a number of slaves in Adams County, Mississippi, in the Spring of 1861, conspired to revolt against their masters.  In doing so, Jordan relies primarily on the slave testimony recorded by Lemuel P. Conner during the secret and extralegal investigation of the conspiracy by the Second Creek Examination Committee; he also utilizes the diaries and personal correspondences of some members of the white community in Adams County.  While Jordan seems wholly convinced of the existence of a slave conspiracy – evidenced most demonstrably by his continued, capitalized use of the term “Plan” – he largely ignores the effect of the political fervor the oncoming Civil War would have had for both the members of the elite, white planter class, as well as for the individuals that class held in bondage.  More egregiously though, his rather uncritical use of Conner’s testimony results in a level of bias towards the accuracy of the sources surprising for an historian of Jordan’s stature and pedigree.  A more cautious reading of Conner’s account of the testimony reveals the extent to which rumor and coercion from white elites led to the creation of the impression of a conspiracy.  When these elements are taken under full consideration, the existence of any kind of real plan for insurrection becomes a far more tenuous possibility.

After the hastily convened courts, and after the majority of the slaves believed to be involved were executed, what is somewhat interesting about this case is that it was not publicized, and was kept under-wraps for a very long time.  During the seminar we had a lot of difficulty understanding why this was kept silent for so long.  I kept thinking that if the planters wanted to give slaves disincentive to slaves to revolt, they would advertise how quickly and brutally the whites in Adams County responded.  After reading the Problem of Emancipation, however, it seems to make more sense.  If you accept that a discussion of cracks in the slave establishment are seized upon by the slave community as an opportunity to revolt, the whites in Adams County may have wanted to keep the conspiracy at Second Creek a secret for fear that other slaves would gain information about it, and consider it an opportune time for them to revolt as well.


Are You There Bryan Edwards? It’s Me, Southern Planter.

Did Bryan Edwards have the single greatest influence on the South’s decision to secede, and the eruption of the American Civil War?  That’s kinda the feeling I was left with after finishing The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War.  Rugemer’s argument in every chapter seems to hinge on the widespread acceptance and influence of the “Edwards Thesis.”  Responses to, and perceptions of the causes of slave insurrections, and the impact of discussing and enacting abolition all seem to come back to an acceptance or rejection of the Edwards thesis.

That said, even despite the centrality of the Edwards thesis, Rugemer’s argument certainly seems to hold water.  He gauges public opinion on slavery, insurrection, and abolition primarily through his analysis of newspaper articles.  In addressing popular responses to events, Rugemer is engaging with what Edward Ayers has dubbed “deep contingency.”  Rugemer quotes Ayers’s explication of deep contingency at length, and I think it would be fruitful, for the sake of emphasis, to reproduce that again here.  He states that deep contingency focuses on the “’connection between structure and event, on the relationships between the long-existing problem of slavery and the immediate world of politics.’  One of the central structures in democratic societies is public opinion, particularly as it influences political life, and for the antebellum United States, public opinions about black emancipation were important” (8).

Rugemer tracks these public opinions through periodicals published in the United States, including articles from Caribbean papers, and finds that they demonstrate considerable concern with developments in the Caribbean when assessing the slavery question in the US.  For southern planters, Caribbean developments demonstrated that discussing emancipation in the legislature led to slave insurrections, while for northern abolitionists, agitating for emancipation ultimately led to official abolition.  Opinions were formed based on these interpretations of the developments in the Caribbean, and battle lines were drawn accordingly.

I’m not quite sure, however, how far this line of reasoning can be extended.  Did developments in the Caribbean around emancipation debates stoke sectional tensions? Did it ultimately lead to the South to secede? Did the conflicting views in regards to the Edwards thesis cause the Civil War?  Rugemer seems to bring the reader along this path, but kind of left me hanging in terms of how far he thought this could go.  He’s clearly engaging the conversations on what started the Civil War, but given his argument, the answer has to be something more complex than “slavery.”

Rugemer’s discussion of the influence of newspaper articles discussing abolition and the slavery question on slave insurrection, and to an extent the Edwards thesis itself, seems to parallel the arguments made by Johnson and Sidbury in their contributions to the Vesey Conspiracy forum.  In light of the fact that Rugemer presents rather matter-of-factly to what Johnson and Sidbury draw significant attention, it seems that the idea that literate slaves and free blacks transferred information through slave communication and information networks has been solidified in the historiography.  Also, considering the way Rugemer discusses the perceived causes of, and responses to slave insurrections, it’s interesting to juxtapose his argument with those in the Making of a Slave Conspiracy forum, and also Furstenberg’s take on how planters explained the existence of slave uprisings.