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.


One thought on “The Problem of Emancipation and Winthrop Jordan’s ‘Tumult and Silence at Second Creek’

  1. Your post prompted this question for me: how important is it for Rugemer to show that abolitionist activity did somehow “reach” enslaved people, that there was in fact collective resistance sparked by political upheaval in white society? As important as it is to Jordan? Less important? Or would Rugemer be most interested in making the point that you make in your last paragraph: that planters’ perceptions of what was causing slave resistance–and what they should do about it–is what mattered most in the end. What parts of Rugemer would you point to specifically to answer these questions?

    Also, if you continue on this topic, it will probably be useful to look more closely at the literature on Caribbean slave revolts, since that seems to be one of the primary literatures Rugemer is responding to and interacting with.

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