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Slave Resistance

James H. Sweet
Professor, Department of History
University of Wisconsin–Madison
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center

Slave resistance began in British North America almost as soon as the first slaves arrived in the Chesapeake in the early seventeenth century. As one scholar has put it, “slaves ‘naturally’ resisted their enslavement because slavery was fundamentally unnatural.”1 Forms varied, but the common denominator in all acts of resistance was an attempt to claim some measure of freedom against an institution that defined people fundamentally as property. Perhaps the most common forms of resistance were those that took place in the work environment. After all, slavery was ultimately about coerced labor, and the enslaved struggled daily to define the terms of their work. Over the years, customary rights emerged in most fields of production. These customs dictated work routines, distribution of rations, general rules of comportment, and so on. If slave masters increased workloads, provided meager rations, or punished too severely, slaves registered their displeasure by slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, or sabotaging production. These everyday forms of resistance vexed slave masters, but there was little they could do to stop them without risking more widespread breaks in production. In this way, the enslaved often negotiated the basic terms of their daily routines. Of course, masters also stood to benefit from these negotiations, as contented slaves worked harder, increasing output and efficiency.

Another common form of slave resistance was theft. Slaves pilfered fruits, vegetables, livestock, tobacco, liquor, and money from their masters. The theft of foodstuffs was especially common and was justified on several grounds. First, slave rations were often woefully inadequate in providing the nutrition and calories necessary to support the daily exertions of plantation labor. Hungry slaves reasoned that the master’s abundance should be shared with those who produced it. Second, slaves recognized the inherent contradiction of the master’s “theft” accusations. How could slaves, who were themselves the master’s property, “steal” anything that the master owned? After all, the master’s ownership claims over the slave meant that he owned everything that the slave “owned.” When a slave staked claim to a master’s chicken, he merely transferred it to his stomach, or as Frederick Douglass put it, the slave was simply “taking [the master’s] meat out of one tub and putting it in another.”2

In addition to everyday forms of resistance, slaves sometimes staked more direct and overt claims to freedom. The most common form of overt resistance was flight. As early as 1640, slaves in Maryland and Virginia absconded from their enslavement, a trend that would grow into the thousands, and, eventually, tens of thousands by the time of the Civil War. During the early years of slavery, runaways tended to consist mostly of African-born males. Since African-born men were in the numerical majority through much of the eighteenth century, this should not surprise us. For the most part, these men did not speak English and were unfamiliar with the geographic terrain of North America. Their attempts to escape slavery, despite these handicaps, are a testament to the rejection of their servile condition. If caught, runaways faced certain punishment—whipping, branding, and even the severing of the Achilles tendon. Those lucky enough to evade detection sought sanctuary in a variety of safe havens—Native American communities, marshy lowlands like the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia/North Carolina coastal border, and, eventually, Canada and the free states of the American North. By the nineteenth century, the North was a particularly attractive destination for acculturated, American-born slaves. Networks of free blacks and sympathetic whites often helped ferry slaves to freedom via the so-called Underground Railroad, a chain of safe houses that stretched from the American South to free states in the North. Men continued to be predominant among runaways, although women, and even entire families were increasingly likely to test their chances in the flight for freedom. As the Civil War unfolded, many slaves abandoned their masters’ plantations, sometimes joining the Union army in what many perceived to be a war to end slavery forever.

The most spectacular, and perhaps best-known, forms of resistance were organized, armed rebellions. Between 1691 and 1865, at least nine slave revolts erupted in what would eventually become the United States. The most prominent of these occurred in New York City (1712), Stono, South Carolina (1739), New Orleans (1811), and Southampton, Virginia (Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion). Numerous other conspiracies were thwarted before they could be fully realized, including Gabriel Prosser’s (Richmond, VA, 1800) and Denmark Vesey’s (Charleston, SC, 1822). Slaves commandeered weapons, burned and looted properties, and even killed their masters and other whites, but whites were quick to exact a brutal revenge. In the bloodiest American revolt, Nat Turner and several hundred comrades killed sixty whites. Over 100 enslaved were killed, either in the combat or as retribution for the uprising. Another thirteen slaves were hanged, along with three free blacks. If the measure of a revolt’s success was the overthrow of slavery, then none of these revolts succeeded. Ultimately, the only rebellion that succeeded in overthrowing slavery in the Americas was the Haitian Revolution. Slave rebellions in colonial America and the United States never achieved such widespread success; however, the importance of rebellion cannot be overstated. The constant specter of physical violence reminded whites that slavery would never go unchallenged; the possibility of “another Haiti” loomed large, especially in the nineteenth-century American South.

Guiding Student Discussion

An excellent starting point for any discussion of slave resistance is a simple definition. For students (and many scholars), the term “slave resistance” often conjures notions of enslaved peoples on the barricades, taking up arms against their masters in rebellious acts of violence. In the contemporary imagination, it is comforting to think that the enslaved frequently exacted some measure of revenge against the unspeakable horrors that they suffered. Award-winning historical novels highlight the Nat Turner rebellion and the Haitian Revolution.3 Similarly, Hollywood celebrates the victories of the Amistad Africans and Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti.4 Students will likely begin to define resistance by these historical markers, but they should be pushed beyond slave revolts. To be sure, organized physical violence was one aspect of resistance, and these episodes deserve an important place in the curriculum. Remind them, however, that organized, armed violence was a relatively rare occurrence during the 350-year history of slavery in the United States. Why were armed rebellions so infrequent?

Slave masters monopolized armed power, severely restricting slaves’ access to weapons. Slave masters also closely monitored their slaves’ activities, limiting their movement and freedom of association. Under these circumstances, organization and planning were next to impossible. On those rare occasions when the enslaved escaped their masters’ purview, they faced yet other mechanisms of white control—militias, local patrols, and vigilantes. Rebels who avoided the net of surveillance and enacted their conspiracies were always dealt with in brutal fashion. Public hangings and decapitation were common punishments. Other rebels were gibbeted alive, burned alive, or broken on the wheel. In all of these instances, punishment was meant to demonstrate the totalizing effects of white supremacy, terrorizing those who remained enslaved. Remarkably, some slaves still embarked on what they must have known were suicide missions. Were the men and women who confronted their masters with violence so desperate that they preferred death to living in slavery? Or, did they really believe that they could be the exception and overthrow white supremacy? These are important questions to consider.

These questions also begin to point students toward the psychology of enslavement, an important and often neglected aspect of the institution and responses to it. Psychologically, how did the majority of slaves interpret the institution? (And for that matter, how did whites?) If hardened firebrands like Nat Turner represented one response, then the broken, submissive “Sambo” probably represented another. Slavery impacted negatively on all slaves, but it did not impact all of them equally. The enslaved possessed the range of weaknesses and frailties common to all people. To deny that some suffered deep psychological wounds would be to deny their very humanity, reinforcing the master’s belief that slaves were little affected by the institution’s daily violence. In fact, the vast majority of enslaved probably fell between the two psychological extremes of “Nat” and “Sambo,” coping with the horrors and indignities of slavery as best they could, building lives within the corrosive confines of the institution. For this majority of slaves, resistance took a variety of forms.

If organized physical violence was not the solution for most slaves, then how did the majority find ways to address their condition? If they have not already done so, students will usually recognize that running away was the most common way of overtly rejecting slavery. By the nineteenth century, running away to the North offered the virtue of a tenuous freedom; however, failed runaways also met with serious reprisals. Most did not try to escape. For those who remained enslaved, resistance took on more familiar everyday forms. When discussing everyday forms of resistance, challenge students to think about whether strategies like work slowdowns, breaking tools, or even petty theft were actually “resistance.” Here, it is important to distinguish between those acts that were aimed at ending one’s enslavement—running away, rebellion, etc.—versus those that were intended to improve one’s daily condition inside the institution. Ask students: When the enslaved slowed their work or broke tools, were they resisting the overall institution of slavery or just the work of slavery? Can these be distinguished? Remind students that slave masters sometimes begrudgingly tolerated these everyday forms of resistance and even responded positively to slave workplace demands. Why? These negotiated compromises provided slaves with incentives to work, ultimately bolstering the institution. For slave masters, acknowledging these small pin pricks of resistance were a small price to pay in order to secure the survival of the overall institution.

Some students likely will not buy the argument that everyday forms of resistance reinforced the institution. Encourage them to unravel exactly why they think this. The best students will recognize that even the smallest acts of resistance pushed the boundaries of freedom, slowly eroding the institution. Smile at them and then turn to an even more obvious example. What about theft? Of course, stealing from the master MUST have been resistance. But what if a starving slave’s stolen food provided the sustenance that allowed him to work another day? Didn’t this actually reinforce the institution? Even some of the enslaved seemed to acknowledge that this was the case. As Frederick Douglass noted, stealing was simply “taking meat out of one tub and putting it in another.” When slaves rationalized theft in these terms, weren’t they adopting the master’s definition of them as property? Or were they cleverly manipulating the contradictions inherent to the institution?

Finally, as one last consideration of everyday forms of resistance, you might ask your students whether cultural forms like the speaking of African languages, the formation of families, or the practice of religion constituted resistance to slavery. Embedded in each of these were the potential for overt forms of resistance. For instance, those speaking African languages might plan conspiracies or revolts in those languages, thereby hiding their intentions from whites. The formation of families defied notions of property, sometimes making it difficult for masters to sell husbands, wives, and children, who vehemently protested separation from their loved ones. And religion could be used to justify liberation from the “sorcery” or “sin” of enslavement. Some slave masters recognized the potential dangers in these cultural expressions and attempted to curb their practices. Others viewed African and African-American cultural practices as vital ways of appeasing slaves so they would be more efficient workers. Did the master have to prohibit a particular cultural form in order for its practice to be considered resistant? Or were all cultural expressions a form of resistance? Certainly there is an argument to be made that any assertion of humanity in an institution that defined one as non-human was an expression of resistance. At the same time, slaves were ultimately human beings and expressed themselves naturally as such, even within the confines of slavery. To suggest that slaves were always on the barricades, consciously resisting at every turn, risks reinforcing the master’s assertions that slaves were less than human.

Students probably will end up disagreeing about the precise definition of slave resistance. Considerations of whether certain behaviors were resistant or not will continuously run into conceptual dead ends. Ultimately, students will turn to the instructor to place some closure on these debates. In concluding this discussion there are two key points that must be emphasized: 1) the distinction between forms of resistance that rejected the institution of slavery (rebellion, running away) and forms of resistance that took place within the institution (everyday forms); and 2) the recognition that the very definition of slavery (“property”) meant that almost any action or behavior on the parts of slaves could potentially be interpreted as resistance.

As a group, slaves constantly pushed their masters and overseers to grant them greater freedoms. This was only natural. When masters refused, slaves punctuated everyday forms of resistance with more overt expressions like running away or rebellion. The threat of flight or violence always hung over the institution, despite the infrequency of such acts. Ultimately, the moral bankruptcy of slavery meant that even the smallest, most mundane acts could be considered resistant, but the enslaved did not live in a constantly reactionary state, awaiting their white masters before determining their next resistant move. The vast majority coped, endured, and lived their lives, avoiding the slings and arrows of white power as best they could.

Historians Debate

The study of slave resistance gained its contemporary impetus from works published in the 1940s and 1950s. Herbert Aptheker’s path breaking American Negro Slave Revolts (1943) argued that the brutality of slavery provoked more than 200 rebellions and conspiracies in British North America and the United States. Aptheker, who never held a permanent academic position in the United States, was rejected by many as a radical communist. Though he may have exaggerated the number of uprisings, Aptheker’s work squarely challenged the prevailing sentiment in the American academic establishment that slaves responded to their inhumane treatment in a passive fashion. Widely criticized at the time of its publication, the work is now acknowledged as the platform upon which all other studies of slave resistance have been built.

The idea of slaves as submissive and content dated as far back as Ulrich B. Phillips’, American Negro Slavery (1918) but persisted well into the 1950s, culminating with Stanley Elkins’ Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959). In this work, Elkins concluded that the majority of American slaves adopted the “Sambo” personality—docile, submissive, child-like, loyal, and utterly dependent on their masters. Elkins did not argue that slaves were naturally this way; rather, he argued that the institution of slavery transformed their personalities in much the same way as occurred among prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

By the late 1960s and 1970s, a number of scholars began assaulting the Sambo monolith. John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) identified a range of personality types among slaves, noting that Sambo and Nat [Turner] were stereotypes so contrary to one another “that the legitimacy of each as a representation of typical slave behavior is limited.”5  Other authors focused more directly on rebellion, including John Lofton, Insurrection in South Carolina: The Turbulent World of Denmark Vesey (1964), Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the New World (1968), and William Styron’s fictional account, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), which provoked a strong critique from scholars who accused Styron of sanitizing slavery and portraying Turner as sexually depraved. These critiques can be found in John Henrik Clarke, ed., William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Scholars Respond (1968).

For a detailed history of runaway slaves, see John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (2000). Also see the remarkable story of Shadrach Minkins, who ran away from slavery in Virginia, only to be captured in Boston in 1851 under the Fugitive Slave Law. Before his case could be heard, a group of black citizens invaded the court room and stole Minkins to freedom in Canada, where he helped establish a community for runaway slaves in Montreal. See Gary Collison, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (1998).

Some of best work on slave resistance in recent years focuses on the African backgrounds of the enslaved. Through language, kinship, religion, and so on, Africans recreated aspects of their pasts in North America. Some of these forms were expressed as resistance—through “sorcery,” Islam, running away, and even suicide. For the best works on African forms of resistance in North America, see Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987), Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (1998), and Walter C. Rucker, The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture and Identity Formation in Early America (2005).

Most scholars now accept that the enslaved “naturally” resisted slavery. That being the case, it is impossible to be exhaustive in describing the numerous approaches and contributions to studies of slave resistance. This overview only barely scratches the surface; students are encouraged to consult more specific works through the bibliographies of the works listed here, as well as through general bibliographies of slavery.


1 Franklin W. Knight, “Slavery,” in Colin A. Palmer, ed., Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (New York: Thompson/Gale, 2006), 2066.

2 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855), 189–191.

3 William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Random House, 1967), won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1968; Madison Smartt Bell, All Souls’ Rising (New York: Pantheon, 1995), was a National Book Award finalist in 1995.

4 Amistad (1997), Director: Steven Spielberg; Toussaint (forthcoming, 2011), Director: Danny Glover.

5 John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 141.

James H. Sweet is associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was a National Humanities Center Fellow in 2006–07. His book, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770, was the recipient of the 2004 Wesley Logan Prize, awarded by the American Historical Association. Sweet is completing a book manuscript tentatively titled, “Today He Cures; Tomorrow He Kills”: Domingos Alvares and the Politics of Public Healing in the Atlantic World, 1700–1750.

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