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The Slave Revolts

In response to:

The Lash and the Knout from the November 19, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

In yours of November 19, 1987, C. Vann Woodward again attacks my American Negro Slave Revolts, calling it “misleading” and contrasting it to a view expressed by Eugene D. Genovese in a book published in 1974.

In noting my Revolts book, Woodward refers to the original 1943 edition and gives its publisher as International Publishers. Actually, that edition was published by Columbia University Press, and reprinted by it in 1944 and 1945. Columbia’s press discontinued distributing the book thereafter, in accordance with academia’s heroic response to the Cold War. International’s first edition was in 1951. A new printing of the 40th anniversary edition has just been published (October, 1987). It contains additional supporting evidence of the volume’s thesis—now widely accepted by the historical profession.

Mr. Woodward refers to Nat Turner’s revolt as the “bloodiest” in our history. In this he is wrong, again; the uprisings in South Carolina, 1739–1740, in Louisiana, 1794–1796, and in Louisiana in 1811 caused greater loss of life than did Turner’s. Of course, slave conspiracies—as those led by Gabriel in 1800 and by Vesey in 1822—involved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rebels—and were bloody enough if one takes into account the lives of the rebels. The decade 1850–1860 also witnessed slave unrest and outbreaks more widespread than Turner’s, though even the latter did shake Virginia to its foundations.

As for Professor Genovese’s latest views on the question of slave rebellion in the US and the work of the undersigned, Mr. Woodward is behind the times. Genovese has made public, in speech and print, his altered outlook. Mr. Woodward should read, for example, Genovese’s essay, “Herbert Aptheker’s Achievement and Our Responsibility” in G.Y. Okihiro, ed., In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History (University of Massachusetts Press, 1986).

In general, Mr. Woodward should try to catch up with the voluminous literature in this field, especially of the last fifteen years.

Herbert Aptheker

San Jose, California

C Vann Woodward replies:

All students of American slavery are surely indebted to Mr. Aptheker for calling their attention years ago to slave resistance. Since then some have regretted that he rather overdid the thing. The passage from his Slave Revolts I called “misleading” in my review of Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom declares that there were “approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery.” The edition quoted was copyrighted in 1943 but published later (mine in 1963) as he correctly insisted. His insistence is a trifle puzzling, however, since the same passage recurs in each of the five editions, including the last in October 1987, in precisely the same words, on the same page (162), citing exactly the same sources as were used in 1943.

I quite agree that one should try to keep up with the latest scholarship. In future editions Mr. Aptheker should not overlook Peter Kolchin’s book, which says of his 250 “revolts and conspiracies” that “most of them were minor incidents of unrest that were quickly put down with a minimum of local force or were nipped in the bud before they occurred. Other historians have been more impressed with the paucity than with the ubiquity of American slave revolts.” I honestly believe that this view is the one “now widely accepted by the historical profession” rather than the 1943 thesis, as claimed by its author. It is certainly in accord with views repeatedly expressed by Eugene D. Genovese, a scholar who surely would not disavow them, whatever personal affection he may express for a senior statesman. In fact, in the Okihiro volume of 1986 he writes that he and other critics “have criticized Aptheker for exaggerating or for overestimating the incidence of noteworthy insurrections in contradistinction to violent local disturbances.” He adds, “I continue to think that tempered criticism is in order,” in spite of some that has not been tempered.

Of the handful of incidents that might qualify as revolts I do agree with Kolchin in calling Nat Turner’s “the bloodiest.” As Aptheker says, the sources are not agreed on the number of casualties, but I believe his own account, as well as later ones, support this statement about what he singled out as “The Turner Cataclysm.” Neither the bloodshed of the South Carolina uprisings nor of those in Louisiana that he mentions would appear to be as great as that in Virginia in 1831. No major revolt occurred after that. In view of the terrible odds against them the wonder is that any ever occurred.

In all these American comparisons, and even more important in the comparisons between American slaves and Russian serfs in which Kolchin is engaged, it is essential to remember that on the American side we are dealing in buckets and not in barrels or rivers of blood, as indeed we are on the Russian side. There the serfs joined in what Soviet historians call the “peasant wars,” four massive armed conflicts that averaged a year in length, involved hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions, and swept the whole country. Bloodshed by the barrel here, to be sure. After the era of peasant wars hundreds of confrontations between serfs and masters took place. Serfs fled, not as slaves did individually, but thousands at a time, whole villages, with soldiers called out to crush and punish rebels. In 1825 it took seven regiments to round up 2,813 fugitives in the Urals, and many escaped. When we read of “insurrection” or “rebellion” in South Carolina or Virginia we should keep these terms in proper proportion. In fact in all comparisons between Americans and Muscovites in matters of domestic bloodshed it would be well to keep the bucket-to-barrel ratio in mind—whether in earlier centuries or in the present one.

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