Sunday, August 30, 2020

This Day in Southern History (‘Gabriel’s Insurrection’ Foiled at Last Minute)

Aug. 30, 1800—At 2 in the afternoon, Virginia Gov. James Monroe (pictured)just returned to Richmond because of a yellow fever quarantine emergency—received a visit from slaveowner Mosby Shepherd, confirming rumors circulating at least since spring: that a massive slave uprising was in the offing just outside Richmond in the town of Henrico.

This time, though, specific details provided by two of Shepherd’s slaves endowed the reports with a grim new certainty: that the rebellious slaves would kill their masters that night, move on to Richmond and set fire to the state capital, capitalizing on the ensuing confusion to seize ammunition from the penitentiary.

Immediately, Monroe—in his first executive position in the young United States, and two months from a tumultuous national election—moved to quash the insurrection, taking the unprecedented step of stationing militia in Henrico, Richmond and the penitentiary. A torrential downpour that night scotched the revolt before it could be launched.

Capitalizing on this respite, the militia broke into slave quarters in the area, producing a round of confessions or finger-pointing from the terrified inhabitants. Within two days, approximately 70 were arrested and charged.

The ringleader was quickly identified: a 24-year-old blacksmith named Gabriel, the property of plantation owner Thomas Henry Prosser. The incident has been sometimes been referred to as “Gabriel Prosser’s Revolt”—a misnomer, as Gabriel never took his master’s surname during his lifetime.

But, though the name was misleading, the fears that the uprising brought to the surface were real enough. The Virginia gentry did not have to look far for the possibility of violence at the hands of slaves: Ambrose Madison, the paternal grandfather of Congressman James Madison, was allegedly poisoned by two of his slaves and a neighboring one.

An insurrection—quicker than a slow-acting poison, perpetrated by slaves who often outnumbered whites on plantations—was even more terrifying. And it was more worrisome still when led by someone like Gabriel—a commanding physical presence (over six feet tall, well above the average size for that era) who, because of his literacy, also possessed a heightened ability to receive intelligence and communicate with followers.

The year 1800 was already shaping up to be one of unusual tension, with the United States and France trying to back away from a full-scale war; with the Democratic-Republican Party, headed by Monroe’s mentor Thomas Jefferson, attempting to win the Presidency that fall from the Federalists; and with the continuing repercussions of the successful Haitian revolt against their former French masters, led by Toussaint Louverture. But Gabriel’s Insurrection gave more tangible form to this unease.

The man at the center of it had been seething for over a year over the unequal treatment of slaves within the Virginia legal system, especially as it affected him. 

The charge facing Gabriel in 1799—“maiming” (an overseer, in a scuffle arising from another slave’s theft of a pig)—would not have been unusual in the society of his master. Indeed, “eye-gouging, ear-biting, and even more devastating forms of physical combat were common among equals in late eighteenth-century Virginia,” according to a 1982 article by historian Philip J. Schwarz. “It was the rare slave, however, who attacked whites openly and physically.”
Gabriel only escaped the death penalty through a quirk of the law called “benefit of clergy” (i.e., he would only be branded rather than executed if he could recite a Bible verse).

Whites had used that same legal system to bust his conspiracy, offering a full pardon to any slaves willing to testify against fellow conspirators.

Although a full pardon was one means of resolving the case, Gov. Monroe had to weigh to what extent any other form of mercy was possible among the multiple cases now filling the Virginia courts. He outlined the courses open to him in a letter to Jefferson:

“When to avert the hand of the Executioner, is a question of great importance. It is hardly to be presumed, [that] a rebel who avows it was his intention to assassinate his master etc. if pardoned will ever become a useful servant, and we have no power to transport him abroad—Nor is it less difficult to say whether mercy or severity is the better policy in this case, tho' where there is cause for doubt it is best to incline to the former council.”

Perhaps better than any whites, Monroe knew that extenuating circumstances existed for mercy. Though there was little doubt that Gabriel  led the conspiracy, the early investigation had already established that Presser had, even in a system favorable to a slaveholder, treated his slaves with “great barbarity.” Moreover, as a careful onetime lawyer, Monroe realized that confessions extracted under torture or its threat were not reliable guides to determining innocence.

In determining the varying fates of the accused, however, Monroe was not merely guided by public safety or questions of guilt and innocence, but also by his own self-interest. He would own as many as 250 slaves in his lifetime, making him one of the largest slaveowners in his county. He was a direct beneficiary of the system he was being tasked to protect.

In the end, with Monroe himself attempting to interrogate the captured leader, Gabriel refused to make a statement without a promise to mitigate his punishment. Gabriel would be one of 26 hanged for their complicity in the rebellion, with another dying in custody while awaiting execution. Among the remaining 38 originally arrested, some were transported out of state; some were found not guilty; and a few were pardoned.

As for Gabriel: 207 years after his hanging, then-Gov. Tim Kaine granted him a full pardon, commending his “courage and devotion to the fundamental Virginia values of freedom and equality.”

Those “values” perplexed Monroe, as it did fellow Virginia Presidents George Washington, Jefferson and James Madison, to his dying day. Although Washington arranged to manumit his slaves following the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, fatally entrapped in the lavish, debt-inducing lifestyle of the plantation  aristocracy, freed no more than a handful of their own, despite their grave misgivings about “the peculiar institution.”

If anything, Gabriel’s Insurrection convinced Monroe that ultimately, slavery could not exist in the United States without raising tensions between North and South and posing a danger to the lives of slaveholders (a fear realized 31 years later in Nat Turner's Rebellion and in 1859 in another led by John Brown).

He came around to gradually moving slaves back to Africa as an ultimate solution to the practice, even endorsing the American Colonization Society. During his Presidency, Liberia was established on the African continent for this purpose, even naming its capital, Monrovia, after him.

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