The Library of Virginia

Resistance to the State

"A Late Dangerous Conspiracy"

Resistance to the State Documents | Gabriel's Conspiracy | Nat Turner's Rebellion
John Brown's Raid | Remembering Revolt | All Death or Liberty Documents

Insurrections were not unknown in America before the Revolution. A 1739 slave uprising near Charleston, South Carolina, known as "Cato's Conspiracy" or the "Stono Rebellion," culminated in the deaths of 30 whites and 44 blacks. Reports of a "Great Negro Plot" in New York, based on the sensational testimony of a white indentured servant, led to the convictions of more than 100 African Americans in 1741. In Virginia, African Americans joined with white servants as early as 1663 to rebel and gain their freedom. By the early eighteenth century, however, Virginia's decisive turn toward slavery made revolt a largely black versus white issue. Enslaved African Americans posed a constant threat to the security of their white owners, particularly in times of war. "The Villany of the Negroes in any Emergency of Gov't is [what] I always feared," Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie declared in 1755 as French and Indian troops fought British colonial forces in Virginia. Isolated insurrections and reports of conspiracies kept white authorities on edge throughout British colonial America. By the early 1800s slave resistance took many forms, with open and organized revolt by large groups of slaves only the most extreme example. Some individual slaves attempted to "steal" their own labor by feigning illness, shirking work, or running away. Some engaged in the deliberate destruction of property, perhaps breaking an expensive tool or setting a barn on fire. Some went so far as to plot the deaths of their owners; poisonings at the hands of trusted house servants were widely suspected, but rarely proved. Even learning to read, which was prohibited by law, was an act of resistance. While open rebellion was rare, the threat was real to white southerners and Virginians. Scarcely a year passed without rumors of a plot to stage an insurrection. The papers of Virginia's governors contain constant pleas from Virginia militia units for weapons to respond to threats of rebellion.