Gabriel's insurrection of 1800 was by no means the most formidable revolt that the Southern states witnessed. In design it certainly did not surpass the scope of the plot of Denmark Vesey twenty-two years later, and in actual achievement it was insignificant when compared not only with Nat Turner's insurrection but even with the uprisings sixty years before. At the last moment in fact a great storm that came up made the attempt to execute the plan a miserable failure. Nevertheless coming as it did so soon after the revolution in Hayti, and giving evidence of young and unselfish leadership, the plot was regarded as of extraordinary significance.
Gabriel himself69 was an intelligent slave only twenty-four years old, and his chief assistant was Jack Bowler, aged twenty-eight. Throughout the summer of 1800 he matured his plan, holding meetings at which a brother named Martin interpreted various texts from Scripture as bearing on the situation of the Negroes. His insurrection was finally set for the first day of September. It was well planned. The rendezvous was to be a brook six miles from Richmond. Under cover of night the force of 1,100 was to march in three columns on the city, then a town of 8,000 inhabitants, the right wing to seize the penitentiary building which had just been converted into an arsenal, while the left took possession of the powder-house. These two columns were to be armed with clubs, and while they were doing their work the central force, armed with muskets, knives, and pikes, was to begin the carnage, none being spared except the French, whom it is significant that the Negroes favored. In Richmond at the time there were not more than four or five hundred men with about thirty muskets; but in the arsenal were several thousand guns, and the powder-house was well stocked. Seizure of the mills was to guarantee the insurrectionists a food supply; and meanwhile in the country districts were the new harvests of corn, and flocks and herds were fat in the fields.
On the day appointed for the uprising Virginia witnessed such a storm as she had not seen in years. Bridges were carried away, and roads and plantations completely submerged. Brook Swamp, the strategic point for the Negroes, was inundated; and the country Negroes could not get into the city, nor could those in the city get out to the place of rendezvous. The force of more than a thousand dwindled to three hundred, and these, almost paralyzed by fear and superstition, were dismissed. Meanwhile a slave who did not wish to see his master killed divulged the plot, and all Richmond was soon in arms.
A troop of United States cavalry was ordered to the city and arrests followed quickly. Three hundred dollars was offered by Governor Monroe for the arrest of Gabriel, and as much more for Jack Bowler. Bowler surrendered, but it took weeks to find Gabriel. Six men were convicted and condemned to be executed on September 12, and five more on September 18. Gabriel was finally captured on September 24 at Norfolk on a vessel that had come from Richmond; he was convicted on October 3 and executed on October 7. He showed no disposition to dissemble as to his own plan; at the same time he said not one word that incriminated anybody else. After him twenty-four more men were executed; then it began to appear that some "mistakes" had been made and the killing ceased. About the time of this uprising some Negroes were also assembled for an outbreak in Suffolk County; there were alarms in Petersburg and in the country near Edenton, N.C.; and as far away as Charleston the excitement was intense.
There were at least three other Negro insurrections of importance in the period 1790-1820. When news came of the uprising of the slaves in Santo Domingo in 1791, the Negroes in Louisiana planned a similar effort.70 They might have succeeded better if they had not disagreed as to the hour of the outbreak, when one of them informed the commandant. As a punishment twenty-three of the slaves were hanged along the banks of the river and their corpses left dangling for days; but three white men who assisted them and who were really the most guilty of all, were simply sent out of the colony. In Camden, S. C, on July 4, 1816, some other Negroes risked all for independence.71 On various pretexts men from the country districts were invited to the town on the appointed night, and different commands were assigned, all except that of commander-in-chief, which position was to be given to him who first forced the gates of the arsenal. Again the plot was divulged by "a favorite and confidential slave," of whom we are told that the state legislature purchased the freedom, settling upon him a pension for life. About six of the leaders were executed. On or about May 1, 1819, there was a plot to destroy the city of Augusta, Ga.72 The insurrectionists were to assemble at Beach Island, proceed to Augusta, set fire to the place, and then destroy the inhabitants. Guards were posted, and a white man who did not answer when hailed was shot and fatally wounded. A Negro named Coot was tried as being at the head of the conspiracy and sentenced to be executed a few days later. Other trials followed his. Not a muscle moved when the verdict was pronounced upon him.
The deeper meaning of such events as these could not escape the discerning. More than one patriot had to wonder just whither the country was drifting. Already it was evident that the ultimate problem transcended the mere question of slavery, and many knew that human beings could not always be confined to an artificial status. Throughout the period the slave-trade seemed to flourish without any real check, and it was even accentuated by the return to power of the old royalist houses of Europe after the fall of Napoleon. Meanwhile it was observed that slave labor was driving out of the South the white man of small means, and antagonism between the men of the "up-country" and the seaboard capitalists was brewing. The ordinary social life of the Negro in the South left much to be desired, and conditions were not improved by the rapid increase. As for slavery itself, no one could tell when or where or how the system would end; all only knew that it was developing apace: and meanwhile there was the sinister possibility of the alliance of the Negro and the Indian. Sincere plans of gradual abolition were advanced in the South as well as the North, but in the lower section they seldom got more than a respectful hearing. In his "Dissertation on Slavery, with a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of it in the State of Virginia," St. George Tucker, a professor of law in the University of William and Mary, and one of the judges of the General Court of Virginia, in 1796 advanced a plan by which he figured that after sixty years there would be only one-third as many slaves as at first. At this distance his proposal seems extremely conservative; at the time, however, it was laid on the table by the Virginia House of Delegates, and from the Senate the author received merely "a civil acknowledgment."
Two men of the period—widely different in temper and tone, but both earnest seekers after truth—looked forward to the future with foreboding, one with the eye of the scientist, the other with the vision of the seer. Hezekiah Niles had full sympathy with the groping and striving of the South; but he insisted that slavery must ultimately be abolished throughout the country, that the minds of the slaves should be exalted, and that reasonable encouragement should be given free Negroes.73 Said he: "We are ashamed of the thing we practice;... there is no attribute of heaven that takes part with us, and we know it. And in the contest that must come and will come, there will be a heap of sorrows such as the world has rarely seen."74
On the other hand rose Lorenzo Dow, the foremost itinerant preacher of the time, the first Protestant who expounded the gospel in Alabama and Mississippi, and a reformer who at the very moment that cotton was beginning to be supreme, presumed to tell the South that slavery was wrong.75Everywhere he arrested attention—with his long hair, his harsh voice, and his wild gesticulation startling all conservative hearers. But he was made in the mold of heroes. In his lifetime he traveled not less than two hundred thousand miles, preaching to more people than any other man of his time. Several times he went to Canada, once to the West Indies, and three times to England, everywhere drawing great crowds about him. In A Cry from the Wilderness he more than once clothed his thought in enigmatic garb, but the meaning was always ultimately clear. At this distance, when slavery and the Civil War are alike viewed in the perspective, the words of the oracle are almost uncanny: "In the rest of the Southern states the influence of these Foreigners will be known and felt in its time, and the seeds from the HORY ALLIANCE and the DECAPIGANDI, who have a hand in those grades of Generals, from the Inquisitor to the Vicar General and down...!!! The STRUGGLE will be DREADFUL! the CUP will be BITTER! and when the agony is over, those who survive may see better days! FAREWELL!"