3 Major Ways Slaves Showed Resistance to Slavery

A number of slaves actively fought against a life in bondage

Nat Turner
American slave leader Nat Turner and his companions are shown in a wooded area, 1831. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Slaves in the United States used a number of measures to show resistance to slavery. These methods arose after the first slaves arrived in North America in 1619.

Slavery created an economic system that persisted until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the practice.

But before slavery was abolished, slaves had three available methods to resist slavery: they could rebel against slaveholders, they could run away, or they could perform small, daily acts of resistance, such as slowing down work.

Slave Rebellions

The Stono Rebellion in 1739, Gabriel Prosser's conspiracy in 1800, Denmark Vesey's plot in 1822 and Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 are the most prominent slave revolts in American history. But only the Stono Rebellion and Nat Turner's Rebellion achieved any success; white Southerners managed to derail the other planned rebellions before any attack could take place.

Many slave owners in the United States became anxious in the wake of the successful slave revolt in Santo Domingo, which turned that small island into an independent black republic by the beginning of 1804. But slaves in the American colonies (later the United States), knew that mounting a rebellion was extremely difficult. Whites greatly outnumbered slaves. And even in states like South Carolina, where whites made up only 47 percent of the population by 1810, slaves could not take on whites armed with guns. 

Importing Africans to the United States to be sold into slavery ended in 1808.

Slave owners had to rely on a natural increase in the slave population to increase their labor force. This meant breeding slaves, and many slaves feared that their children, siblings and other relatives would suffer the consequences if they rebelled. 

Runaway Slaves

Running away was another form of resistance.

Slaves who ran away most often did so for a short period of time. These runaway slaves might hide in a nearby forest or visit a relative or spouse on another plantation. They did so to escape a harsh punishment that had been threatened, to obtain relief from a heavy workload, or just to escape the drudgery of everyday life under slavery.

Others were able to run away and escape slavery permanently. When Northern states began to abolish slavery after the Revolutionary War, the North came to symbolize freedom to many slaves who spread word that following the North Star could lead to freedom. Spirituals could contain hidden instructions. For instance, the spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd" made reference to the Big Dipper and the North Star and was likely used to guide slaves north to Canada.

The Risks of Fleeing

Running away was difficult; slaves had to leave behind family members and risk harsh punishment or even death if caught. Many of the successful runaways only triumphed after multiple attempts. More slaves escaped from the upper South than from the lower South, as they were nearer to the North and thus freedom. Young men had the easiest time of running away; they were more likely to be sold away from their families, including their children.

Young men were also sometimes "hired out" to other plantations or sent on errands, so they could more easily come up with a cover story for being on their own.

A network of sympathetic individuals who helped slaves escape to the North emerged by the 19th century. This network earned the name the "Underground Railroad" in the 1830s. Harriet Tubman is the best known "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, helping over 200 other slaves escape after she herself reached freedom in 1849.

But most runaway slaves were on their own, especially while they were still in the South. Runaway slaves would often choose holidays or days off to give them extra lead time (before being missed in the fields or at work). Many fled on foot, coming up with ways to throw off dogs in pursuit, such as using pepper to disguise their scents.

Some stole horses or even stowed away on ships to escape slavery.

Historians are unsure of how many slaves permanently escaped. An estimated 100,000 fled to freedom over the course of the 19th century, according to James A. Banks in March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans (1970).

Ordinary Acts of Resistance

The most common form of slave resistance was what is known as “day-to-day” resistance, or small acts of rebellion. This form of resistance included sabotage, such as breaking tools or setting fire to buildings. Striking out at a slave owner's property was a way to strike at the man himself, albeit indirectly.

Other methods of day-to-day resistance were feigning illness, playing dumb or slowing down work. Both men and women faked being ill to gain relief from their harsh working conditions. Women may have been able to feign illness more easily—they were expected to provide their owners with children, and at least some owners would have wanted to protect the childbearing capacity of their female slaves. Slaves could also play on their masters' and mistresses' prejudices by seeming to not understand instructions. When possible, slaves could also decrease their pace of work.

Women more often worked in the household and could sometimes use their position to undermine their masters. Historian Deborah Gray White tells of the case of a slave woman who was executed in 1755 in Charleston, S.C., for poisoning her master. White also argues that women may have resisted against their special burden under slavery—having to provide slaveholders with more slaves by bearing children. She speculates that women may have used birth control or abortion to keep their children out of slavery; while this cannot be known for certain, White points out that many slave owners were convinced that female slaves had ways of preventing pregnancy.

Wrapping Up

Throughout the history of American slavery, Africans and African-Americans resisted whenever possible. The odds against slaves succeeding at a rebellion or in escaping permanently were so overwhelming that most slaves resisted the only way they could—through individual actions.

But slaves also resisted the system of slavery through the formation of a distinctive culture and through their religious beliefs, which kept hope alive in the face of such severe persecution.

Sources

  • Banks, James A. March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans. Belmont, CA: Fearon Publishers, 1970.
  • Ford, Lacy K. Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2009.
  • Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2000.
  • Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2004.
  • White, Deborah Gray. “Let My People Go: 1804-1860” in To make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, ed. Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis, 169-226. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Updated by African-American History Expert, Femi Lewis