Resistance and Consequences: Life inside Antebellum Slavery

By Savannah L. Williamson

Submitted for the requirements of Dr. Tebbe's HIS-210 The Craft of History


This is the world that slaves made: the United States is built upon the sweat and blood of human property. From the expansion into the South, cotton sales as a cash crop, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery is a very large part of American history. However, many Americans know nothing more of slavery than that it was a bad thing, and even fewer know what it was like to be a slave in 19th century America. Through the use of historical sources and first hand accounts of slavery from former slaves in Texas and Louisiana, it is evident that slaves attempted to resist the influence of their white masters in almost any way possible. It was the more discreet, everyday resistance that allowed slaves to persevere and withstand the influence of those who would oppress them.

Resistance began for a slave in the market. While the prospective buyers of the slaves inspected those on the block, slaves being sold could also size up their possible future masters. In doing so, a slave could determine, based on the man’s demeanor and appearance, whether or not he would be a good master. Once the information had been taken in by the slave, he or she could manipulate certain physical traits in order to make the buyer be more or less interested in the purchase. This was one way for a slave to attempt to control his or her fate and living conditions, to make a better life for himself or herself.

However, once the slave owner realized that he had not bought the slave of his dreams, the slave was duly punished. Whipping quickly became the most common form of punishment. Whipping was used as much as forty percent of the time by certain plantation hands in order to control and manipulate the slave to conform to the idea that the owner wanted in a slave. In addition to the usual whip, owners often got creative with their punishments. Some owners used a cat of nine tails, or even a club that was wrapped in wire, in order to punish a slave for the smallest mistake. This was a common punishment for Elige Davidson, a former slave from Madisonville, Texas, who was whipped with a cat of nine tails when another slave ran away. Whippings as a form of intimidation, rather than direct punishment, were used to ensure that a slave would not ignore the orders of his or her master. Some slaves, such as Davidson, were convinced by their masters that,although they had not done anything wrong, they still deserved to be whipped on a regular basis. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave and activist in the abolition of the British slave trade, recalled that a runaway was at risk of being lynched, hanged, and burned if caught. One man, Equiano mentioned, had his leg cut off for attempting escape, and females were often raped and beaten for their efforts to obtain freedom. This is a perfect example of how the owner was able to maintain control over his slave: psychological terrorism. A slave was in such fear of what could possibly happen if he did not obey that he could do nothing but what the owner asked of him.

Americans typically think of running away as the most typical form of resistance to slavery. However, most attempts to flee captivity were unsuccessful. John Finnely, a slave from Fort Worth, Texas, is only one of very few slaves who were successful in fleeing from their captivity. Not all were so lucky. In an interview in Marshall, Texas, Jordon Smith recalled his own experiences with slavery and described what happened when a slave tried to run to his own freedom. Smith told of Tom, a slave who had run away and hid in the woods for six months. Upon returning to the plantation, Tom was whipped 250 times while being led behind a horse. Smith recalls that after 100 lashings that Tom had no flesh left on his back, and that the remaining punishments did nothing but tear away muscle and expose the bones of the man who only tasted freedom briefly. In addition to the whipping, Tom was then deprived of food for over a week, starving and in agonizing pain as he prayed for death to come quickly.

Another way in which a slave resisted his or her owner is through what was inappropriately termed “laziness”. Simply put, slaves had no extrinsic motivations to exert themselves any more than was necessary in order to get the job done. They did not receive a pay check or an added bonus for picking more than their quota of cotton, nor were they given additional time off from their back breaking labor. For doing more than the minimum requirement, there was rarely a pat on the back. A kind master might give that slave a slightly larger portion of the meal at dinner, but that was rare in itself. So, house slaves might steal food for themselves or their families so that they, themselves, would not starve. A slave might also fake an illness in order to avoid work outside on a hot day. However, the slaves also feared real illness, because they could possibly be beaten, bled, or sold.

Playing dumb was also successful ruse for a slave. Many owners observed that their slaves never returned with the right amount of any supply, so they would be sent again, taking more time to do the simplest tasks. Another way in which a slave might resist his or her owner would be to simply work slowly. When unsupervised, or while the master of the house was away, slaves would often do less work than they would normally do under watchful eye of their owner. Isaac Adams, a slave in Northern Texas, recalled that while his master was away, he and the other slaves would take leisure breaks or gather fewer crops than the quota demanded for the day. They would even break tools in order to slow down the process, making their own work less strenuous. However, as soon as the owner came returned, they resumed their work at full speed. In general, slaves could and did work very hard for their masters. However, this was one of the more common ways to resist slavery and covertly oppose their owner. These forms of small scale resistance were much more successful than the more obvious running away or blatantly ignoring the wishes of the master, and, being less visible, often went unpunished. It was small scale victories such as these that kept the spirits of slaves alive.

Resistance was also found in the form of slave religion, as slaves were able to retain a piece of their homeland in African rituals and superstitions. Slaves brought their own religions from Africa to the United States. Soon, they began to synthesize their own beliefs with those of white society; the religion in force was Christianity. It is unknown exactly when or how quickly the conversion process took place. However, some historians have believed that Christian ideals were adopted by first generation American slaves. There are arguments that those who converted to Christianity received more sympathy from their masters, implying that there was a conscious effort and decision to abandon African religion. Many argue that as soon as slaves came to America, it was impossible for them to avoid conversion to the religion of the master-class. However, the conditions of their situation were unique: a slave with a past was forced to abandon it against his or her own will, kidnapped into a life whose purpose was not for himself or herself, but for another. As a result of these odd circumstances, slaves combined the old with the new, forming a new religion all together. This religion had a great tradition of song, spirituality, and collective survival.

Slaves often assembled in their quarters on Sundays, praying for deliverance and rescue from the harsh life that was slavery. Slaves who adopted the ideas of a Christian master were considered more respectable, and therefore less likely to be punished by their masters. The accounts of Moses leading his people out of the desert and away from captivity were repeated in order to emphasize the belief that God would save the slaves. Slave religion also preached communication with God on a personal level, inciting a strong feeling of happiness, joy, and pride. This idea was also carried on into the realm of death. While white religion called for only a quick service and a quick burial, a slave funeral had much more significance. A slave funeral was turned into a major event, calling together efforts from the entire slave community. A slave would receive a proper sermon and display at his or her funeral. This was a variation of the African ritual of putting the spirit of the deceased to rest, preventing the return of his or her ghost to the world of the living. Even white ministers in the South could not help but to notice the old superstitions of African religion making its way into slave life, noting that converting them to Protestant Christianity was made even more difficult through this clinging to old ideas.

Slave music, usually combining praise with singing and dancing, is another way in which African Americans could retain a piece of their heritage and resist the influences of their white masters. W.E.B. DuBois, the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University, recalled the music as having a deep and spiritual meaning to himself and to the lives of other slaves. The music of the slave was considered a beautiful experience of the human experience of slave life. Slave songs were often neglected, despised, and misunderstood. However, it is still considered one of the greatest gifts of African Americans today, a legacy of perseverance, emotion, and victory.

Through all of this, slave owners were baffled. There was a clear dislike for slave religion and music in the white community, on the grounds that they symbolized the culture of West Africa and a people who were quite different from those who claimed them as property. Often- times, masters would force slaves to attend church, or bring a white minister to speak in the slave cabins. However, the message was very different from the message that the slave ministers gave amongst themselves. White preachers would often argue that in order to get to heaven, a good Christian slave would follow the orders of his or her master. Instead of the story of Moses leading his people from slavery, there was emphasis on hard work, discipline, and obedience. Slave songs were often replaced with hymns.

Moreover, religion was used as a sort of social manipulation of slaves in order to increase productivity and decrease the level of resistance within society. Richard Carruthers, a former slave who lived in Houston, Texas, recalled the preaching of the minister who was hired by his master to speak to the slaves on the farm where Carruthers lived. In his sermons, the preacher claimed that good slaves and good Christians obeyed the will of their master and did not steal chickens or hogs. However, these attempts of control were never fully successful. At the end of the day, slaves continued to hold on to various traditions of their African culture and religion.

One vital method of resistance within the slave world concerned the importance of the concepts of community and family. The slave community was an “all-embracing agency that gave order to the slaves’ lives, expressed their deepest aspirations, and prevented their complete victimization.” Within the realm of the slave community, slaves were hardly slaves at all. As a result of the slave community, slaves were able to forge strong and supportive relationships with someone other than their master. As a result, a slave would have a system to rely on if in danger or having problems with everyday life. Relationships with fellow slaves were central in the world of slaves, forming social and cultural bonds that allowed them to escape some of the difficulties of slavery. Slaves would often play games, sing songs, eat, rest, and love together within their own society. As a result of this social interdependence, slave families were often far healthier when they lived together than when they were apart.

When this sacred bond of family was broken by an outsider, such as a slave owner, the response for the slave community was often harsh. Mary Armstrong, a slave near Houston, Texas, remembers that at the age of nine, she witnessed her nine month old baby sister whipped to death by the plantation mistress for no apparent reason. Her other sister, still in diapers, was often beaten until her entire back was bloody. Years later, once grown, Mary Armstrong threw a rock at her mistress’ face, bursting her eyeball and causing her to lose her sight. While this was a very extreme incident, it reflects the seriousness of the family structure amongst slaves. The importance of the bonds between a family could not possibly be stressed enough in helping slaves function within the world of their owners. Within these strong relationships, slaves were able to resist the influence of their white masters and did not fully assimilate into white culture. The slave community and the importance of the family were crucial in keeping black culture alive amongst slaves.

The importance of slave family and community afforded a target for white owners in their attempts to tear apart the slave society. As a society, slaves were much stronger and less likely to follow orders or obey their masters. Through threat of losing the family, owners were able to maintain control over their slaves and ensure that their wishes were carried out. If a slave was being rebellious or not working as hard as the master wanted, the threat of sale was a powerful motivator to work hard to satisfy an owner. The threat of sale, fear of the unknown and likelihood of being separated from one’s family was the most valuable tool that a master could have over his slaves. Slave owners often sold the children of their slaves. When this occurred, it was unlikely that the children would ever be reunited with their parents again. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who wrote and shared on the hardships of slavery, believed that there could be no other purpose in separating a mother and child than to break their strong bonds and make both weaker in determination and resistance. Sojourner Truth, an escaped slave who was later involved in the abolitionist movement, saw first hand the sadness and depression of a mother that can result from losing one’s children.

Additionally, for female slaves, a constant worry of rape loomed over everyday life. Brutal rape was the most extreme way to let a slave know that she was seen as less than human. This assault allowed access to the vulnerability of a slave, giving the violator more power and influence over the slave and eventually taking away her will to fight back. Through sexual acts, a master could exploit a slave for labor, but could also insert his discipline and commands into every aspect of the slave’s existence. This constant threat of violence against a female slave not only interrupted the life of the individual slave, but that of her family and the entire slave community. Harriet Jacobs, a former slave recalled the effect that a rape can have upon a slave community. The female is usually singled out of the community, seen as an outcast and singled out for actions that she, herself, could not necessarily control. Through these means , the master was able to control and manipulate that female slave, as well as infiltrate and weaken the bonds between the entire community. So, through the act of rape, the master was able to limit the amount of resistance from the slaves.

Other than the threat of losing children, masters could often manipulate their slaves through the threat of harming spouses. To start, owners had a certain level of influence over whom a slave married. Approval had to be given to slaves in order for them to be married. This became more complicated if the couple lived on different plantations, at which point visitation schedules had to be drafted between their owners. Because of all of these complications, slaves sometimes married in secret. Frank Bell, a slave in Madisonville, Texas, married a female slave in secret. When Bell’s master found out, he ran her off and away from the plantation. Bell sneaked out at night in order to see her, but the master soon found out, took a large knife, and forced Bell to watch while the master sawed her head off. He then tied chains and weights to the limp body and ordered Bell to throw the body of his murdered wife into a river. Bell was then tied in chains and whipped every night for a month, too depressed and hopeless to resist. Events such as these serve as constant reminders that no matter how much a slave might try to resist the wishes of his or her master, they are still seen as mere property to the rest of the world. This fact makes the strength of the family unit even more important in everyday resistance of slaves. Despite the harsh attempts to infiltrate the society of slaves, the masters, in the bigger picture, were largely unsuccessful. So, the slave community and emphasis on the family were very important aspects of maintaining black culture and resisting a slave owner continuously.
Slavery in Antebellum America is one of the greatest horrors to tarnish our history. The dehumanization of millions of men, women, and children took place within United States borders for hundreds of years in order to serve as a means to an end: profit. However, through the success of small scale, everyday resistance, African Americans were able to withstand the authority of their masters and retain their own unique lifestyles and traditions. Today, these traditions have made their way into the culture and life experiences of all Americans, adding to the unique and everlasting history that is true for all Americans, never to be forgotten.

Recommended Films:

Africans in America, 1998

Amistad, 1997

Frederick Douglas, 2005

Glory, 1998

Half Free Half Slave, n.d.

Roots, 1977

A number of other slendid films deal with aspects of slave resistance from very personal accounts to broader political and social contexts. An excellent novel on the most famous rebellion of all is William Styron's magnificently written, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1992), while Kenneth S. Greenberg(ed.) The Confessions of Nat Turner: And Related Documents (1997) is also very useful.


Works Cited:

Primary Sources

Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Radford: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Clayton: Prestwick House, Inc., 2004.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. New York: First Vintage Books, 1990.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Press, 2003.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970.

Ruffin, Edmund. The Diary of Edmund Ruffin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Truth, Sojourner. Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.

Yetman, Norman R. Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000.

Yetman, Norman R. When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

Fogel, Robert William and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Johnson, Walter. Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York: Whill and Wang, 2003.