Slave Resistance in the Antebellum South

Gervase Phillips examines the extent and significance of an often misunderstood phenomenon.

Introduction: the Hidden History of Slave Resistance

In the early years of the twentieth century, a Georgia-born historian, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, established for himself a reputation as the outstanding authority on the subject of American slavery. In two studies, American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), he portrayed the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ as a civilising school for a backward people. Although clearly aware of numerous instances in which slaves had offered, or plotted, violence towards their masters, Phillips dismissed such episodes as mere ‘slave crimes’ rather than as acts of resistance. The laughing, singing field hands of his idealised plantations were sometimes dilatory or lazy, but rarely struggled to break the chains they wore. African-Americans, he insisted, were ‘by racial quality submissive rather than defiant’. 

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