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James H. Slave resistance began in British North America almost as soon as the first slaves arrived in the Chesapeake in the early seventeenth century. Perhaps the most common forms of resistance were those that took place in the work environment. After all, slavery was ultimately about coerced labor, and the enslaved struggled daily to define the terms of their work. Over the years, customary rights emerged in most fields of production.

These customs dictated work routines, distribution of rations, general rules of comportment, and so on. If slave masters increased worklo, provided meager rations, or punished too severely, slaves registered their displeasure by slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, or sabotaging production. These everyday forms of resistance vexed slave masters, but there was little they could do to stop them without risking more widespread breaks in production. In this way, the enslaved often negotiated the basic terms of their daily routines. Of course, masters also stood to benefit from these negotiations, as contented slaves worked harder, increasing output and efficiency.

Another common form of slave resistance was theft. Slaves pilfered fruits, vegetables, livestock, tobacco, liquor, and money from their masters.

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The theft of foodstuffs was especially common and was justified on several grounds. First, slave rations were often woefully inadequate in providing the nutrition and calories necessary to support the daily exertions of plantation labor. In addition to everyday forms of resistance, slaves sometimes staked more direct and overt claims to freedom.

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The most common form of overt resistance was flight. As early asslaves in Maryland and Virginia absconded from their enslavement, a trend that would grow into the thousands, and, eventually, tens of thousands by the time of the Civil War. During the early years of slavery, runaways tended to consist mostly of African-born males. Since African-born men were in the numerical majority through much of the eighteenth century, Master looking for submissive females should not surprise us. For the most part, these men did not speak English and were unfamiliar with the geographic terrain of North America.

Their attempts to escape slavery, despite these handicaps, are a testament to the rejection of their servile condition. If caught, runaways faced certain punishment—whipping, branding, and even the severing of the Achilles tendon. By the nineteenth century, the North was a particularly attractive destination for acculturated, American-born slaves.

Networks of free blacks and sympathetic whites often helped ferry slaves to freedom via the so-called Underground Railroad, a chain of safe houses that stretched from the American South to free states in the North. Men continued to be predominant among runaways, although women, and even entire families were increasingly likely to test their chances in the flight for freedom. The most spectacular, and perhaps best-known, forms of resistance were organized, armed rebellions. Between andat least nine slave revolts erupted in what would eventually become the United States.

Slaves commandeered weapons, burned and looted properties, and even killed their masters and other whites, but whites were quick to exact a brutal revenge. In the bloodiest American revolt, Nat Turner and several hundred comrades killed sixty whites. Over enslaved were killed, either in the combat or as retribution for the uprising. Another thirteen slaves were hanged, along with three free blacks.

Ultimately, the only rebellion that succeeded in overthrowing slavery in the Americas was the Haitian Revolution. Slave rebellions in colonial America and the United States never achieved such widespread success; however, the importance of rebellion cannot be overstated. An excellent starting point for any discussion of slave resistance is a simple definition. In the contemporary imagination, it is comforting to think that the enslaved frequently exacted some measure of revenge against the unspeakable horrors that they suffered.

Award-winning historical novels highlight the Nat Turner rebellion and the Haitian Revolution. To be sure, organized physical violence was one aspect of resistance, and these episodes deserve an important place in the curriculum. Remind them, however, that organized, armed violence was a relatively rare occurrence during the year history of slavery in the United States.

Why were armed rebellions so infrequent? Under these circumstances, organization and planning were next to impossible. Rebels who avoided the net of surveillance and enacted their conspiracies were always dealt with in brutal fashion. Public hangings and decapitation were common punishments.

Other rebels were gibbeted alive, burned alive, or broken on the wheel.

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In all of these instances, punishment was meant to demonstrate the totalizing effects of white supremacy, terrorizing those who remained enslaved. Remarkably, some slaves still embarked on what they must have known were suicide missions.

Were the men and women who confronted their masters with violence so desperate that they preferred death to living in slavery? Or, did they really believe that they could be the exception and overthrow white supremacy? These are important questions to consider. These questions also begin to point students toward the psychology of enslavement, an important and often neglected aspect of the institution and responses to it. Psychologically, how did the majority of slaves interpret the institution? And for that matter, how did whites? Slavery impacted negatively on all slaves, but it did not impact all of them equally.

The enslaved possessed the range of weaknesses and frailties common to all people. For this majority of slaves, resistance took a variety of forms. If organized physical violence was not the solution for most slaves, then how did the majority find ways to address their condition? If they have not already done so, students will usually recognize that running away was the most common way of overtly rejecting slavery. By the nineteenth century, running away to the North offered the virtue of a tenuous freedom; however, failed runaways also met with serious reprisals.

Most did not try to escape.

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For those who remained enslaved, resistance took on more familiar everyday forms. Ask students: When the enslaved slowed their work or broke tools, were they resisting the overall institution of slavery or just the work of slavery? Can these be distinguished? Remind students that slave masters sometimes begrudgingly tolerated these everyday forms of resistance and even responded positively to slave workplace demands.

These negotiated compromises provided slaves with incentives to work, ultimately bolstering the institution. For slave masters, acknowledging these small pin pricks of resistance were a small price to pay in order to secure the survival of the overall institution. Some students likely will not buy the argument that everyday forms of resistance reinforced the institution.

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Encourage them to unravel exactly why they think this. The best students will recognize that even the smallest acts of resistance pushed the boundaries of freedom, slowly eroding the institution.

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Smile at them and then turn to an even more obvious example. What about theft? Of course, stealing from the master MUST have been resistance. Even some of the enslaved seemed to acknowledge that this was the case. Or were they cleverly manipulating the contradictions inherent to the institution?

Finally, as one last consideration of everyday forms of resistance, you might ask your students whether cultural forms like the speaking of African languages, the formation of families, or the practice of religion constituted resistance to slavery. Embedded in each of these were the potential for overt forms of resistance.

For instance, those speaking African languages might plan conspiracies or revolts in those languages, thereby hiding their intentions from whites. The formation of families defied notions of property, sometimes making it difficult for masters to sell husbands, wives, and children, who vehemently protested separation from their loved ones. Some slave masters recognized the potential dangers in these cultural expressions and attempted to curb their practices.

Others viewed African and African-American cultural practices as vital ways of appeasing slaves so they would be more efficient workers. Did the master have to prohibit a particular cultural form in order for its practice to be considered resistant? Or were all cultural expressions a form of resistance?

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Certainly there is an argument to be made that any assertion of humanity in an institution that defined one as non-human was an expression of resistance. At the same time, slaves were ultimately human beings and expressed themselves naturally as such, even within the confines of slavery. Students probably will end up disagreeing about the precise definition of slave resistance.

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