Brian Gabrial is an associate professor of journalism at Concordia University. A former journalist and television producer, he is the author of The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2016).
Between 1751 and 1859, a shifting 70-year conversation about free and slave black Americans, the press, and the nation took place in the pages of American newspapers, with these conversations erupting during significant slave troubles. Media coverage of five such events—Haiti’s 1791 slave revolt, Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 slave conspiracy, Louisiana’s 1811 slave revolt, Denmark Vesey’s 1822 slave conspiracy, Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt, and John Brown’s 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid—shows how the nation’s once unifying “Spirit of ’76” crumbled as white America was increasingly pressed to confront slavery’s injustice.
In June 1822, the Charleston Courier published a headline, “The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement.” The account, written by an upper- crust, white Charlestonian, is an ironic, allegorical tale of a slave, hanged after being falsely accused of plotting mayhem. It was a (unheeded) warning not to let panic supplant reason. These were cautionary but inflammatory words as, that summer, authorities arrested slaves and free blacks, accusing them of plotting rebellion. (Their supposed leader Denmark Vesey, a free black man, would be executed.)
Slavery was America’s Faustian contract. While slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison thought it morally evil, they failed to reconcile their racist ideologies with America’s own ideals of liberty and equality. So, the constitutional compromise that bound the new states together went forward, and racist ideologies more firmly justified the peculiar institution’s continued existence. Its maintenance became code for states’ rights and limits on federal power.
From America’s first days, two types of Americanism took root with both trying to choke each other to death. A conservative view (rightly) held that slavery was constitutionally protected, while more a progressive America wanted to change that.
So why choose these events? First, black Americans were not part of any public conversation over slavery; yet, for good or evil, these events, pushed onto the pages of America’s newspapers, made them so.
Why study newspapers? While today slavery is considered America’s defining social and moral failure before the Civil War, in its time, a great silence arose over it in major newspapers. (That is not to say that a vocal abolitionist press and other venues did not try.) Slave troubles broke that silence. These newspaper accounts reflected mainstream public opinion, providing important ideas about what white America thought about black Americans. Ideas that still, unfortunately, persist.
When slave troubles erupted, white America read about slavery and, therefore, black America. The press was not sympathetic. At the time of the 1822 Vesey Conspiracy, the editor of the Charleston Times wrote, “Let it never be forgotten, that ‘our Negroes, are truely the Jacobins of the country; that they are the anarchists and the domestic enemy; the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.” Thirty-seven years later, the powerful New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett echoed similar sentiments after John Brown’s raid, “The whole history of negro insurrection proves that there is no race of men so brutal and bloody-minded as the negro. The negro [sic], once roused to bloodshed, and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast . . .” There was no talk about a fight for liberty from these white men.
In the early days of the Republic, slave society had tacit support from those in non-slave holding areas. In the 1822 essay “North and South,” a writer suggested, that Americans should “view the different states as forming but different parts of one great and happy nation, that will ever rejoice in the suppression of internal commotion [slave revolts], and repel hostile invasion.” Eleven years later, at the time of the Turner revolt, a Charleston Courier item reminded readers of the American Revolution, “[W]hatever may arise in our country, the old laven of ’76 will prevail whenever it is called for . . . .” White society would not tolerate slave rebellion, something that threatened the social and racial order. Newspaper coverage of these slave troubles illustrated this.
In 1800, the editor of the Philadelphia Gazette wrote after Gabriel Prosser conspired to unite fellow slaves to rebel: “We have a pleasure in stating, that should our sister states require military aid to quell the black insurgents, the federal corps . . . will be re-organized for that duty.” Likewise a Boston editor said after Nat Turner’s revolt, “If necessary, a million of men could be marched, on short notice, from the non-slave holding states, to defend their brethren in the South! For, much as we abhor slavery; much as it is abhorred throughout the northern and eastern states; there is not a man of us who would not run to the relief of our friends in the south, when surrounded by the horrors of a servile insurrection.”
Southern apologies for slavery also disappeared after Nat Turner, and slave states entered into an era of denial and repression, justified by the positive good theory of slavery. It reached its zenith of articulation in a November 1859 Richmond Enquirer headline, “Slavery – the bond of union throughout the world.” “The southern slave is the happiest of human laborers,” the writer argued, “the best treated, the best cared for, the least inclined to be rebellious, and the least willing to exchange his comfortable condition as a servant for that of a desperate and starving so-called freeman . . . ”
Newspaper accounts illustrated, too, that, as South moved into the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s, the growing abolitionist and anti-slavery movement replaced the rebelling slave as the real enemy.
By 1859, a deep chasm appeared in the façade of American unanimity, showing a dangerous division over slavery and slave states making clear they would tolerate nothing less than slavery’s unqualified support. That year, John Brown, a white man, jolted the country by leading his band into Virginia. Now, fire-eating editors like the Charleston Mercury‘s Robert Barnwell Rhett would exclaim, “The great source of the evil is, that we are under one government with these people [abolitionists and Republicans] . . . there is no peace for the South in the Union . . . the South must control her own destinies or perish.”
Up North, editors like the New York Herald‘s Horace Greeley countered: “Our Southern neighbors are a very hard people to get on with. They provoked the struggle now going on between the friends of Freedom on one side, and the advocates of Slavery on the other . . . . They make no bones of declaring, that sooner than meet the approaching defeat [of the Democratic Party] they will break up the government . . . They exhibit in this not only an arrogant but a very childish temper.”
Newspaper accounts, over time, reflected slavery’s fatal effects on the nation that pushed America to the brink and eventually over it. As the press recorded this sad trajectory when slave troubles occurred, antebellum white readers, because of deeply held racist beliefs about black people, would remain blind to the impending and bloody crisis over slavery. While its social, economic, and political complexities affected both black and white Americans, black Americans, of course, most bore slavery’s heavy weight of suffering. Eventually, the nation would, too.