During the American Revolution, ideas regarding freedom and equality and representation were being discussed. During the colonial era, while many white American colonists were concerned with government encroachment on personal liberties and with governmental abuse and corruption, slavery still existed. As historian Edmund Morgan describes, a “dedication to human liberty and dignity” coincided with the development of “a system of labor that denied liberty and dignity.” There were a few Revolutionary-era, white slave owners, such as Perquimans County Quaker Thomas Newby who freed their slaves, but most maintained ownership.
The ideas of the American Revolution were discussed in at least some slave social circles, and many blacks undoubtedly wondered why they were not represented in the state legislature and why many were still enslaved.
In 1794, a Granville County slave, Quillo, was accused of plotting a slave rebellion. He had hoped to host a meeting in which treats (brandy and cider) would be served. At this meeting, Quillo hoped slaves would elect burgesses, judges, and sheriffs and discuss ways how all could be treated equally under the law—a system in which “a weak person might collect his debts, as well as a Strong one.” This meeting was postponed because someone had stolen liquor and any slaves who attended this rally were going to be arrested for theft.
Although slaves found numerous ways to resist slave owners—work slowdowns, to name one example--few slave riots or rebellions occurred in the United States. Many potential rebellions were learned about in the planning stages and were never implemented. In 1794, government officials heard about Quillo and his plans, and deposed slaves to testify. Some deponents claimed that Quillo had plans to meet with slaves in other counties and march toward Granville. He was accused of inciting violence and trying to establish a new government.
Quillo’s plan to have elections and form a separate government reveals that he—and many slaves—were aware of American governmental structure and pondered over concepts of liberty and justice.
Michael J. Crawford, The Having of Negroes Is Become a Burden: The Quaker Struggle to Free Slaves in Revolutionary North Carolina (Gainesville, 2010); Jeffrey J. Crow, “Slave Rebelliousness and Social Conflict in North Carolina, 1775 to 1802 William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 79-102; Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul Escott and Flora J. Hatley. History of African Americans in North Carolina (Raleigh, 2002); Peter P. Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (College Station, 1996); Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975).
By Troy L. Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Early America, African American