Anti-Slavery Resistance Movements

Forms of Resistance

African slaves engaged in many forms of resistance, from organized uprisings to the practice of their own native culture.

Learning Objectives

Examine the traditions that shaped the African-American community and slave-resistance movements

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Numerous slave rebellions, reacting to the exploitative conditions of slavery, took place in North America during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
  • Nat Turner 's 1831 rebellion is one of the most infamous slave uprisings in American history.
  • According to scholars, slaves preserved African culture through art, religion, language, rituals, and other practices. The retention of African culture itself was a form of resisting enslavement.

Key Terms

  • Nat Turner: Nathaniel "Nat" Turner (October 2, 1800–November 11, 1831) was an American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia on August 21, 1831, that resulted in 60 white deaths and at least 100 black deaths, the largest number of fatalities to occur in one uprising prior to the American Civil War in the Southern United States.

Slave Uprisings

Numerous black slave rebellions and insurrections took place in North America during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Rebellions were rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. There is evidence of more than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings, each involving 10 or more slaves, during this time period. Three of the most infamous uprisings that took place in the United States during the nineteenth century are the revolts by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia (1800); Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina (1822); and Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia (1831).

Although it involved only about 70 slaves, Turner's rebellion is considered to be a landmark event in American history. Around 55 to 65 people were killed—the highest number of fatalities caused by a slave uprising in the South—as Turner and his fellow rebel slaves rampaged from plantation to plantation throughout Virginia. Turner and the other slaves’ ammunition ran out within a few days and they were apprehended, with Turner evading capture for more than two months. Eighteen slaves, including Nat Turner, were hanged for their part in the rebellion, and 100 to 200 African Americans were killed by militias and angry mobs in retaliation, exceeding the fatalities of Turner’s rebellion itself. As a direct result of the fear the rebellion inspired among slave owners and supporters of the institution of slavery, Southern states passed legislation prohibiting the movement, assembly, and education of slaves, and reduced the rights of free people of color.

One of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history took place in 1811. The German Coast Uprising took place outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, and involved upward of 500 slaves, according to accounts; however, it only was responsible for the casualties of two white men. The rebellion was suppressed by volunteer militias and a detachment of the U.S. Army. Ninety-five black people were killed via executions and direct confrontations with opposing militia forces, and in the weeks following the uprising, an additional 44 accused insurgents were captured, tried, and executed.

Slave uprisings were not always opposed by white society. John Brown, a white abolitionist, initiated and led the armed raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 following a personal history of clashing against proslavery forces in Kansas. The raid was a joint attack by former slaves, freed blacks, and white men who had corresponded with slaves on plantations. Brown had asked for both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass’s support, but was denied. Tubman had recently fallen ill, and Douglass was convinced the raid would not succeed. Though hundreds of slaves left their plantations to join Brown's force, and many others left their plantations to join Brown in an escape to the mountains, the force was quelled by a platoon of U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Nonetheless, slave disobedience and the number of runaways increased markedly in Virginia following the uprising, demonstrating how powerful these forms of resistance could be in moving individuals to act.

African Cultural Conservation

African culture and traditions were maintained throughout the generations by slaves, which in itself, constituted a form of resistance. Slaves shared folktales, religion and spirituality, music and dance, and language among themselves and their families as a means of lightening burdens, sustaining hope, building community, and resisting control.

Researchers note that many slave folktales have been traced by African scholars to Ghana, Senegal, and Mauritania, and to peoples such as the Ewe, Wolof, Hausa, Temne, Ashanti, and Igbo. One prominent example is the Ewe tale, “Why the Hare Runs Away,” a trickster story told by Southern slaves and later recorded by writer Joel Chandler Harris in his "Uncle Remus" stories. Southern slaves often included in their folktales African animals such as elephants, lions, and monkeys as characters.

Due to the role of drums in signaling the Stono Rebellion of 1739, slave owners and state governments tried to prevent slaves from making or playing musical instruments. In spite of such restrictions, slaves were able to build a strong musical tradition drawing on their African heritage. Music, songs, and dances were similar to those performed or played in Africa, and instruments reproduced by slaves included drums, three-stringed banjos, gourd rattles, and mandolins.

Cross-cultural exchanges that occurred between African slaves and the individuals they encountered of Western European heritage also contributed to African-American culture and resistance. For instance, Christianity slowly replaced surviving African religious practices over time to become another important aspect of plantation life and more generally African-American culture. While ministers preached obedience in the presence of slave owners and other white people, slaves often met in secret, unsupervised, "invisible" services to discuss freedom, liberty, and the judgment of God against slave owners.

From Gradualism to Abolition

By 1805, most Northern states had passed laws calling for either immediate or gradual abolition.

Learning Objectives

Identify which group and/or region supported the policy of gradual abolition

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed by the Pennsylvania legislature on March 1, 1780, was the first attempt by a government in the Western Hemisphere to begin abolition of slavery.
  • Most Northern states passed laws abolishing slavery, either immediately or gradually, by 1805.
  • Laws providing for "gradual" emancipation often failed to change the status of adults already enslaved before the law took effect.
  • Historians distinguish between moderate antislavery reformers, or gradualists, who concentrated on stopping the spread of slavery, and radical abolitionists, or immediatists, whose demands for unconditional emancipation often merged with a concern for African-American civil rights.

Key Terms

  • Underground Railroad: The antebellum volunteer resistance movement that assisted slaves in escaping to freedom.
  • abolitionist: An individual who supports the end of the practice of slavery.
  • emancipation: The act of setting free from the power of another, from slavery, subjection, dependence, or controlling influence.

Antislavery as a principle entailed far more than simple limitations on the extent of the institution of slavery. However, because slavery was such a divisive national issue and largely handled on the state level instead of federally, many Northerners advocated for a policy of gradual and compensated emancipation as a means of placating proslavery Southerners. Historians distinguish between moderate antislavery reformers, or gradualists, who concentrated on stopping the spread of slavery, and radical abolitionists, or immediatists, whose demands for unconditional emancipation often merged with a concern for African-American civil rights. Nearly all Northern politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, rejected more radical abolitionists. Indeed, many Northern leaders married into slave-owning Southern families without any moral qualms, including Stephen Douglas (the Democratic nominee for president in 1860), John C. Fremont (the Republican nominee for president in 1856), and Ulysses S. Grant.

Gradual Abolition

An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed by the Pennsylvania legislature on March 1, 1780, was the first attempt by a government in the Western Hemisphere to begin the abolition of slavery. The Act prohibited further importation of slaves into the state, required Pennsylvania slaveholders to annually register their slaves (under pain of forfeiture for noncompliance, and manumission for the enslaved), and established that all children born in Pennsylvania were free persons regardless of the condition or race of their parents. Those enslaved in Pennsylvania before the 1780 law went into effect remained enslaved for life. In 1847, the Pennsylvania legislature passed another act freeing its slaves altogether.

Pennsylvania's "gradual abolition"—as opposed to Massachusetts's 1783 "instant abolition"—became a model for freeing slaves in other Northern states. Other states that enacted gradual abolition include New Hampshire (1783), Connecticut and Rhode Island (1784), New York (1799), and New Jersey (1804). With the exception of New Jersey, these states were not as conservative as Pennsylvania about slaveholders' property rights. Their gradual abolition laws freed future children of slaves at their birth, and all slaves after a certain date or period of years. New Jersey's gradual abolition law freed future children of slaves at birth, but those enslaved before the passage of the gradual abolition law remained enslaved for life. The December 6, 1865, ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery in the United States, but New Jersey's legislature did not approve the Thirteenth Amendment until February 1866, two months after it had been ratified by a three-fourths majority of all states.

The Constitutionality of Slavery

In the early 1850s, the American abolitionist movement split into two camps over the issue of the U.S. Constitution. This issue arose in the late 1840s after the publication of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery by Lysander Spooner. The Garrisonians, led by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, publicly burned copies of the Constitution, calling it a pact with slavery, and demanded its abolition and replacement. Another camp, led by Lysander Spooner, Gerrit Smith, and eventually Frederick Douglass, considered the Constitution to be an antislavery document. Using an argument based upon Natural Law and a form of "social contract" theory, they said that slavery existed outside of the Constitution's scope of legitimate authority and therefore should be abolished.


Many American abolitionists took an active role in opposing slavery by supporting the Underground Railroad. Though illegal under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, participants such as Harriet Tubman, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Amos Noë Freeman, and others put themselves at risk to help slaves escape to freedom.

Other abolitionists spread word of the horrors of slavery in an attempt to win more supporters for their cause. A prominent example of this is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. Stowe, from a pious Connecticut family, had strong moral convictions that slavery as an institution was evil and unnatural. Her book depicted the harsh conditions in which slaves lived, the danger they were willing to place themselves in to escape, and the detrimental ways in which the institution of slavery effected slave owners. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a success in the North, selling more than 300,000 copies in the first nine months of its publication, and more than a million copies by 1853. Nonetheless, it was met with protest and alarm in the South.

The abolitionist movement was strengthened by the activities of free African Americans, especially in the black church, who argued that biblical justifications for slavery contradicted the teachings of the New Testament. African-American activists often did not have access to wide audiences outside of the black community; however, they were tremendously influential to some white audiences who were already sympathetic to their cause. One such sympathetic abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison's efforts to recruit eloquent spokesmen from within the African-American community led him to Frederick Douglass, who was a prominent activist in his own right. Eventually, Douglass would publish his own widely distributed abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.

The foreground of the engraving shows a large crowd of men fighting. The background shows a burning building. A man on a ladder attempts to put the fire out.

Proslavery riot: Elijah P. Lovejoy at Alton Illinois Riot 1837

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by nineteenth-century slaves to escape to free states and Canada.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure of the Underground Railroad

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Underground Railroad was formed in the early nineteenth century, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860, spurred by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad."
  • The “Railroad” refers to the network of abolitionists and sympathizers—whether black, white, free, or enslaved themselves—who provided safe passage to escaping slaves.
  • British North America, where slavery was prohibited, was a popular destination for fugitive slaves.

Key Terms

  • Fugitive Slave Law: The Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers. This was one of the most controversial acts of the 1850 compromise and heightened Northern fears of a "slave power conspiracy." It declared that all runaway slaves be brought back to their masters. Abolitionists nicknamed it the "Bloodhound Law" for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.
  • Compromise of 1850: The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills, passed in September 1850, which defused a four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848).
  • freedmen: Former slaves who have been released from slavery, usually by legal means.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by nineteenth-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and those sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists—black and white, free and enslaved—who aided the fugitives. Some routes led to Mexico or overseas. The network was formed in the early nineteenth century and reached its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad."

Political Background

With heavy political lobbying, the Compromise of1850, passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War, stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law. Ostensibly the compromise redressed all regional problems; however, it coerced officials of free states to assist slave catchers if there were runaway slaves in the area and granted slave catchers national immunity when in free states to do their job. Additionally, it made it possible that free blacks of the North could be forced into slavery even if they had been freed earlier or never been slaves at all because suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court and it was difficult to prove a free status. As a de facto bribe, judges were paid more ($10) for a decision that forced a suspected slave back into slavery than for a decision finding the slave to be free ($5). Thus, many Northerners who would have otherwise been able and content to ignore the persistence of slavery in the South chafed under what they saw as a national sanction on slavery, comprising one of the primary grievances of the Union cause during the Civil War.


The escape network of the Underground Railroad was not literally underground or a railroad. It was figuratively "underground" in the sense of being a covert form of resistance. It came to be referred to as a "railroad" due to the use of rail terminology in the code used by its participants. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, safe houses, and assistance provided by abolitionists and sympathizers. Individuals were often organized in small, independent groups. These small groups helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting "stations" along the route but few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one way station to the next. "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Churches often played a role, especially the Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as certain sects of mainstream denominations such as the Methodist church and American Baptists.


To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and little to nothing of the whole scheme. Written directions were discouraged for the same reason. Additionally, because many freedom seekers could not read, visual and audible clues such as patterns in quilts, song lyrics, and star positions provided directional cues along the way. Conductors moved the runaways from station to station. Often the conductor would pretend to be a slave to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves would travel at night around 10 to 20 miles to each station or “depot,” resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat. The stations were out of the way places such as barns and were held by “station masters” who would provide assistance such as sending messages to other stations and directing fugitives on the path to take to their next stop. There were also those known as "stockholders" who gave money or supplies for assistance.

Traveling Conditions

The journey was often considered particularly difficult and dangerous for women or children, yet many still participated. In fact, one of the most famous and successful abductors, or people who secretly traveled into slave states to rescue those seeking freedom, was Harriet Tubman.


Harriet Tubman (photo by H.B. Lindsley), ca. 1870.: A worker on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 13 trips to the South, helping to free more than 70 people.

Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as "slave catchers" pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.

The risk was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy black people in their prime working and reproductive years were treated as highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free blacks—both freedmen and those who had never been slaves—to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. "Certificates of freedom"—signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individuals—easily could be destroyed and thus afforded their holders little protection. Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a "commissioner," they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf. The marshal or private slave catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.

Arrival in Canada

Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The largest group settled in Upper Canada, called Canada West from 1841 and known today as Southern Ontario, where numerous black Canadian communities developed. Upon arriving at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed. Despite the British colonies’ abolition of slavery in 1834, discrimination was still common.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, many black refugees enlisted in the Union Army, and while some later returned to Canada, many remained in the United States. Thousands of others returned to the American South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and Reconstruction would bring.


Underground Railroad routes: This map shows a complex web of Underground Railroad routes.

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