Slaves resisted bondage in a variety of active and passive ways. Although forms varied, the common denominator in all acts of resistance was an attempt to claim some measure of freedom against an institution that defined people fundamentally as property. 

On March 2, 1807, Congress voted to ban the international slave trade as of January 1, 1808. However, the institution of slavery remained.

The slave system made possible an unprecedented economic growth in the United States. Slavery dominated the southern economy, even as resistance exposed the inhumanity of the institution.

Despite overwhelming odds, running away was a direct, disruptive, and frequent form of resistance. Most runaways were hidden by free blacks in cities and towns, often in safe houses on the Underground Railroad. Slave songs often gave coded escape directions.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot performed by Sheriff Bob & the Goodtimers.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

In this letter to Hardy Cryer, a Methodist preacher in Sumner County, Tennessee, Andrew Jackson describes the flogging and subsequent escape of a slave named Cyrus. Jackson says that Cyrus has been found and "shall not be abused, but he must be taught subordination."

Cryer may have been interested in buying Cyrus. The letter reveals that Jackson directly supervised his slaves, as did other American presidents such as Jefferson and Polk.

There were few slave revolts during the antebellum period as the power of the slave system in the southern states served as a successful deterrent. Yet slave insurrection was every slaveholder's nightmare.

Nat Turner's revolt in August 1831 had an immense influence on American society. The uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, involved between 60 and 80 slaves and left approximately 60 whites dead.

Nat Turner's Rebellion touched off panic in many parts of the South, resulting in the killings of scores of black people. Turner was captured on October 30 and hanged on November 11, 1831.

This letter was written in Gates County, North Carolina, near Southampton County, Virginia, where the revolt took place. Nelson offers a graphic description of the bloodshed that was unleashed.

Early abolitionists had relied on moral suasion to advance their cause. With the advent of cheap printing presses, abolitionist societies were able to publish millions of broadsides in the 1830s to expose the brutality of slavery.

"Slave Market of America" asserts that slavery violates the intent of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

The writings and activities of escaped slaves strengthened the movement to end slavery. Frederick Douglass's masterful autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself was a bestseller. Douglass, an eloquent and powerful speaker, was one of many African Americans who lectured tirelessly in support of abolition and racial equality.

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore performed by Sheriff Bob and the Goodtimers.

Learn more about African American spirituals from The Library of Congress.

Michael Row the Boat Ashore
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
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Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History from Slavery and Abolition: People, Places, Politics: History in a Box, 2009

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