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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.1 (2005) 130-134
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The Rebel Within:
Unruly Slaves, Women, and Children in Colonial Virginia
Antonio T. Bly
Was British North America a deferential society, as most American historians have argued, or was it a defiant one? Before rebellion turned into revolution, did ordinary colonists—artisans and merchants, yeoman farmers, indentured servants, and slaves—submit to their social superiors, or did they refuse the counsel of their betters? In "Tocqueville, Turner, and Turds: Four Stories of Manners in Early America," Michael Zuckerman, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, challenged conventional wisdom. As part of a round table discussion about deference or defiance in eighteenth-century America, published in The Journal of American History in June of 1998, he took exception to the view that deference characterized colonial America, thus complicating the current narrative concerning colonial politics and society and, ultimately, the very meaning of the American fight for independence. Judging from Sally E. Hadden's Slave Patrols, Terri L. Snyder's Brabbling Women, and Rhys Isaac's Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom, Zuckerman's contention appears to be a fair one—particularly with respect to eighteenth-century Virginia.
Sally E. Hadden's study of slave patrols portrays eighteenth and nineteenth-century Virginia and the Carolinas as tumultuous places in which slave owners struggled, with varying degrees of success, to control their bond-servants who refused to obey. In the old South, enslaved Africans were unruly and increasingly so as they fought to live life on their own terms. In that struggle between master and slave, patrols were charged with restricting the movement of the slave population, particularly as that population grew in number and as slave resistance—more precisely slave truancy—became a common problem of the institution.
Just as slavery changed, so did the institution of slave patrols. In South Carolina, there were initially few laws that restricted slaves' behavior. But by the early part of the eighteenth-century that began to change as blacks began to outnumber [End Page 130] whites who became more fearful of that growing black majority. Their apprehensions were neither ill-founded nor misplaced. In an effort to stem that tide of unrest, the local magistrates in South Carolina adopted slave patrols in 1704. Though modeled after the militias in the Low-Country, these agencies of control proved to be ineffective as the colony failed to adequately compensate patrolmen and as South Carolinians themselves shirked at performing their duties (14–22). Rather than serve, Hadden noted, a number of South Carolinians willingly paid monetary penalties. That was not the case in the Chesapeake. In Virginia, the patrols were not adopted until 1727. Unlike South Carolina, the local legislating bodies there afforded men serving in patrols certain incentives. According to Hadden men on patrols were "exempt from public, country, and parish levies during their term of service." By the middle of the century, the county courts in the colony also authorized to pay patrollers "ten pound of tobacco for each twenty-four-hour period that they were on duty." With the passage of that law, "the contours of the Virginia's patrol system were . . . complete, remaining largely unchanged until the Civil War" (31). That was also true of North Carolina, which developed a system in which slave patrollers were compensated, especially in the 1750s after a series of slave revolts (24–39).
Besides observing how the institution developed over time and in different regions, Hadden's study also takes aim at the current view that slave patrols consisted primarily of poor or lowly whites. In her judgment, most whites, regardless of their station...