Slavery, Mississippi, Virgil Stewart, Slave insurrections
In his 1838 address to the Springfield Lyceum, Abraham Lincoln warned his audience of the perilous consequences of lawlessness in the rapidly expanding republic. "Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times," Lincoln lamented, before singling out recent riots in Mississippi and St. Louis:
In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers; a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes. . . . Thus went on this process of hanging, . . . till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.1 [End Page 591]
To Lincoln, the events in Mississippi were the "most dangerous in example" of a broader phenomenon: the trampling of the rule of law on the fringes of American empire. To Joshua D. Rothman, this plague of violence in the Cotton Kingdom represents something more: the anxieties attending the birth of a new society in the Deep South, a founding built on slave labor and on speculation, on hustle and on confidence, on avarice and on insecurity.
By 1835, Mississippi was flush. Possessing some of the most fertile soil on the continent, newly cleared of Choctaw Indians, and filling quickly with white settlers and many more enslaved black migrants, the state was booming. Cotton production spurred massive investment and "a rampant culture of speculation there. Men accumulated 'paper fortunes'" (7). Indeed, Rothman argues, much of this overnight affluence was projection, "a series of bookkeeping fictions" (8) that required careful elaboration and maintenance.
Among the company of fast-talking lawyers, hustlers, and confidence men setting up shop in Mississippi was Virgil Stewart. The protagonist in Rothman's account of social and cultural upheaval on the leading edge of the market revolution, Stewart was a protean figure, ever-ready with a tall tale or an alias as the situation required. Red-haired and of Scotch-Irish ancestry, Stewart arrived in Mississippi around 1831 in hopes of taking a share of the spoils from the Choctaw Cession, only to find the land auction rigged to favor the state's nascent elites. Stewart had to settle for just 40 acres, hardly enough to transform himself into a gentleman farmer and plantation master. Disappointed and disillusioned, he took to doing favors and running errands for better-established older men, ingratiating himself.
One such errand in January 1834 found Stewart hot on the trail of John Murrell, a Virginia transplant and sometime horse thief, who had apparently stolen slaves from a local plantation. Giving a false name, Stewart won Murrell's confidence and gathered enough incriminating information to see to it that Murrell was arrested and tried. Enamored of his own achievement and eager to impress his fellow settlers, Stewart soon took to bragging about their time together, exaggerating Murrell's villainy and boasting of his own moral principle and derring-do in a sensational tell-all pamphlet.
While most of the pamphlet's readers seem to have ignored or derided the majority of Stewart's narcissistic effrontery, one claim struck a nerve. [End Page 592] According to Stewart, Murrell was not merely a small-time perpetrator of property crime; he was also the head of a vast criminal confederacy and the mastermind behind plans for a string of bank robberies to be mounted in the midst of a monumental slave insurrection. That uprising would plunge the southern countryside into chaos, eviscerate all claims to human property, and bring the regime that had...