Gabriel's Defeat

by Thomas Higginson, September 1862

     ln exploring among dusty files of newspapers for the true records of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, I have caught occasional glimpses of a plot perhaps more wide in its outlines than that of either, which has lain obscure in the darkness of half a century, traceable only in the political events which dated from it, and the utter incorrectness of the scanty traditions which assumed to preserve it. And though researches in public libraries have only proved to me how rapidly the materials for American history are vanishing, - since not one of our great institutions possesses, for instance, a file of any southern newspaper of the year 1800, -yet the little which I have gained may have an interest which makes it worth preserving. I have never been able to see why American historians should be driven to foreign lands for subjects, when our own nation has furnished tyrannies more terrible than that of Philip of Spain, and heroes more silent than William of Orange, -or why our novelists must seek themes in Italy, on the theory avowed by one of the most gifted of their number, that this country "is given over to a "broad commonplace prosperity," and harbors "no picturesque or gloomy wrong." But since, as the Spanish proverb says, no man can at the same time ring the bells and walk in the procession, so it has perhaps happened that those most qualified to record the romance of slave-institutions have been thus far too busy in dealing with the reality.

     Three times, at intervals of thirty years, has a wave of unutterable terror swept across the Old Dominion, bringing thoughts of agony to every Virginian master and of vague hope to every Virginian slave. Each time has one man's name become a spell of dismay and a symbol of deliverance. Each time has that name eclipsed its predecessor, while recalling it for a moment to fresher memory: John Brown revived the story of Nat Turner, as in his day Nat Turner recalled the vaster schemes of Gabriel.

     On September 8th, 1800, a Virginia correspondent wrote thus to the Philadelphia "United States Gazette": -

     "For the week past, we have been under momentary expectation of a rising among the negroes, who have assembled to the number of nine hundred or a thousand, and threatened to massacre all the whites. They are armed with desperate weapons, and secrete themselves in the woods. God only knows our fate; we have strong guards every night under arms."


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August 2000