It was no wonder, if there were foundation for such rumors. Liberty was the creed or the cant of the day. France was being rocked by revolution, and England by Clarkson. In America, slavery was habitually recognized as a misfortune and an error, only to be palliated by the nearness of its expected end. How freely anti-slavery pamphlets had been circulated in Virginia we know from the priceless volumes collected and annotated by Washington and now preserved in the Boston Athenaeum. Jefferson's "Notes on Virginia," itself an anti-slavery tract, had passed through seven editions. Judge St. George Tucker, law-professor in William and Mary College, had recently published his noble work, "A Dissertation on Slavery, with a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia." From all this agitation a slave insurrection was a mere corollary. With so much electricity in the air, a single flash of lightning foreboded all the terrors of the tempest. Let but a single armed Negro be seen or suspected, and at once on many a lonely plantation there were trembling hands at work to bar door and windows that seldom had been even closed before, and there was shuddering when a gray squirrel scrambled over the roof, or a shower of walnuts came down clattering from the overhanging boughs.
Early in September, 1800, as a certain Mr. Moseley Sheppard, of Henrico County in Virginia, was one day sitting in his counting-room, two negroes knocked at the door and were let in. They shut the door themselves, and began to unfold an insurrectionary plot, which was subsequently repeated by one of them, named Ben Woodfolk or Woolfolk, in presence of the court, on the fifteenth of the same month.
He stated that about the first of the preceding June he had been asked by a negro named Colonel George whether he would like to be made a Mason. He refused; but George ultimately prevailed on him to have an interview with a certain leading man among the Blacks, named Gabriel. Arrived at the place of meeting, he found many persons assembled, to whom a preliminary oath was administered, that they would keep secret all which they might hear. The leaders then began, to the dismay of this witness, to allude to a plan of insurrection, which, as they stated, was already far advanced toward maturity. Presently a man named Martin, Gabriel's brother, proposed religious services, caused the company to be duly seated, and began an impassioned exposition of Scripture, bearing upon the perilous theme. The Israelites were glowingly portrayed as a type of successful resistance to tyranny; and it was argued, that now, as then, God would stretch forth His arm to save, and would strengthen a hundred to overthrow a thousand.