Today we will visit with Gabriel Prosser.
The activities of a literate slave named Gabriel in Richmond, Virginia, present a final critical view of Jeffersonian America. At the same time Gabriel also shows how fully AFRICAN AMERICANS embraced central currents of American politics and culture. Gabriel remains a difficult figure to fully reconstruct from surviving historical evidence. In fact, his last name is not definitively known, though he is usually referred to as GABRIEL PROSSER, after the name of the man who owned him.
Gabriel was a skilled artisan with several advantages over most field-working slaves of his day. Partly due to his skill as a blacksmith, Gabriel was “hired out” to work in many different places and enjoyed more autonomy and mobility than most plantation slaves. As an artisan, Gabriel was among the broad group of urban workers whose actions played a crucial role causing the American Revolution. As an occupational group, they were among the Revolution’s biggest winners.
However, as an African American and a slave the benefits of the Revolution were not extended to Gabriel. Nevertheless, the republican ideology of the Revolution and the anti-elitist thrust of the Democratic-Republicans helped shape Gabriel’s vision in leading a SLAVE REVOLT.
The organizational requirements of a conspiracy to overthrow slavery necessarily shrouded the movement in secrecy. Apparently, however, Gabriel, and a small group of artisan leaders, expected about 1,000 slaves to follow them in a well-coordinated attack upon Richmond that targeted Federalists and merchants who were the most prominent residents of the city.
Gabriel expected “the poor white people” as well as “the most redoubtable republicans” to join his cause to create a more democratic republic in Virginia . He especially identified Quakers, Methodists, and Frenchmen as those whites who were most “friendly to liberty.” The purpose of the rebels was clearly expressed in a banner under which they planned to march, which eloquently stated “DEATH OR LIBERTY.” The assault planned for August 30, 1800, however, never came together. Torrential rain caused confusion and a traitor from within the group warned white authorities of the impending attack.
Gabriel’s careful planning demonstrates that some enslaved people actively resisted slavery and were well informed about the world beyond their own harsh circumstances. Given the heightened political violence of the 1790s, Gabriel believed that he could forge an alliance with some Democratic-Republicans against a common Federalist enemy. The timing of the revolt, just before the 1800 election, makes it a radical expression of anti-Federalism. Gabriel also secretly met with two Frenchmen who seemed to have promised him international assistance. Gabriel was well aware that the French Revolution had helped trigger the great slave revolt in Haiti in 1791. Perhaps the charismatic and talented Gabriel could have become a successful black political leader like TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE.
Instead, Gabriel’s slave conspiracy ended in severe repression. While no whites were killed in the revolt that never really got started, the state of Virginia executed 27 blacks, including Gabriel, by public hanging. Whites responded to the planned revolt, and another one linked to it in 1802, by tightening legal restrictions on slaves. For a brief period in the late 18th century white Virginians had modified certain elements of slavery.
Now many whites began to think that making the system slightly more humane had encouraged black resistance. As a result some of the advantages that slaves like Gabriel possessed were made illegal. For instance, literacy and allowing slaves to “hire out” for work in varied settings became illegal. Similarly, the Virginia legislature attempted to prevent enslaved people from piloting boats, a position from which they could travel too freely and learn about changes in the outside world that threatened white masters.
This newly repressive slave system was a tragic outcome for African-American collective action that had intended to liberate slaves. The reinvigorated slave societies of the south thrived in the 19th century and only ended with the massive violence of the Civil War. Nevertheless, the hypocrisy of slavery in a new nation dedicated to democracy was more obvious than ever before in American history. Though the brutal slave regime would continue to try and dehumanize the people it enslaved, it never fully succeeded.
As one member of GABRIEL’S REBELLION explained during the trial that would ultimately sentence him to death, “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause.”
Gabriel Prosser and his brother, Solomon, were preparing for the farthest reaching rebellion in United States History. Inspired by the egalitarian philosophy that inspired the Haitian Revolution, the Prossers galvanized enslaved and freed African-Americans, poor whites and Native Americans to rebel against wealthy whites. But a combination of inclement weather conditions and fear on the part of a few enslaved African-American men halted the rebellion from ever taking place.
Who is Gabriel Prosser?
Prosser was born in 1776 on a tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Va. At an early age, Prosser and his brother, Solomon, were trained to work as a blacksmiths. He was also taught to read and write. By the age of twenty, Prosser was considered a leader amongst slaves–he was literate, intelligent, strong and was over six feet tall.
In 1798, Prosser’s owner died and his son, Thomas Henry Prosser became his new master. Considered an ambitious master who wanted to expand his wealth, Thomas Henry hired Prosser and Solomon out to work with merchants and artisans. Prosser’s ability to work in Richmond and its surrounding areas allowed him the freedom to discover the area, extra money and the ability to work with freed African-American laborers.
Gabriel Prosser’s Great Plan
In 1799, Prosser, Solomon and another slave named Jupiter stole a pig. When the three were caught by an overseer, Gabriel fought him and bit off the overseer’s ear. Shortly after, he was found guilty of maiming a white man. Although this was a capital offense, Prosser was able to choose public branding over being hung if he could recite a verse from the Bible. Prosser was branded on his left hand and spent a month in jail.
This punishment, the freedom Prosser experienced as a hired-out blacksmith as well as the symbolism of the American and Haitian Revolutions that prompted the organization of the Prosser Rebellion.
Inspired primarily by the Haitian Revolution, Prosser believed that oppressed people in society should work together to change. Prosser planned to include not only enslaved and freed African-Americans, but also poor whites, Native Americans and French troops stationed in the area to participate in the rebellion. Prosser’s plan was to take possession of Capitol Square in Richmond. Holding Governor James Monroe as a hostage, Prosser believed he could bargain with authorities.
After telling Solomon and another slave named Ben of his plans, the trio began recruiting revolters. Women were not included in Prosser’s militia but free blacks and whites became dedicated to the cause of insurrection.
Pretty soon, the men were recruiting throughout Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, Albermarle and the counties of Henrico, Caroline and Louisa. Prosser used his skills as a blacksmith to create swords and molding bullets. Others collected weapons. The motto of the rebellion would be the same as the Haitian Revolution–“Death or Liberty.” Although rumors of the upcoming rebellion was reported to Governor Monroe, it was ignored.
Prosser planned the revolt for August 30, 1800 but could not take place because of a severe thunderstorm that made it impossible to travel across road and bridges. The plot was supposed to take place the following day on Sunday August 31 but several enslaved African-Americans told their masters of the plot. Landowners set up white patrols, and alerted Monroe who organized the state militia to search for rebels. Within two weeks, almost 30 enslaved African-Americans were in jail waiting to be seen in the Oyer and Terminir , a court in which people are tried without a jury but can provide testimony.
The trail lasted two months and an estimated 65 enslaved men were tried. Almost thirty of these enslaved men were executed while others were sold to owners in other states. Some were found not guilty and others were pardoned.
The trials began on September 11. Officials offered full pardons to enslaved men who gave testimony against other members of the conspiracy. Ben, who had helped Solomon and Prosser organize the rebellion offered testimony. Another man named Ben Woolfolk offered the same. Ben offered testimony that led to the execution of several other enslaved men including Prosser’s brothers Solomon and Martin. Ben Woolfolk provided information on enslaved participants from other areas of Virginia.
Before Solomon’s death, he provided the following testimony: “My brother Gabriel was the person who influenced me to join him and others in order that (as he said) we might conquer the white people and possess ourselves of their property.” Another enslaved man, King, said, “I was never so glad to hear anything in my life. I am ready to join them at any moment. I could slay the white people like sheep.”
Although most recruits were tried and convicted in Richmond, others in outlying counties received the same fate. In places like Norfolk County, however, enslaved African-Americans and working class whites were questioned in an attempt to find witnesses. However, no one would provide testimony and enslaved men in Norfolk County were released. And in Petersburg, four free African-Americans were arrested but could not be convicted because the testimony of an enslaved person against a freed person was not permitted in the courts of Virginia.
On September 14, Prosser was identified to authorities. On October 6, he was put on trail. Although several people testified against Prosser, he refused to make a statement in court. On October 10, he was hung in the town gallows.
According to state law, the state of Virginia had to reimburse slaveholders for their lost property. In total, Virginia paid more than $8900 to slaveholders for enslaved men who were hung.
Between 1801 and 1805, the Virgina Assembly debated on the idea of gradual emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. However, the state legislature decided instead to control enslaved African-Americans by outlawing literacy and placed restrictions on “hiring out.”
Although Prosser’s rebellion did not come to fruition, it inspired others. In 1802, the “Easter Plot” took place. And thirty years later, Nat Turner’s Rebellion took place in Southampton County.
Thanks for your attention.