Testimony in the Trial of Gabriel, October 6, 1800
On August 30, 1800, a tremendous storm dropped heavy rain on central Virginia, swelling creeks and turning Richmond's dirt streets into quagmires. The storm aborted one of the most extensive slave plots in American history, a conspiracy known to hundreds of slaves throughout central Virginia. A charismatic blacksmith named Gabriel, who was owned by Thomas Henry Prosser, of Henrico County, planned to enter Richmond with force, capture the Capitol and the Virginia State Armory, and hold Governor James Monroe hostage to bargain for freedom for Virginia's slaves. The storm delayed the conspirators' planned gathering, and a few nervous slaves told their masters of the plot. The arrests of the conspirators, including Gabriel, led to trials in Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, and several surrounding counties. The conspirators were tried in courts of oyer and terminer, established under a 1692 statute in which testimony was heard by five justices, not a jury, with appeal only to the governor. Twenty-six slaves were hanged, and another apparently committed suicide in his cell. Several convicted slaves were sold and transported out of Virginia. Two slaves, who had informed their masters about the intended rebellion, received their freedom.
In post-Revolutionary Virginia, Democratic-Republicans and Federalists argued about the proper extent of liberty and debated the legacies of the French, American, and even the Haitian revolutions. Learning from these debates, Gabriel based his actions on conceptions of freedom and liberty that flowed from the revolutionary movements. At Gabriel's trial, Ben Woolfolk, who had been recruited by Gabriel, testified that Gabriel intended to "purchase a piece of silk for a flag on which they would have written 'death or liberty' "—a clear reference to Patrick Henry's fiery speech of 1775. If white Richmonders agreed to free the slaves, according to one conspirator, Gabriel "would dine and drink with the merchants of the City." One conspirator reputedly stated that "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."
Gabriel's Conspiracy had an immediate impact on American politics and Virginia law and society. The planned rebellion was widely reported in American newspapers, and, during the 1800 presidential campaign, the Federalists cited the event as a consequence of the Democratic-Republicans' support of the French Revolution and ultrademocratic ideals. The intense scrutiny made some of Virginia's leaders uncomfortable with the execution of the revolutionaries. Monroe, a participant himself in a war for liberty, expressed concern about the number of executions. Thomas Jefferson agreed that "there is a strong sentiment that there has been hanging enough. The other states & the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge in a principle of revenge." In the wake of the affair, however, Virginia's lawmakers imposed new restrictions on slaves and free blacks. Whites would never again be complacent about the possibility of slave uprisings.
1. When was Gabriel's trial?
2. For what was Gabriel being tried?
3. What is the name of one of the people who testified against Gabriel?
1. Consider this document along with the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to proclaim and justify the United States' breakaway from the tyranny of England. Likewise, this trial shows that Gabriel wished to break away from the bondage of his owner and wanted freedom for all of Virginia's slaves. What are some of the similarities and differences between these two causes? What are some reasons it was illegal for the slaves to try to gain their freedom?
Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800–1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Egerton, Douglas R. "Gabriel's Conspiracy and the Election of 1800." Journal of Southern History 56, no. 2 (May 1990): 191–214.
Schwarz, Philip J. "Gabriel's Challenge: Slaves and Crime in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 90, no. 3 (July 1982): 283–309.