James Sidbury. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. x + 292 pp. $28.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-59860-6; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-58454-8.
Reviewed by Seth Rockman (University of California--Davis)
Published on H-SHEAR (February, 1999)
Turning the Tables on Jeffersonian Virginia
This book's title comes from the Old Testament prophet, Joel, who inverted Isaiah's peaceful vision and instead prepared the ancient Israelites to expel their cruel enemies from Zion. Several thousand years later, enslaved blacksmiths in the vicinity of Richmond made swords from the scythes their compatriots used to harvest the fields of their common masters. In this fashion, Gabriel and other leaders of the 1800 rebellion armed themselves to march on the state capital and bring a violent and immediate end to slavery. James Sidbury does not offer a linear retelling of that unsuccessful insurrection, but provides a rich exploration of the social and cultural contexts that spurred enslaved Virginians to strike out for liberty. Not a book about Gabriel's Rebellion, Ploughshares into Swords is about Gabriel's Virginia. There, long-standing practices of resistance and accommodation and newer forms of urban labor, evangelical Christianity, and racial consciousness combined in a radical assertion of freedom.
By reconceptualizing Jeffersonian Virginia as Gabriel's Virginia, Sidbury holds up "the deforming mirror of truth" to the master narrative of American history. Instead of casting slavery as an abstract philosophical quandary for elite whites to ponder in treatises and letters, Sidbury makes slavery a very "real" problem in the lives of black Virginians. Sidbury recounts the efforts of the enslaved half of the state's population to end racial bondage. Black Virginians shaped a revolutionary legacy that drew upon evangelical Christianity and the struggles for American and Haitian independence. Their definitions of justice and freedom stood at odds with those of their white neighbors and owners. Sidbury explains that "Gabriel and his followers should be understood to have commented critically upon White Virginians' use of natural rights philosophy and thus to have asserted an important alternate interpretation of the limited meaning and the broader potential of the American Revolution" (p. 276). Since that time, activists have used Gabriel's Rebellion to challenge the injustices of slavery, segregation, and inequality. Gabriel has persisted in the historical memory of African Americans because he and his allies constructed their own version of American history, placed racial justice at its center, and acted upon it. Taking up that narrative for himself, Sidbury presents a history that is both honest and inspiring.
Ploughshares into Swords is three studies in one. The first part is an extended essay on the process by which diverse Africans became Black Christian Virginians in the eighteenth century. The middle section reads Gabriel's Rebellion through the lens of cultural history, drawing attention to how slaves transformed the symbols and rituals of white hegemony into the tools of their own liberation. Finally, Sidbury mines court, census, and tax records to provide a community study of Richmond between 1780 and 1810. Each of the three sections reflects impressive research, engages the relevant historiography, and presents an innovative interpretation. However, the book's disjointed organization threatens to make the whole less than the sum of its parts.
Sidbury begins by looking at how Africans and their descendants forged two distinct identities: one as Black Virginians sharing a provincial culture, and a second as African Americans sharing a fate with enslaved peoples throughout the hemisphere. Neither identity emerged before 1750. Like Michael Gomez, Michael Mullin, and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Sidbury contends that African ethnicity mattered in the New World. Virginia's slaves came from inland communities along the Bight of Biafra, where a narrow kinship system structured Igbo, Igala, and Ibibio villages. Once across the Atlantic, slaves created new but similarly localistic identities specific to a given plantation and well-suited to the dispersed geography of Virginia farms. Although slaveowners readily grouped their diverse slaves in a single racial category, "the abstract and imposed quality of racial similarity held less sway than the concrete ties of kinship and friendship that enslaved people created in Virginia's quarters" (p. 20). To highlight the absence of racial solidarity, Sidbury points to the refusal of slaves from one locality to aid those of another in resisting their common oppressor. Ironically, the lack of a broader collective identity was itself the primary "Africanism" in early Virginia.
In the half-century after 1750, four developments fostered a broader racial consciousness. First, as plantation slavery expanded into Piedmont counties, links between old and new quarters enlarged the boundaries of community. Secondly, evangelical Christianity created a network of the faithful, especially as black Baptists pushed to establish autonomous churches. At the same time, the American Revolution gave black Virginians a reason to see themselves as a cohesive people. In particular, Dunmore's Proclamation addressed the colony's slaves in collective terms. Finally, events in Saint Domingue provided a model of revolutionary racial justice that prompted black Virginians to situate themselves in a larger African diaspora. By 1800, Gabriel and his neighbors asserted a double consciousness that was at once provincial (black and Virginian) and global (black Virginian and African American).
Sidbury carefully roots community and identity in concrete social relations, specific to time and place. People can simultaneously inhabit multiple, and potentially antagonistic, communities. Likewise, identities are "crosscutting," the term Sidbury uses to capture the tension among an individual's class, race, gender, status, nativity, and religious positions. Race was the foundation of many, but not all, of the communities to which enslaved Virginians belonged. When Haitian slaves arrived with their exiled masters in Richmond in 1793, local slaves skirmished with the strange, predominately-African refugees. In 1800, Gabriel and his allies excluded women from their uprising. They also debated whether to spare Quakers, Methodists, Frenchmen, and white women. Not long after, two slaves alerted their master to the plot, another black man turned the fleeing Gabriel over to the authorities, and several co-conspirators turned state's evidence. Where other historians have mythologized a homogeneous "slave community," Sidbury introduces complexity and conflict. He delights in the unpredictable, particularly the interracial alliances between men and women in Richmond's taverns, workshops, and jail.
The most ubiquitous, if questionable, community grouping is "Virginians." Sidbury uses the term not merely as a geographical delimiter, but as a self-conscious identity that held meaning for Gabriel and James Monroe alike. Although slaves fell outside the body politic, they were both co-creators and products of a distinct provincial culture. Sidbury is less interested in the genealogy of "the world they made together" than in the spaces they jointly occupied, the language they shared, and symbols they held in common. That Virginian culture was the key to Gabriel's Conspiracy. Slave rebels "used local symbolic idioms to communicate their conception of status and authority, their belief in themselves as God's chosen people, and their desire for freedom" (p. 57). Gabriel and his accomplices equated leadership with literacy, skill, horses, weaponry, and military titles. They recruited soldiers by "treating" fellow slaves at barbecues and requiring "viva voca" declarations of allegiance. These strategies and priorities attest to the fundamental "Virginia-ness" of Gabriel's Rebellion, as slaves engaged in "cultural appropriation" and crafted "symbols of Black liberation out of bulwarks of White power" (p. 72). Paradoxically, Tom and Pharaoh, the slaves who betrayed the insurrection, were equally Virginian in their commitment to the culture's individualistic ethos. Slaves on both sides of the uprising behaved as good Virginians, but Sidbury struggles to reconcile the outsider-quality implied in "cultural appropriation" with the insider-quality of a Black Virginian identity.
Scholars of Early Republic history will invariably contrast Sidbury's Gabriel with the one Douglas Egerton portrayed in Gabriel's Rebellion (Chapel Hill, 1993). In that version, Gabriel's labor as a skilled blacksmith connected him to the trans-Atlantic world of artisan radicalism. This rationalist Gabriel struck out for all working people against the exploitative practices of Richmond's capitalist merchants. Both Sidbury and Egerton use the same evidentiary base of trial records, but to different ends. In a dramatic narrative, Egerton makes Gabriel's Rebellion a key moment in the 1800 Presidential campaign; it remains the better source for the details of the abortive uprising, the ensuing trials and executions, and the reaction of white Virginians. Sidbury's cultural history readings of trial transcripts reflect his greater concern with Gabriel's Virginia than Gabriel's Rebellion per se. Still, Sidbury does contest two main components of Egerton's interpretation. First, Sidbury can find no evidence that Gabriel hired out his time to master blacksmiths in Richmond. Without this opportunity to work among white and free black journeymen, Gabriel's "artisan republican" consciousness seems dubious. Secondly, Sidbury argues that Egerton understated the evangelical roots of the conspiracy. Gabriel's agility with Biblical allusions suggested more than just a passing familiarity with the Old Testament. Here, Sidbury is on weaker footing. Although Egerton downplayed religion to counter the myth that Gabriel was a long-haired messianic figure, Sidbury cannot produce evidence attesting to Gabriel's religiosity. Ultimately, Egerton and Sidbury concur that Gabriel's Biblical dexterity only further marked him as a Virginian.
The third section of Ploughshares into Swords is a community study of Richmond, from its origins as a tobacco inspection point, to its designation as the state capital in 1780, and through its emergence as an urban center of 10,000 in 1810. Sidbury's foray into social history situates "the exceptional events of 1800^Ê in a fuller and less extraordinary context" (p. 147). Sidbury portrait of Gabriel's Richmond is far richer than many black urban community studies published in just the last two years. Instead of focusing on the efforts of the black bourgeoisie to establish independent churches and voluntary associations, Sidbury examines how canal-diggers, washerwomen, and enslaved artisans carved out some semblance of autonomy along the city's waterfront. Sidbury's creative use of court papers compensates for the unavailability of traditional quantitative sources such as federal manuscript censuses and city directories.
Sidbury's primary concern is the flexibility of urban social relations. Slaves exploited "white urbanites' need for a flexible and skilled labor force" (p. 187). Although the law prohibited slaves from hiring out their own time, the practice was common and introduced wage-incentives to a system governed by compulsion. In the space between slavery and freedom, black Richmonders "worked, played, fought, and bargained" with non-elite whites and "developed more flexible norms to govern race relations than those that prevailed in rural Virginia" (p. 174). Grand juries fretted, but elites benefited from the fluid labor market and made little effort to crack down on disorderly black and white workers. Class solidarity did not unite the down-trodden, but common poverty created improbable alliances that made Gabriel's Virginia decidedly interracial. Sidbury delights in story of Angela Barnett, a free black woman, wife, and mother. When she killed a white slave-catcher in her own home, Barnett landed in prison. There, she has a sexual relationship with a white man named Jacob Valentine, who is later indicted for inciting a slave insurrection. The story is shadowy, but points to the overlapping communities and cross-cutting identities of both Barnett and Valentine. Moving beyond demographic analysis of the "the black family," Sidbury draws rightful attention to the role of gender in structuring lives already circumscribed by race.
The community study of Richmond creates several problems for Sidbury's larger argument. Initially, readers may wonder about placing the context as a postscript to the Rebellion. Organized this way, the book struggles to connect daily life in commercializing Richmond with the decisions of the conspirators. When this final section of the book highlights racial indeterminacy along Richmond's waterfront, Sidbury loses the specific social relations that propelled black consciousness in the first section. Ultimately, the book's tripartite structure--an anthropological prologue on identity, a linguistic reading of the Rebellion, and a demographic analysis of Richmond--undermines the coherence of ideology and lived experience in Gabriel's Virginia. Sidbury may intend this disjuncture as a testament to the power of crosscutting identities, as well as to the fluidity of racial boundaries in early republic Richmond. Ploughshares into Swords raises the tantalizing prospect of uniting cultural history's "linguistic turn" with social history's quantitative precision.
Sidbury concludes with an analysis of Gabriel's Rebellion in folk memory and fiction. Gabriel and his allies had crafted a narrative of American history that made room for racial justice. Subsequent generations have situated the conspiracy in their "continuing struggles for racial equality during the past two centuries" (p. 258). Like black Virginians in Gabriel's time, historians need not subscribe to a self-congratulatory narrative of the American Revolution that glosses over its racial failings. Sidbury offers a new paradigm by shifting attention from Jefferson to Gabriel. Adopting the perspective of black Virginians does not inherently undermine the radicalism of the American Revolution. Instead, it highlights alternative possibilities that still resonate two hundred years later. James Sidbury deserves our congratulations for writing a politically astute book that forces readers to reconsider their assumptions about American history.
. Nathan Huggins, "The Deforming Mirror of Truth: Slavery and the Master Narrative of American History," Radical History Review 49 (1991): 25-48.
. Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, 1998); Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, 1992); Michael Mullin, Africa in America: Slave Acculturation in the American South and the British Caribbean, 1736-1831 (Urbana, 1992).
. Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton, 1987).
. In this growing genre, see most recently Tommy L. Bogger, Free Blacks in Norfolk Virginia, 1790-1860: The Darker Side of Freedom (Charlottesville, 1997); Kimberly Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803 (Durham, 1997); James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 (New York, 1996); Whittington B. Johnson, Black Savannah, 1788-1864 (Fayetteville, 1996); Christopher Phillips, Freedom's Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Urbana, 1997); T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington, 1997).
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Seth Rockman. Review of Sidbury, James, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810.
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