Reconfiguring the Old South: Solving the Problem of Slavery, 1787–1838

Teaching the Article
Exercise 1

Gabriel Prosser Insurrection Scare

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In 1800 Gabriel Prosser, a skilled and literate slave blacksmith, used his permission to travel regularly throughout the Richmond area to organize a rebellion of skilled slave artisans in the city and surrounding areas. Gabriel ultimately attracted a following estimated at five to six hundred. His motives, if any other than a willingness to take a risk in pursuit of freedom, remain a matter of conjecture.

Once informants alerted white authorities to the looming insurrection, vigorous reprisals ensued. White authorities, led by Gov. James Monroe, mobilized troops and launched investigations that led to the execution of twenty slaves in Richmond during the fall of 1800. After a protracted search, Gabriel was captured aboard a ship in Norfolk, tried, and put to death.

The evidence produced at the trials of the alleged conspirators suggested that the common denominator among participants was their absolute hatred of slavery and their desire for freedom. Yet the slaves approached by Gabriel who declined to participate also hated slavery and desired freedom. They were simply less sure than those who joined the plot that Gabriel’s plan could secure the freedom they desired, and they recognized that white retribution would very likely be swift and brutal. Slaves with wives and children often argued that they had too much to lose to risk all on such a desperate adventure.

In response to the scare, many white Virginians wondered privately if slavery for blacks was compatible with freedom for whites. One Fredericksburg resident insisted that only a “fool” would think there could be a “compromise between liberty and slavery.” Governor Monroe increased the militia’s presence in Richmond, but he still worried that an extensive insurrection was inevitable. He encouraged the Virginia legislature to consider measures to prevent future insurrections, but the scope and content of such measures remained in dispute. Possibilities included restrictions on the private manumission of slaves, closer monitoring of slave worship, tighter regulation of the region’s free black population, and colonization.

In fact, Gabriel’s Rebellion lent an unexpected impetus to the colonization movement in the Old Dominion. The 1801 Virginia House of Delegates urged Monroe to find an appropriate location for colonizing blacks deemed dangerous to society, and he turned to the newly inaugurated president, Thomas Jefferson, to procure land for a colony of troublesome slaves and unwelcome free blacks. While Virginia’s immediate interest in colonization was driven by fear of insurrection, Monroe and Jefferson both recognized that colonization might also be a means for gradually ridding Virginia of free blacks and reducing its slave population.


  1. Drawing on the accounts of the trials of slave rebels (below), what was the primary motive of those who participated in the rebellion?
    1. H. W. Flourney, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers (11 vols., Richmond, 1875–1893), 140–74, esp. 164–65.
  2. As Monroe and Jefferson discussed the insurrection in their exchange of letters (below), what were their primary concerns? Did those concerns reflect an underlying discomfort with the institution of slavery?
    1. James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, Sept. 15, 1800, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
    2. James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, Feb. 13, 1802, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  3. Why would the author of the Fredericksburg Virginia Herald article argue that democracy was inconsistent with a slaveholding society?
    1. Fredericksburg Virginia Herald, Sept. 23, 1800.

Further Reading