Mocking the Slave Insurrection Scare

As was noted by Civil War Emancipation in its May 4 edition, by early May 1861 northern newspapers began taking note of the slave insurrection scare prevalent in many slave states after the outbreak of the Civil War. The departure of men for the Confederate army and news of military units from the North moving south, led many white Southerners to fear they were on the verge of a mass slave uprising as masses of northern John Browns in federal uniform armed the slaves, and set them upon their masters and other whites.

Clearly, some white Northerners did not share this fear. In its June 1, 1861 issue, Harper’s Weekly addressed the insurrection scare in a mocking editorial entitled, “Sitting on Gunpowder.” The editorial stated:

THERE is great and natural horror expressed by many of the treasonable papers of those who would excite servile insurrections.

Who is it, then, that is exciting servile insurrection ?

The rebellious citizens of the United States. In what way?

By taking up arms against the Government, and plunging into war. The slaves can not be kept ignorant of the war, and they will ask the occasion. They will learn that their masters are fighting against those whom they untruly and persistently call “Abolitionists.” Is it not evident, then, that unless the slaves love slavery, they will fight against their masters in any way they can ? And is he an inciter of servile insurrection who points out to the masters so palpable a fact ? If a man sees a neighbor sitting upon a barrel of gunpowder and intently trying to strike a light by scraping a match upon the side of the barrel, is he such a diabolical fellow if he warns his neighbor that he runs great risk of blowing himself up?

Interestingly, Harper’s Weekly chose not to mock the racist assumptions behind the slave insurrection scare in the South (to whit, that barbaric slaves were itching to kill whites and would do so at the earliest opportunity, especially if encouraged by abolitionist troops who armed them). What the publication chose to mock was secession, in which rebel slaveholders made an enemy of the very government that before would have provided the best guarantee against servile insurrection and stood ready to suppress it should it happen anyway. Clearly, America’s great illustrated newspaper had not yet embraced emancipation, although it would soon be reporting stories of the peculiar institution unraveling in the South.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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2 Responses to Mocking the Slave Insurrection Scare

  1. Harper’s did get it right that rebellion, even for the purpose of protecting slavery, would ultimately undermine the institution and its social and political foundations.

    • Margaret D. Blough says:

      There were a few pro-slavery advocates who recognized that and opposed secession for that very reaon. They had the same impact as Cassandra’s prophecies did at Troy.

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