Thursday, July 3, 2014

American Uprising

I just finished listening to American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen, which traced the largest slave revolt in North American history, from the society in which it sprang, to the revolt and its suppression, to the end of slavery in the 1860s.

The first part of the book covered Louisiana plantation society before and after the Louisiana Purchase. I had not previously thought of the impact that the purchase had on the residents of Louisiana, and the book it was very interesting to learn the ways in which their society differed from that of the United States. Naturally, this led to tensions between the governor (William Claiborne) and the aristocratic planter class.

The second part of the book focused on the rebellion itself and its failure. While three ringleaders managed to kill two plantation owners, raze several plantations, acquire militia uniforms, and field an army of about 1000, they were ultimately defeated by planter militia, with help from the US Army. The retribution, as expected, was savage. The leaders had their heads stuck on pikes and 18 were sentenced to death. Several trials were held, but the verdict was preordained. These trials were, in my opinion, to allow the slaveholders to give their actions a veneer of legality, and therefore separate them from the summary executions that the slaves performed.

By far the most interesting part, in my opinion, was the explanation of the events surrounding the revolt. For example, at the time the revolt erupted in January 1811, the US Army was engaged in a highly illegal campaign to seize Florida from the Spanish, hence the lack of troops in Louisiana when the revolt broke out. The acquisition of Florida is usually ignored in US history books, so it is good to see the treatment here. In addition, the author points out how Claiborne, despite doing very little to help quash the uprising, used the event to show the planters the benefits of accepting American power. Henceforth, Louisiana would embrace US authority as a means to deter slave revolts. This is why they joined the Confederacy in 1860; with the US no longer seeming to guarantee their right to own slaves, the planters of Louisiana joined a government that would.

Finally, the true strength of this book is to put the revolt into the context of mid-nineteenth century American expansionism. In less than half a century, the US bought Louisiana, stole Florida from Spain, wrenched more than half of Mexico away, and acquired Oregon and Washington. These territories were acquired using methods that the US had practiced in the aftermath of the uprising of 1811: application of force, extension of the legal system, and coopting local elites. As a result, the US looks less like a nation that happened to be at the right place at the right time than a nation that was ruthlessly expansionist. 

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