Gabriel’s Rebellion

– The Virginia Argus, October 14, 1800

“Of those who have been executed, no one has betrayed his cause. They have uniformly met death with fortitude.”

The Virginia Argus, October 14, 1800.

Gabriel was born enslaved on the Prosser family’s Brookfield plantation in 1776, the same year that the United States declared its independence from Britain. Virginia’s enslaved population, perhaps more than anyone, cherished the Revolution’s principles of liberty and equality. In 1800, fueled by these ideals, Gabriel devised a plan to achieve freedom for him and his people. As a blacksmith, Gabriel enjoyed freedoms that enslaved field hands did not have, primarily the ability to travel between Thomas Prosser’s plantation and Richmond for work, which also afforded him the opportunity to recruit for his insurrection. The conspirators intended to kill their masters, seize the Richmond capitol building, magazine, and penitentiary, and take Governor James Monroe hostage. They planned the insurrection for August 30, but torrential rain prevented it from occurring. Pharaoh and Tom, two enslaved men from a neighboring plantation, informed their master, Mosby Sheppard, of the plot. Sheppard quickly rode to Richmond to warn the governor.

Monroe concluded that this danger necessitated immediate action. He stationed militiamen at the capitol building, magazine, and penitentiary, sent patrols to the countryside and nearby cities, and dispatched warnings of the potential danger throughout Virginia. By September 2, twenty enslaved individuals had been arrested for their part in the conspiracy. Gabriel was captured at the end of September near Norfolk, then brought to Richmond where he met briefly with Monroe before his trial and execution. In the end, Gabriel, his two brothers, and twenty-three other conspirators were executed, while many others were acquitted or pardoned.

These five primary sources offer varying perspectives on Gabriel’s Rebellion. James Monroe’s Annual Address to the Virginia Assembly details the actions his government took in response to the planned insurrection. Monroe’s letter to Thomas Jefferson reveals his struggle on whether to pursue a more severe or lenient response towards the conspirators. Jefferson’s reply, written five days later, expands on Monroe’s concerns regarding the dangers the accused conspirators would pose to society if freed. The confession of Solomon describes the formation of the plot from the perspective of one of the conspirators. The excerpt from Travels in Some Parts of North America recounts Robert Sutcliff’s journey to Richmond in the years following Gabriel’s Rebellion, where the memory of the conspiracy was still fresh.

Document Based Questions

Annual Address to the Virginia Assembly (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia) View

Virginia General Assembly, House, Office of the Speaker, December 5, 1800, Executive Communications 1800-1802, Access 3691, Miscellaneous Reel 5382.

  1. What does the address reveal about James Monroe’s personal beliefs regarding slavery?
  2. How does the government’s response compare to the assumed threat level posed by the conspirators?
  3. Why does James Monroe consider it “strange” for the insurrection to occur at this time in Virginia?
  4. What does James Monroe’s response to the conspiracy reveal about his fears regarding the strength in numbers possessed by the enslaved class?

Letters between Monroe and Jefferson, September 15 & 20, 1800 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 

James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, 15 September 1800 View

Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 20 September 1800 View

  1. What do these letters reveal about James Monroe’s and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship?
  2. Why did the government make “a display of our force” in response to Gabriel’s Rebellion?
  3. Why is James Monroe conflicted about which policy (mercy or severity) to pursue towards the conspirators?
  4. How does Thomas Jefferson respond to James Monroe’s question of “where to stay the hand of the executioner?”
  5. Why does Thomas Jefferson consider imprisoning the conspirators a difficult situation?

Confession of Solomon (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia) View

  1. Why, according to Solomon, did Gabriel plan his insurrection at this time?
  2. How did Gabriel plan to carry out this insurrection?
  3. Why might Solomon place particular blame on his own brother, Gabriel, and minimize his own role?

Travels in Some Parts of North America (Public domain) Download

  1. How does Robert Sutcliff describe slavery in the years following Gabriel’s Rebellion?
  2. Why does the executed man compare himself to General George Washington?

Essential Questions

  1. How did the American Revolution impact the institution of slavery and attitudes of the enslaved towards their condition?
  2. How do the different sources concerning Gabriel’s Rebellion reveal the author’s bias?
  3. How does the rebellion impact the legacies of the conspirators and those tasked with stopping it?
  4. How did Gabriel’s Rebellion change the treatment of enslaved people in Virginia?

Virginia Standards of Learning

 CE.1    The student will demonstrate skills for historical thinking, geographical analysis, economic decision making, and responsible citizenship by

b) analyzing how political and economic trends influence public policy, using demographic information and other data sources;
d) determining the accuracy and validity of information by separating fact and opinion and recognizing bias.

USI.5  The student will apply social science skills to understand the factors that shaped colonial America by

d) describing colonial life in America from the perspectives of large landowners, farmers, artisans, merchants, women, free African Americans, indentured servants, and enslaved African Americans.

VUS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical thinking, geographical analysis, economic decision making, and responsible citizenship by

a) synthesizing evidence from artifacts and primary and secondary sources to obtain information about events in Virginia and United States history;
e) comparing and contrasting historical, cultural, economic, and political perspectives in Virginia and United States history;

VUS.6 The student will apply social science skills to understand major events in Virginia and United States history during the first half of the nineteenth century by

e) evaluating the cultural, economic, and political issues that divided the nation, including tariffs, slavery, the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements, and the role of the states in the Union;

National Standards for Social Studies

Era 4 Expansion and Reform

Standard 2D

Grades 5-12  Identify the various ways in which African Americans resisted the conditions of their enslavement and analyze the consequences of violent uprisings. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

Bibliography & Suggested Readings

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

Egerton, Douglas R. “Gabriel’s Conspiracy and the Election of 1800.” The Journal of Southern History 56, No. 2 (May, 1990): pp. 191-214.

Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

McGrath, Tim. James Monroe: A Life. Boston: Dutton – Penguin Books, 2020.

Scherr, Arthur. “Governor James Monroe and the Southhampton Slave Resistance of 1799.” The Historian 61, No. 3 (Spring 1999): pp. 557-578.

Sidbury, James. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.