Digital History
Gabriel's Revolt
Digital History ID 225

Author:   Thomas Jefferson


The Haitian Revolution inspired a slave insurrection in Virginia in 1800, known as Gabriel's Revolt. This event terrified Jefferson.

In this letter to the U.S. Minister to Britain, President Jefferson proposes that a group of insurgent slaves be deported to West Africa under the auspices of the Sierra Leone Company, an English abolitionist organization that had established Freetown as a home for former slaves. The slaves were accused of conspiring with Gabriel (1775-1800) to attack Richmond, seize the arsenal, and kill white residents. About 30 of the accused conspirators were executed.

Gabriel's stated basis for the attempted rebellion was the Declaration of Independence, a point which was not lost on its author. Tacitly recognizing that slaves could be motivated by the same ideals which had inspired the American colonists to revolt against their British masters, Jefferson told Rufus King to assure the Sierra Leone Company that the rebel slaves were not criminals, but men aspiring for freedom.

Negotiations with the Sierra Leone Company were unsuccessful, and most of the accused conspirators were sold as slaves to Spanish and Portuguese colonies. For Jefferson, Gabriel's Conspiracy reinforced his view that race war could be avoided only if emancipation were tied to expatriation--what came to be called colonization.


[The slaves in question] are not felons, or common malefactors, but persons guilty of what the safety of society, under actual circumstances, obliges us to treat as a crime, but which their feelings may represent in a far different shape. They are such as will be a valuable acquisition to the settlement already existing there, and well calculated to cooperate in the place of civilization.

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