Guest Post: “Fear in the Revolutionary Americas” Conference Recap

Elizabeth M. Covart is an early American historian, writer, and podcaster. Presently she is working on her first book manuscript about cultural community creation in Albany, New York, 1614-1830. Liz also writes a practical blog about history and how to make it more accessible at and her new podcast, “Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History,” seeks to bring the work of academic and public historians to history lovers everywhere.

massacre_jane_c_1October 31, 2014. On the most fearsome day of the year, Tufts University convened “Fear in the Revolutionary Americas, 1776-1865,” a one-day conference designed to explore the question: What role did fear play in the revolutions that occurred in North and South America between 1776 and 1865?

The conference consisted of two panels and two keynote addresses. Eight scholars presented their ideas about the use of fear in the revolutions and revolutionary activities they study. Collectively the presenters conveyed the notion that all American revolutionaries and conservatives used fear as a tactic to intimidate their enemies and to achieve their political ends between 1776 and 1865. Below you will find summaries of three of the eight presentations. These synopses will provide you with a taste of the ideas presented at “Fear in the Revolutionary Americas, 1776-1865.”

Edward Rugemer (Yale University), “Fear of Slave Violence in Jamaica and South Carolina during the American Revolution.”

Why did some British North American colonies opt to participate in the American Revolution while other colonies demurred? Edward Rugemer sought to offer a partial answer to this question by examining the similarities and differences between South Carolina and Jamaica. Rugemer asserted that South Carolina and Jamaica offer an excellent opportunity to explore why some British colonies joined the revolution and others refused because they shared many similarities: Both colonies established slave societies, experienced a demographic imbalance between whites and slaves, and had planters with radical Whig beliefs. They also established strict and oppressive laws to prevent slave uprisings. Yet, South Carolinians chose to join the American Revolution while Jamaicans demurred. Why? Jamaicans experienced a greater fear of slave rebellion.

Jamaica had a greater demographic imbalance than South Carolina. They also operated their plantations from a distance; in some areas of the island black slaves rarely saw their white masters. With a white population of 40 percent, South Carolinians had the manpower to enact and enforce stricter slave laws than their Jamaican counterparts. Jamaican planters passed tough, restrictive slave laws too, but they had to rely on the British military to enforce them. Any Jamaicans who considered joining the American Revolution changed their minds in July 1776 when the slaves of Jamaica rebelled. The slave uprising reminded Jamaicans how much they relied on the British Empire to protect them. Therefore, fear trumped the Jamaicans’ Whig beliefs and kept them loyal to the British Empire.

Alan Taylor (University of Virginia), “Fear and Loathing in the American Revolution”

Alan Taylor began his keynote address by noting how struck he has been at the level of fear and violence used throughout the American Revolution. He illustrated his point by focusing his talk on how the British used the patriots’ fear of slave revolts against them and how the patriots countered the British threat by using the fear of physical violence against their slaves. The British government used the fear of slave revolts to try and bring white southerners to heel. On November 7, 1775, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore issued a proclamation that promised slaves their freedom if they joined the British army and served against their patriot masters. Dunmore’s Proclamation carried out the intention of the British government to activate the fear of slave revolts in the minds of patriot slaveholders. Taylor noted that the proclamation symbolized a large bluff on the part of the British government. The British had no plans to free all of the slaves in North America. King and Parliament wished to quell the American rebellion and continue the status quo of their old colonial process.

The Patriots did not view Dunmore’s Proclamation as a bluff. White southerners feared slave revolts, or the “internal enemy,” but they feared a government that would incite them even more. Dunmore’s Proclamation inspired moderate and conservative Americans to join the rebellion and as a result the American Revolution became an even more populist and racist movement than when it had started. Patriot southerners retaliated against Dunmore’s Proclamation by employing horrific violence against their African and African-American slaves. Patriot authorities killed runaways and posted their decapitated heads along roadways. They severed body parts from rebellious and disobedient slaves. Patriot slaveowners also sought to control the movement and decisions of their young male slaves by threatening violence against their families. More often than not these violent actions and threats discouraged slaves from rebelling.

Taylor drew attention to the fact that the British lost the war because they also failed at their attempt to create a tri-racial union of interests in the south. British strategists hoped to incite slave rebellion and use loyalist and Native American fighters to create even more havoc against patriot forces from Virginia southward. However, this British plan never materialized because they underestimated how much each group disliked the other; whites disliked blacks and Native Americans, southern Native Americans preferred to sell rather than protect black slaves, and African and African-American slaves disliked both whites and Native Americans.

Taylor concluded by positing that the British could have won the American War for Independence if they had made it a truly revolutionary cause. The British would have mobilized more slaves and Native Americans if they had promised to end slavery and provide greater protections against white colonial encroachment. However, supporting these groups went against the colonial program that the British hoped to return to after the war. As a result, the British fought the war with halfway measures and these halfway measures inspired more populist support for the patriots.

David Nichols (Indiana State University), “Capitalizing on Fear: Violence, Insecurity, and Negotiation in Native North America, 1750-1830”

David Nichols explored how Native American peoples used white Americans’ fears to negotiate better treaty terms, higher quality goods, and more money and lands from white Americans, especially after the American War for Independence.

Archaeological findings reveal that many pre-Columbian Native American cultures used fear and violence to protect their settlements by intimidating their enemies. Many Native American groups waged war with coups, an action where one group of native peoples attacked another in an attempt to overtake them. Although these acts did not always prove successful, the action of committing war acts demonstrated that some native nations should not be trifled with. Many Native American peoples carried this cultural inheritance of fear and war into the era of Euro-American colonization. Nichols illustrated his points by describing the attempted Native American coup over the British in Pontiac’s Rebellion.

White Americans feared Native Americans because of their intensity and fearsomeness in war. At times whites used their fears of native peoples against other whites. In 1777, white patriots used the scalping of Jane McCrea to raise recruits for the Battle of Saratoga. The British used white Americans’ fears of Native Americans against them in the War of 1812; the British Army employed Native American warriors at the Battle of Queenston Heights. The warriors routed the American military units, which further fueled white American fears.

Nichols noted that acknowledging Native American fearsomeness meant that Americans had to acknowledge Native American power. Whites acknowledged the power of Native Americans to impact their foreign policy. Native Americans had long negotiated pacts and treaties with European powers in North America. Henry Knox tried to subvert Native American diplomatic power by rendering native peoples reliant upon the United States government. Knox developed a system of military medals and uniforms, trade goods annuities, and federal trading factories to try and keep Native Americans loyal to the United States.

For their part, Native Americans had no interest in creating fear for the sake of fear. Instead, they used white Americans’ fear that they would ally with other empires or wage war on white settlements in an effort to help them negotiate better terms, better goods, and more money and lands from the United States. In part, their efforts worked. Nichols pointed to the fact that Haudenosaunee peoples left the 1796 conference with New York State with parts of their homelands intact and with other acreage in reservation lands because both Americans and Native Americans understood the Haudenosaunee could prove a military and diplomatic threat.

The eight scholars who participated in “Fear in the Revolutionary Americas” reminded conference-goers of the multifaceted nature of revolutions. They raised compelling cases for why scholars need explore the emotional as well as the economic, political, ideological, and cultural origins of revolutions. Fear may not have served as the predominant cause of any of the revolutions that took place in North and South America between 1776 and 1865, but the emotion affected the actions of the human actors involved in all of them.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: The Junto Enters the Terrible Twos! « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Additional Highlights from the Fear in the Revolutionary Americas Conference - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart


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