These days, gun-rights advocates are more likely than other Americans to mistrust the federal government. Two centuries ago, however, Louisiana’s governor cited the Constitution’s Second Amendment in his push for federal involvement in the wake of America’s largest slave revolt.
Daniel Rasmussen writes about the revolt of 1811 in “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.” I recommend the book for its vivid storytelling, and for its insights into how the history written by the powerful can be at odds with the reality on the ground.
William Claiborne was governor of Louisiana when a throng of slaves from the German Coast, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, sprang into action on Jan. 8, 1811. The revolt was put down two days later, largely by a volunteer corps of 80 West Bank planters.
Claiborne had called upon the militia, led by Gen. Wade Hampton, to defend New Orleans against the approaching rebellion. The federal troops headed upriver and launched a vigorous attack on the plantation of Jacques Fortier, where they believed the slaves to have posted themselves. But they were wrong. “They had fallen for a classic West African military ruse,” Rasmussen writes. “Warfare practiced in the Kongo especially features frequent advances and retreats intended to confuse the enemy.”
The slaves had headed back upriver, where they encountered the well-armed West Bank planters, who had unwittingly flanked the rebellion. In minutes, the uprising had reached its bloody conclusion.
Gov. Claiborne was in the midst of a campaign to secure statehood for Louisiana, a goal that was not achieved until April 30, 1812. As a result, he emphasized the federal troops’ contribution, even though its strategic value was unintentional. “In the minds of Claiborne and the planters, the proper response to African American political activity was violent suppression backed by the full force of the U.S. government,” Rasmussen writes.
Claiborne’s previous efforts to rally the planters into militia service under the American government had failed, but now, “the militia — once a largely decorative organization — began to meet weekly to train and organize.”
Gun-rights advocates of the 21st century might be expected to affiliate themselves with the West Bank planters who took the defense of their property into their own hands. But the planters themselves supported the government militarization that followed the slave revolt.
With the memories of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 still fresh, the planters may well have feared threats that could not be put down as efficiently as the German Coast revolt. The current mistrust of government, and focus on the individual rights afforded by the Second Amendment, may reflect the government’s success in freeing us from fear of threats so large that we cannot handle them ourselves.