Book Review: The World That Fear Made: Slave Revolts and Conspiracy Scares in Early America


by Jason T. Sharples

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. Pp. x, 328. Illus., maps, graphics, append., notes, index. $45.00. ISBN: 0812252195

Prof. Sharples (Florida Atlantic), who has specialized in the history of conspiracy theories and fear in history, addresses how these factors affected early American society through the eighteenth and helped contribute to the great sectional divide the brought about the Civil War.

Sharples analyzes literally scores of slave rebellions and conspiracies in British America, including the Caribbean, at times drawing on the history of slave rebellions in other times and regions, from ancient Rome through Saint Domingue. The character of the rebellions are perhaps easier to understand than the nature of the conspiracies; after all, the rebellions were actual events, however poorly and one-sidedly reported.

Sharples argues that it was the many more numerous “conspiracy scares” that created widespread fear of “servile insurrection”. Sparked by a report or a rumor of a planned rebellion of the enslaved, perhaps abetted or inspired by the proverbial “outside agitators whether Spanish, French, Catholic, Quaker, or some others, a conspiracy scare would lead to an investigation. Coercion and torture would secure, “proof” of a conspiracy, those confessing to a role in the plot pressured into providing details of planning and naming names, if only to save their own skin. Gradually there evolved what Sharples calls a “conceptual vocabulary of American racial slave conspiracies" (p. 60) , that is a common pattern to these supposed plots, reflecting the expected narrative. A major consequence of this is that at times it’s difficult to tell whether a slave rebellion was afoot or the existence of a plot had been fabricated by a paranoid response to an unexplained fire, a perceived threat, or other incident.

The World That Fear Made, a volume in the Penn series “Early American Studies”, explores how the perceived threat of “servile insurrection” fed sectional divisions, which in turn led to Civil War. It is an important read for anyone interested in the history of American slavery or the origins of the Civil War.




Note: The World That Fear Made is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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