Concluding perhaps that the antislavery movement was long on rhetoric and short on action, enslaved people of the plantation colonies attempted to seize freedom forcibly by fleeing to British armies, not in the manner of loyalists, but as revolutionaries eager to join the battle that they believed was meant to end the institution of slavery. Slave uprisings in the South during the Revolutionary period, coinciding as they did with an escalating international antislavery movement, raised a threat that was at once internal and external. The uprisings marked a political turning point in the Revolutionary War and in the antislavery movement. Beginning in 1779 the South became the main theater of war and the seat of much of the war's irregular and guerrilla warfare. No other region of the country suffered so much economic destruction or took so long to heal the scars of war. The war in the Southern theater quickly degenerated into a civil war of unsurpassed brutality that pitted brother against brother, broke up households, divided families, produced massive destructive of the plantation economy and the slave labor system upon which it rested, and contributed in the postwar period to the emergence of a defensive counter-movement that formed the basis for the construction of the mythic image of the South that would emerge full-blown in the antebellum period.
Prior to the Revolution there had been no organized pro-slavery thought, no pro-slavery literature beyond scattered individual writing. But in the aftermath of that war white Southerners began to redefine themselves in relation to black Southerners and to elaborate a defense of slavery that was partly an ideological response to antislavery argument. Antislavery assaults during and after the war led to the development of the first pro-slavery theorizing in popular petitions, political debates in state assemblies, and pro-slavery writings. Scriptural sanctions from Genesis to Revelations were invoked to prove that slavery was part of God's design. With the development of secular antislavery, with its emphasis on natural-rights arguments, pro-slavery spokesmen shifted their defense to republican ideology and forged out of its ambiguities the weapons that were to become the mainstay of Southern pro-slavery arguments, the contours of which became visible as early as the 1780s.
The first line of defense was the primacy of property rights. Above all in the South, "property" meant slaves, which slaveowners equated with "liberty," a concept that they, in turn, translated as the freedom to own human beings. We can hear echoes of this analysis in the petitions of eight Virginia counties demanding the repeal of the private emancipation act of 1782 and the rejection of Methodist emancipation proposals: Through the agonies of war, the petitioners intoned, Virginians had "sealed with our blood, a Title to the full, free, and absolute enjoyment of every species of our property, whensoever, or howsoever legally acquired." Heightened slave rebelliousness during the war years had revived latent white fears of slave uprisings. Acutely conscious of their own vulnerability, the petitioners drew on another element of republican ideology, the right of self-preservation. In a virtual catalogue of emancipation horrors, the Virginians listed the inevitable outcomes: "Want, poverty, Distress to the free citizen, neglect, famine and death to the black infant 卼he horrors of all the rapes, murders, and outrages, which a vast multitude of unprincipled un-propertied, revengeful, and remorseless banditti are capable of perpetrating."
The search for a social theory to protect slaveholders' rights received its most coherent expression in South Carolina in the 1790s, during debates over state representation. Writing under the pseudonym of "Americanus," Timothy Ford made the explicit argument that the right to property is a natural right and equated it with the right to life. The end and purpose of civil society were to protect property. Ford and Henry William DeSaussure were among the first pro-slavery intellectuals to publicly reject the prevailing definition of equality and to identify planter interest with an expressly non-egalitarian conception of the polity. Nature itself has "instituted almost every gradation, from the confines of inferior animals to the state of superior creation." The "unavoidable conclusion is that inequality of condition is one of nature's laws." Writing under the pseudonym "Phocian," DeSaussure argued that equality as a natural condition would lead inevitably to emancipation and that "inevitable ruin would follow both to the whites and blacks, and this fine country would be deluged with blood, and desolated by fire and sword." In locating slavery within a network of unequal relations, Ford and DeSaussure were able to defend it as a positive good, and argue for its necessity for freedom and independence: Ford's argument that ,"The constant example of slavery stimulates a free man to avoid being confounded with the blacks: and seeing that in every instance of depression he is brought nearer to a par with them his efforts must invariably force him toward the opposite point," is but a short step away from the insistence of antebellum pro-slavery intellectuals that slavery was the guarantor of yeoman independence.
The power of the national identity notwithstanding, the South's emerging regional identity was shaped by the memory of the Revolutionary experience and by the region's increasingly distinctive culture. After the Revolution, white Southerners perhaps for the first time began to define themselves regionally in relationship to the North. Although they did not explicitly define themselves as "Southerners," a vague sense of separation is implicit in postwar Southern writing-in, for example, Ford's division of society into "the holders of slaves and those who have none." This sense of separation took on more concrete expression in the Northwest Ordinance, which established a geographical and ideological border at the Ohio River. These divisions between "holders of slaves and those who had none" would deepen in the nineteenth century, and eventually lead Southerners and Northerners to take up arms against one another.