“The Guilt of Fragile Sovereigns”: Tyranny, Intrigue, and Martyrdom in an Unchanging Regime (Virginia, 1829-32)

Christopher Tomlins


This essay canvasses how far meanings of “regime change” can be stretched beyond their current invocation as anodyne neologistic cover for the illegality of a “coup d’état.” Some years ago the anthropologist John Borneman made one attempt to extend the compass of regime change beyond simple realist “topplings” of governments one disfavors to responsibility for legal reconstruction of the target regime because he wished to argue that idealistic interventions against tyrannical rule should always be legitimate. This essay asks whether the term can be stretched in a different direction, to encompass instances of intervention against tyrannical rule beyond the sphere of interstate relations where it is currently lodged. To test the proposition I turn here to a particular event—the Turner Rebellion, a slave rebellion that took place in Virginia in 1831—and to recent work in political theory that dwells on the politics of counter-sovereignty. Here regime change encompasses a rebellion of slaves against a tyrannical slaveholding regime, a failed attempt to deploy a revolutionary politics of counter-sovereignty against the regime’s pretensions to legality. Here tyranny remains the target of regime change. But rather than the solvent of tyrannical rule, law in this case is the instrument of its expression.

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