Written by: Patrick Breen, Providence College
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain the continuities and changes in the experience of African Americans from 1800 to 1848
This Narrative explores the idea of slavery and abolitionism and can be used along with the William Lloyd Garrison’s War against Slavery and Frederick Douglass’s Path to Freedom Narratives, as well as the David Walker, “An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” 1829 and Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845 Primary Sources.
In February 1831, four slaves in Southampton County, Virginia, went to a clandestine meeting called by an enslaved preacher named Nat Turner. When they got there, Turner told them the time had come to launch a slave revolt. All agreed. Over the next few months, the conspirators planned to launch the revolt on the Fourth of July, a date that implicitly invoked Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal.” As the day approached, however, Nat Turner fell ill. Independence Day passed without any noticeable unrest among the slaves.
Despite the surface appearance of calm, however, slavery was becoming an increasingly intractable problem in an age of revolution. Slave rebels had used the ideology of American and French revolutionaries in creating a second republic in the new world, Haiti. Also inspired by revolutionary ideology, Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith outside Richmond, Virginia, had organized a conspiracy in 1800 that planned to capture Richmond’s armory and, if possible, Virginia’s governor, James Monroe. Another slave told his master about this conspiracy, allowing whites to quash it before it began. The largest slave revolt in U.S. history had occurred in Louisiana in 1811, when hundreds of slaves took up arms and headed for New Orleans. Two whites were killed before this revolt was brutally put down, resulting in the deaths of nearly ninety-five African Americans whether or not they were involved in the plot. In 1822, whites uncovered evidence that Denmark Vesey, a free black man in Charleston, South Carolina, was at the heart of a plan for scores of enslaved persons to revolt and perhaps flee to Haiti. Thirty-five enslaved persons were hanged and another thirty-one were transported out of South Carolina.
It is unknown how much the Southampton rebels knew about any of these earlier revolts or conspiracies, but they knew enough to intuit one thing. As one of them explained, “the negroes had frequently attempted, similar things, and confided their purpose to several, and that . . . it always leaked out.” So when Nat Turner approached his first four recruits with the idea of a slave revolt, they decided they would neither tell other slaves nor stockpile arms. Instead, they sought an answer to what seemed an insoluble problem: overcoming the whites’ advantages in numbers, organization, communication, and supplies. Their solution was to launch a surprise attack so bloody and stunning that news of the revolt would rouse Virginia’s enslaved population to rally to the rebel’s banner.
The rebels understood that the revolt would likely fail, but they were ready to die fighting for their freedom. One early recruit explained why he joined them: “his life was worth no more than others, and his liberty as dear to him.” Nat Turner was as clear-eyed about the odds as the other recruits, but he had an additional reason to undertake what appeared to be a suicidal mission: He believed God wanted him to launch the revolt. Like many of his generation, Turner was a millennialist – he believed the end of time described in the Bible was at hand. According to Turner, God used nature to provide clues to what was about to happen. Thus, in August 1831, an unusual appearance of the sun (which a woman in Richmond described as being “as blue as any cloud you ever saw”) convinced Turner that the time to strike had come.
On Sunday, August 21, 1831, five conspirators gathered with two new recruits for a feast, at which they decided they would begin with a predawn attack against the farm where Nat Turner lived. Prodded by his own men, Turner struck the first blow. The rebels killed the entire family in their sleep, but on remembering “a little infant sleeping in a cradle,” they returned to finish the job. The rebels then attacked several farms near the starting point of the revolt, killing nearly all the whites and gathering slaves to join them. By Monday morning, August 22, they had turned toward Jerusalem, Southampton County’s seat. At each farm the rebels visited, they killed almost all the whites who had not fled. Turner himself killed one person, Margaret Whitehead, whom he caught after she had evaded the other rebels. The highest toll occurred at Levi Waller’s farm. Waller hosted a school on his farm, and when word of the revolt reached him, he instructed the children to gather together. But the rebels arrived before he could prepare a defense and killed ten children and Waller’s wife.
For about eighteen hours, the rebels were unchecked. They killed at least fifty-five whites, making Nat Turner’s Rebellion the deadliest slave revolt in the history of the United States. But they were notably less successful in another task: recruiting fellow slaves. As they traveled east, Turner’s army gathered free black and enslaved men who lived on the farms they visited. Their number increased to as many as five dozen, but most refused to join the revolt, even at the largest plantations. And the rebels faced another problem. News of the revolt did not lead to the spontaneous uprising they hoped for. Most blacks in Southampton simply were not ready to risk their lives in a revolt, especially one that faced such long odds.
While the rebels were adding a few people at a time, whites quickly rallied from all directions. By the middle of the day on Monday, August 22, several armed white groups were in pursuit. One small force encountered the rebels at a farm just outside Jerusalem. After a brief skirmish, the whites retreated. The rebels set off in pursuit but were ambushed by a second group of armed whites who had been drawn to the sound of fighting. After this defeat, Turner’s army was reduced to about twenty men. After another defeat on Tuesday morning, August 23, 1831, Turner was separated from the remnant of his army. The revolt was over.
Whites from southern Virginia and parts of North Carolina regained control of Southampton within two days, but immediately after the revolt, whites throughout the country were on edge. As a result, they responded brutally. One newspaper editor who had travelled to Southampton County admitted that the white retribution was “hardly inferior in barbarity to the atrocities of the rebels.” Whites also reported using torture. Even enslaved persons who had helped whites were not necessarily safe. For instance, white interrogators had not believed one enslaved man, Hubbard, when he told them he had saved his mistress from the rebels. They were about to execute him when his mistress appeared and assured Hubbard’s tormentors his account was true.
Slaveholders in Southampton soon realized the danger of “an indiscriminate slaughter of the blacks who were suspected.” If any slaveholder could kill any enslaved person on a mere suspicion, the wealth embodied in slave property could disappear overnight. As a result, soon after the revolt, the military and political leaders turned their attention to preventing the lynching of suspected blacks. About three dozen blacks were killed without trial, violating even the pretense of a rule of law. But whites achieved the goal of the limiting the killing of enslaved persons because of their value as property. As Richard Eppes, a leader of the militia forces, later boasted, “I put an end to this inhumane butchery in two days.” Within a week, Eppes had formalized the prohibition on killing blacks by proclaiming martial law. In his declaration, he promised to prosecute any white who killed any enslaved person not actively resisting white authority.
By stopping the killing, white leaders ensured that the surviving rebels would be tried. The trials were by no means fair – the accused slaves were tried by an unsympathetic court of slaveholders – but the most remarkable thing about them was the protections the court offered the accused. Thirty enslaved persons and one free black were convicted, but a dozen of them escaped the gallows when the governor, following the recommendation of the court, commuted the sentences of those who had contributed little to the rebels’ cause. Others had their sentence commuted because they were young or reluctant rebels. In the end, Southampton executed eighteen enslaved persons and one free black.
Nat Turner himself remained at large until October 30, 1831, when he was finally captured and brought to the county seat of Southampton. While in jail awaiting trial, he spoke freely about the revolt, and local lawyer Thomas R. Gray approached him with a plan to take down his story. The Confessions of Nat Turner was published within weeks of Turner’s execution on November 11, 1831.
Because the revolt reminded whites about the dangers of slavery, approximately two thousand Virginians petitioned their legislature to do something to end the practice. Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, introduced a gradual emancipation bill that failed by a narrow margin. It was the last time Virginia would consider a proposal to gradually eliminate slavery until after the end of the Civil War. The Virginia assembly passed restrictions on free African Americans’ rights and religious practice. With this decision, a window of opportunity to abandon slavery in Virginia, and perhaps the rest of the upper South, was shut.
In 1832, Thomas R. Dew, a professor at the College of William and Mary, penned a review of the legislative debate in Virginia in which he argued against reform and said slavery was the proper foundation for a rightly ordered society. This line of thinking was taken up by later southern writers such as George Fitzhugh and politicians such as James Henry Hammond. They developed the new idea that slavery was a positive good, a position that put these southern “fire-eaters” (as pro-secession Southerners were labeled by northerners) in direct conflict with the abolitionists, who called for the immediate end of the immoral system of slavery.
1. Nat Turner is best characterized as
- a runaway slave who arrived in Southampton County, Virginia, intent on leading a slave revolt
- an enslaved preacher who led a revolt against slaveowners
- an enslaved man who led the fight for abolition in Virginia
- a free black man who encouraged local enslaved persons to revolt
2. Despite poor odds for success, what indication did Nat Turner say led him to believe the time was right to lead a slave rebellion?
- Several enslaved people independently came to Turner and whispered that they would join a revolt if he would lead it.
- He believed God used nature to give him a sign that the time had come.
- Unrest among slaves led many to be ready to risk everything to gain their freedom.
- Plantation owners throughout the South had gradually become much harsher in their treatment of enslaved workers by 1830.
3. When Nat Turner’s slave rebellion began in August 1831, the rebels killed
- men, women, children, and infants
- only exceptionally harsh overseers and plantation owners
- enslaved persons who did not join the revolt
- enslaved persons who threatened to inform plantation owners about the identity of the rebels
4. One major result of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia was
- the abolition of slavery in the state
- a law outlawing the import of more enslaved people
- the passage of legislation allowing slavery to disappear by attrition
- a debate in the legislature about whether to abolish slavery
5. Thomas Dew’s influence on the issue of slavery in Virginia came from his belief that
- slavery was immoral and needed to be abolished immediately
- slavery was immoral but should be eliminated gradually
- slavery was a moral good and needed to be preserved
- slaves were inferior
6. Which best describes the white response to Nat Turner’s Rebellion?
- Whites responded brutally, but after a few days, leaders were able to limit the retribution.
- Whites were relatively subdued at first, but as the extent of devastation became clear, they sought ever more brutal retribution.
- The white response was surprisingly mild.
- Whites sought vengeance however they could get it.
Free Response Questions
- Explain to what extent slave rebellions were successful in the South.
- Explain the impact of Nat Turner’s Rebellion on Virginia.
AP Practice Questions
“This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. . . . There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny?”
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” July 5, 1852
Refer to the excerpt provided.
1. Based on the excerpt, what attributes did Frederick Douglass believe were missing in America’s story up to that time?
- Courage and independence
- Hope, confidence, and success
- Inspiring stories of political freedom for some
- Wisdom, justice, and truth
2. Why does Douglass repeatedly use the word “your,” “your national independence”. . . “your political freedom”. . . “your great deliverance,” in this address to an audience he calls “fellow citizens”?
- He does not believe the nation is truly independent.
- He rejects the idea that all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- He sarcastically regards the Declaration of Independence as based on flawed principles.
- His choice of wording repeatedly reminds the audience that the freedom they celebrate does not extend to enslaved people.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” July 5, 1852. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/
Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Baltimore, MD: Thomas R. Gray, 1831.
The Richmond Constitutional Whig, August 29 1831. https://www.natturnerproject.org/constitutional-whig-aug-29
The Richmond Constitutional Whig. September 26,1831. https://www.natturnerproject.org/constitutional-whig-sept-26
“Trial Records of Nat, alias Nat Turner,” Southampton Oyer and Terminer Trials. https://www.natturnerproject.org/southampton-ot–trial-of-nat-alias
Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: Columbia University, 1943.
Breen, Patrick H. The Land Shall Be Deluged with Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Breen, Patrick H. “Nat Turner’s Revolt.” Encyclopedia Virginia. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Revolt_Nat_Turner_s_1831
Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Roth, Sandra N. The Nat Turner Project. http://www.natturnerproject.org
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In our resource history is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invites students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment.