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Nat Turner's Rebellion Begins: August 21, 1831

Jean Jacques Dessalines

Before 1822, southerners looked upon slavery as a necessary evil. Some, like George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, wanted to see a gradual emancipation of the slaves and their repatriation to Africa. Things began to change, however, in 1822. An attempted slave insurrection in Charleston led by a freed black man, Denmark Vesey, awakened fears of slave revolt. The specter of Haiti, where black leader Jean Jacques Dessalines had massacred whites 15 years earlier, frightened southern whites. States began to tone up their “black codes” (laws governing the conduct of slaves). Blacks were forbidden to assemble or to leave their quarters after curfew; and bands of armed men patrolled roads by night. Every state, except Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee, passed laws forbidding masters to teach their slaves to read and write, since literate slaves learned to long for a better life. Despite the ease with which they mixed socially with their slaves, white southerners lived in fear of them. There were enough isolated cases of stealthy murder of white masters or mistresses to keep the fear alive. “It is like a smothered volcano,” wrote Mrs. Lawrence Lewis of Woodlawn, Virginia. “We know not when, or where, the flame will burst forth, but we know that death in the most repulsive forms awaits us.”

Thomas R. Dew

A growing antislavery sentiment in the North spurred some southerners to a positive defense of slavery. Thomas R. Dew of Virginia, a professor at William and Mary College, wrote a pamphlet in 1832 arguing that slavery had produced the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The Hebrew prophets, Dew argued, and St. Paul as well, had sanctioned the institution. In two works, Cannibals All! and Sociology for the South, George Fitzhugh argued that the black man was less human than the white European. John C. Calhoun held that civilization required a subject race.

Still, as late as 1831, the Virginia legislature was contemplating a gradual abolition of slavery. The agitation for abolition came from some of the old Liberal families and from western regions where slavery was less important economically. W. B. Preston of western Virginia introduced a resolution that “it is expedient to adopt some legislative amendment for the abolition of slavery.” The time, however, was yet unripe for such measures. It was voted down, 73 to 58.

After 1831 all legislative attempts to abolish slavery in the South ceased. That year, a slave in Virginia led a short-lived but bloody insurrection against the whites.

Nat Turner, a field slave, believed God had called him to rise against the whites. “I heard a loud noise in the heavens,” he later recounted (in prison) to the white lawyer Thomas R. Gray (who edited Turner’s comments), “and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight the Serpent.” With four men he could trust — Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam — Turner laid his plans. At 2 a.m. on August 21, 1831 (about three years after his vision) Turner and his men broke into the house of Joseph Travis — “who,” Nat recounted, “was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me. . . .”

Turner continues:

“Hark got a ladder and set it against the chimney, on which I ascended, and hoisting a window, entered and came down stairs, unbarred the door, and removed the guns from their places. It was then observed that I must spill the first blood. On which armed with a hatchet, and accompanied by Will, I entered my master’s chamber; it being dark, I could not give a death blow, the hatchet glanced from his head, he sprang from the bed and called his wife, it was his last word. Will laid him dead, with a blow of his axe, and Mrs. Travis shared the same fate, as she lay in bed. The murder of this family five in number, was the work of a moment, not one of them awoke; there was a little infant sleeping in a cradle, that was forgotten, until we had left the house and gone some distance, when Henry and Will returned and killed it.”

From the Travis house Nat and his companions took “four guns that would shoot, and several old muskets, with a pound or two of powder.”

A 19th century woodcut depicting scenes from the Nat Turner Rebellion

So began an insurrection that in the end claimed 55 lives. More slaves joined Turner’s band until it numbered 40 men. With guns, clubs, axes, and swords, they attacked several houses, shooting, stabbing, beating, and hacking to death the inhabitants. They spared neither women, nor the old, nor children. The next day, state militia scattered Turner’s band when they tried to attack the nearby town of Jerusalem. The following morning, state and federal soldiers repulsed Turner and his small band when they attacked a farm house. Turner escaped, went into hiding on the Travis plantation, until, betrayed by two black women, he was found and captured. The Southampton County Court tried Turner and, on November 4, condemned him to death. On November 11 he was hanged, and then skinned. In all, the state of Virginia executed 55 blacks, exiled many others, and acquitted a few. White mobs, in retaliation for the rebellion, “without trial and under circumstance of great barbarity,” as a contemporary account said, murdered over 200 blacks who had taken no part in the rebellion.

With slavery, in Jefferson’s words, southerners had caught “the wolf by the ears”; they could “neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Despite the defenses of slavery, many southerners realized its profound injustice. Slave auctioneers were despised in the South, and, wrote Mary Boykin Chestnut, “most people detest overseers.” One overseer, who Mrs. Chestnut said was “an exception,” expressed what many in the South would, at least, have thought. “I never knew a Negro to be murdered or burnt,” he said in 1861, in the midst of the Civil War. “But if the Marsters are bad or drunken, look out. Slavery is a thing too unjust, too unfair to last. Let us take the bull by the horns, set ’em free, let ’em help us fight to pay for their freedom.”

A fine sentiment. But without the determination to bring it to fruition, emancipation would remain only a wistful dream.

Roll, Jordan, Roll

An African-American slave song that evokes the longing for freedom from oppression.

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