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Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion

From: Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 27, Number 4, Winter 2007
pp. 705-720 | 10.1353/jer.2007.0076


This article reinterprets Nat Turner's rebellion based on a rereading of The Confessions of Nat Turner elaborating its pervasive theme of neighborhood. A comparison of The Confessions with contemporary newspaper accounts suggests Turner's talk of neighborhood throughout the document is authentic. According to Turner, an ongoing, often contentious negotiation with other slaves gave him a unique place in their neighborhood. He stood out for his precocious intellectual abilities yet reluctantly agreed with neighbors these gifts were God-given. Neighbors scorned Turner after he absconded, only to return a seemingly repentant runaway, yet his initial recruits to the rebellion were all from his neighborhood. The progress of the rebellion itself turned sharply on neighborhood lines. While the rebels remained in their neighborhood, they proceeded swiftly and drew new recruits. Turner marked their entry into a new neighborhood in instructions to one detachment and in a change of tactics. Outside his neighborhood, new divisions surfaced among the rebels. They met the first onslaught of county militia at the gates to Parker's farm, where Turner waited while others went recruiting among slaves who were strangers to him. Turner decided to return to his neighborhood after the rebels met resistance from militia forces again, and he remained in his neighborhood throughout the several weeks he was at large. The neighborhood thesis does not preclude the possibility the revolt extended over a broader terrain, but it underscores the difficulties of uniting such a force and illuminates several puzzling aspects of the rebellion.