- The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory
In January 1860, less than a month after John Brown hanged for attempting to incite a servile insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, an anonymous correspondent to the Charleston Mercury rose to answer Victor Hugo's inflammatory charge, published in a London newspaper, that Brown's execution in the United States by officials in a democratic republic was analogous to the execution of Spartacus by George Washington. Like many other foreigner observers, the writer maintained, Hugo had failed to register a seismic shift during the last thirty years or so in southern thinking on the question of human freedom. Southrons had retreated from the "liberal" position of Washington and Jefferson, [End Page 1124] rejecting the siren-like seduction of "universal liberty" and "universal equality" to embrace the "true doctrine" of "regulated liberty, or privilege, the same thing." "We"—the white South—had concluded that "some nations, tribes, and people are, by nature, formed to obey others," and "had Washington and Jefferson lived till the outbreak of Jerusalem, in Southampton county, it is highly possible they may have recanted their errors."1
The outbreak that had so afflicted the southern mind occurred in 1831 on a late summer night in rural Virginia. A literate, messianic slave named Nat Turner led a small band of followers on a killing spree that resulted in deaths of more than fifty whites, the majority of them women and children. Although not the largest slave insurrection in United States history nor the bloodiest, should the body count include blacks as well as whites, Nat Turner's revolt generated a ferocious wave of repression with lasting consequences throughout the slaveholding South. Responding to wild rumors of similar or related unrest, panicked whites in other southern states killed dozens of innocent blacks. State legislatures passed laws that prohibited anyone from teaching slaves how to read and write. Black preachers and their congregants found their movements increasingly constrained and challenged. At the same time, white theologians mobilized for a much more systematic effort at missionary outreach on the plantations to ensure that the slaves would receive the Christian precepts appropriate to an orderly slave society. Free people of color also came under closer surveillance, forcing hundreds to leave the region and even the country. The Virginia state legislature began a momentous debate on the future of slavery in the state. Indeed, more than a few members of the South's clerisy openly admitted that the revolt had forced them into a more self-conscious inquiry into the institution of slavery itself. Nat Turner's revolt drove the country across a threshold. The defense of slavery stiffened; hostility toward abolitionists intensified; the sectional rift widened.
In The Rebellious Slave, Scot French offers little that is new about Turner's revolt, for that is not his intent. He explores instead the collective memory of Nat Turner, how individuals and groups of individuals have striven to find "transcendent meaning" in the nation's "troubled past" by thinking and writing about the most conspicuous insurrectionary slave in United States history. Building a tradition in any society requires persistent rediscovery and conscious seizure of elements of the past. For divergent constituencies Turner's image became contested ground. Over the decades he has appeared in print and other media as everything from a deranged brigand to a cerebral and divinely-inspired revolutionary. The various versions of Turner that have come to public attention chart in revealing ways momentous struggles in American politics and culture.
In a book of five chapters and more than thirty subchapters, French begins before the revolt with the antislavery writings of Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison, which prepared the American mind for the rise of a rebellious slave like Nat Turner. Jefferson's well-documented trembling about slave rebellion had a long history and flowed logically from his embrace of a conception of mankind that, whatever his musings about racial difference, accepted the notion that all human beings possessed equally an innate, God...