- Blood and Public Curiosity
The 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, was the most significant uprising of enslaved people in the history of the United States. It merits this important designation not because of its scope or because of its long duration. No more than fifty-five white people died; the number of active rebels probably never exceeded forty; and it was fully repressed in a single day. Compared to the great slave uprisings in world history, such as the rebellion in Haiti that produced an independent nation, the Nat Turner uprising was a minor skirmish. Yet it had several characteristics that made it important in the history of our nation.
Unlike the two other most widely known nineteenth-century slave rebellions—Gabriel’s rebellion and the Denmark Vesey revolt—the Nat Turner uprising moved beyond the level of conspiracy and into the arena of open conflict. Moreover, the rebellion immediately received wide national attention, which continued over an extended period of time—beginning with news of the outbreak of the rebellion and the mobilization of local and federal troops, followed by reports of the defeat of the rebels, the pursuit of other suspected conspiracies in neighboring areas, the trials, the extraordinary ability of the rebel leader to avoid capture for a period extending over two months, and finally, Turner’s eventual trial and execution. In addition, white lawyer Thomas R. Gray met with Turner in his jail cell prior to the trial, wrote down his confession and, shortly after the slave rebel’s execution, published 50,000 copies of The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), which he attempted to distribute widely. Generally, slave masters had an interest in making sure that news of slave rebellions was never widely circulated, since such information might inspire other rebels and simultaneously terrify the white community. But news of the [End Page 110] violence in Southampton County in 1831, extending over a period of months, simply could not be contained.
The rebellion continued to have a major impact even beyond the immediate events of the uprising itself. Many slave owners throughout the South could not help but wonder if there might not be other Nat Turners lurking within the population they had enslaved. State legislatures passed new laws intended to better control their enslaved populations, and they began to enforce some of their existing laws with renewed vigor. With the memory of Nat Turner fresh on their minds, the Virginia legislature even considered the possibility of abolishing slavery as one way to assure the safety of the white population. They rejected that possibility, but their debate was widely discussed. Moreover, the rebellion became intertwined in the public imagination with the newly created abolitionist movement. Those who hated abolitionism imagined a connection between abolitionists and slave rebels. On the other hand, from the abolitionist point of view, while some certainly admired a man willing to give his life for freedom, the vast majority rejected the path of violent rebellion advocated by Turner. Instead, they pointed to the Southampton County uprising as one small example of what might happen on a larger scale if masters did not bring slavery to an immediate end. In any case, the rebellion remained part of the nation’s public conversation about race and slavery long after it had been suppressed. After the Civil War, Nat Turner and his rebellion continued to be discussed in conversations about Emancipation and Reconstruction, throughout the age of segregation, the Civil Rights era, and beyond. Up to the present moment, a wide variety of novelists, poets, playwrights, and political activists have repeatedly invoked images of the Southampton uprising in support of a broad variety of literary and political objectives.
We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the single most widely known retelling of the Nat Turner story, novelist William...