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Ever since violence erupted in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, the Nat Turner revolt has captured the public imagination, resulting in the publication of a wide array of political tracts, plays, and novels in the last 185 years. By contrast, relatively few historians have taken on the task of scrutinizing a slave rebellion that led to the deaths of about 60 whites, was incited by a band of around 40 enslaved rebels, and made an indelible impact on American history. But in Patrick Breen's fine new book, Nat Turner and his world are again thrust under the microscope, shedding new light on questions not considered previously by scholars. Breen's work revolves around two themes: mobilization and self-preservation. In examining both the white and black communities in Southampton, Breen tracks how and why ideas and individuals were mobilized during the revolt, and astutely asserts that the major motivation behind these responses was "pragmatic" and "focusing on survival" (87).
Breen's refreshing narrative makes two major points. The first is to examine Nat Turner and his followers not just as rebels, but as members of families and plantation communities deeply divided over the revolt and the man who led it. Rather than treating the African American community as monolithic and the revolt as an uncontested one for enslaved people, Breen is able to consider some important questions, namely, why did so many slaves not join the revolt? He notes that while the African American population in Southampton was tallied at around 2,500 individuals (over the age of 12), no more than approximately 80 people actually joined Turner. In considering those specific plantations from which Turner sought to draw recruits, Breen suggests that the dynamics of particular estates—including the number of slaves and the masters' socioeconomic status—as well as the preservation of enslaved families were crucial factors in slaves' decision to join Turner's ranks. He ably shows that the protection of parents, spouses, and children was for many enslaved people ultimately more important than taking up arms to fight for freedom. Breen invokes W. E. B. Du Bois's idea of "double consciousness" to underscore the "divisions in the black community" over [End Page 576] the Nat Turner revolt (166). But ultimately, this concept is underdeveloped and is much less important than his discussion of why Turner's cause did—or did not—mobilize slaves on Southampton plantations.
Breen's second point is to show how white elites helped create a narrative of the revolt that would ultimately protect and preserve the system of slavery. Leaders in Southampton, Breen argues, "used their power to propagate the idea that Southampton's slaves posed little threat to the white community," a belief that would encourage even non-slaveholders "to accept the continuation of slavery" (167). What's most interesting about Breen's account is that he shows how this idea was actually deployed, first through the dispatch of militias, and then later in the courts. In other words, a narrative was not created after the revolt, as many historians have previously emphasized, but during the revolt, by the very men who rode out to suppress the rebels and who presided over the courts in which the suspected marauders were tried. The Greensville and Southampton militias, rather than adding to the violence, actually "limited the killings by extracting suspected rebels from angry crowds and putting them in jail"; militia leader Richard Eppes even issued an order for citizens to "abstain in the future from any acts of violence to any" slaves (9–10). The swiftness with which the militia identified, captured, and imprisoned suspected rebels and their efforts to restore peace were done with an eye toward portraying the event as limited and nonthreatening. And the oyer and terminer court in which the rebels were tried, overseen by a panel of slaveholding judges, went even further than the militia to "reshape the understanding of the revolt." The judges "ignored the calls for retribution" from many...