- In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History by Christopher Tomlins
Nat Turner, Slavery, Slave rebellion, Resistance, Speculative history
Interest in Nat Turner, the leader of the most significant rebellion of enslaved people in American history, has periodically waxed and waned [End Page 507] during the years after 1831. Immediately after the rebellion, attention was intense. Virginia responded with the last public pre-Civil War southern debate about the abolition of slavery. In addition, many whites believed that Turner and his rebellion confirmed their worst fears of black savagery. At the same time, Turner inspired abolitionist admiration for a man who sacrificed his life for the cause of liberty. Since then, interest in Turner has blossomed whenever issues of slavery and race have entered the public conversation. It happened around the time of the Civil War, at various moments throughout the age of segregation, and during the Civil Rights era. Now, in the midst of renewed concern over systemic racism, mass incarceration, voter suppression, police brutality, resurgence of organized white supremacy, and an energized movement demanding recognition that black lives matter, Nat Turner is once again a subject of public interest. Just to cite a few examples—in recent years, important and carefully researched academic books have been written by historians Patrick H. Breen and David F. Allmendinger. Kyle Baker wrote a widely acclaimed graphic novel about Turner. And Nate Parker produced, directed and starred in a major feature film about the nation’s most important rebel leader.
Christopher Tomlins’s book is the latest academic contribution to this body of scholarly and creative work. It is a major achievement. Tomlins is a brilliant historian, and his study is full of many new insights that make significant contributions to our understanding. Most importantly, Tomlins is one of the only historians to pay careful attention to the mind of the rebel leader. His book is, at least in part, an intellectual history—an attempt to re-create Nat Turner’s mentalité. This is an especially difficult undertaking since, as with any enslaved person, the sources required for such a task are spare and problematic. In fact, in the case of Turner, there is one major source that is central for this kind of project. It is contained in a section of Turner’s “Confessions”—the results of a jailhouse conversation published by white lawyer Thomas R. Gray. Tomlins makes a convincing argument that at least part of the “Confessions” contains Nat Turner’s voice. He analyzes this text to re-create Turner’s core religious beliefs, including a powerful argument that the rebel leader was most heavily influenced by the Biblical Books of Luke and Revelation. Tomlins’s close reading of these texts is impressive. It reveals a great deal about Turner’s faith and its connection to “divine violence.” In the end, Tomlins makes a strong argument that, unlike what many earlier historians [End Page 508] had concluded, Turner’s religious beliefs were rooted in the New Testament rather than in the Old.
Tomlins’s book is peppered with other important insights. Turner did not consider himself to be simply the leader of an insurrection of enslaved people, but believed he was part of the larger Christian enterprise of the Last Judgment. Also, unlike what many other historians have contended, Tomlins argues that Turner did not just consider himself to be “Christlike,” but believed that he had become Christ—that he had fully assumed the role of Christ. Tomlins also offers a careful discussion of the nature of the Virginia debate over slavery in the wake of the rebellion. Finally, throughout the book Tomlins brings to bear on his subject theoretical insights from thinkers not usually referenced in relation to Turner, including Walter Benjamin and Max Weber. This is a work that demonstrates great intellectual power and offers much to ponder.
But this book is by no means the final word on the subject of Nat Turner. Tomlins would be the first to point this out. He has carefully...