Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
In August 1831, Nat Turner, a well-educated slave and self-proclaimed preacher, led a revolt of around seventy slaves and freed Black citizens into the town of Southampton, Virginia. Claiming to have been sent by God to eradicate slavery, Turner and his rebellion murdered nearly sixty white citizens within the town before the insurrection was finally put down by a local militia. Although Turner’s plan to eliminate slavery proved unsuccessful in the short term, his insurrection served to increase tensions between both the northern and southern United States; leading to an outpouring of discontent over the issue of slavery that eventually culminated into the Civil War.
While it is wrong to say that Turner’s rebellion was entirely responsible for the Civil War it, nevertheless, played a significant role in expediting its arrival. The reactions his revolt provoked among northerners and southerners helped lead to the dramatic turning of American’s against one another, something which the Founding Fathers and people such as Andrew Jackson greatly feared.
Impact and Legacy of Nat Turner's Rebellion
Following the Southampton insurrection, suspicion and intense paranoia swept throughout much of the southern United States. Turner’s ultimate goal in leading his insurrection was to instill fear across the southern states and to encourage his fellow slaves to revolt against their masters. While Turner did not succeed in creating a widespread rebellion he did, however, manage to incorporate a heightened sense of alert that existed in the minds of white people for years to come.
The paranoia that resulted from his rebellion encouraged the widespread persecution of slaves and freed Black citizens and eventually resulted in the death of nearly two hundred Black Americans by the hands of erratic white mobs. This is particularly interesting since only around seventy Black people participated in the revolt. As a result, nearly one-hundred innocent people died as a result of the widespread panic and fear that gripped the nation following the insurrection.
A northern newspaper with an extract of a letter written in the South demonstrates this racist sense of paranoia quite well. The excerpt reads as follows:
“Another such an attempt [insurrection] will end in the total extermination of their race in the southern country—bloody as the remedy may be, it will be better thus to rid ourselves of, than longer endure the evil” (Christian Register, 1831).
Another article written by the Christian Index makes reference to the paranoia evident in Southampton as well:
“As might have been expected, many innocent suffered with the guilty in the just vengeance which was inflicted by the military” (Christian Index, 1831).
In addition to widespread persecution, several southern states also began to adopt laws that prohibited the education and religious gatherings of Black people. In an attempt to tighten their grip on the Black population, the South hoped that controlling their education would discourage future rebellions and maintain order. According to southern lawmakers, education polluted the minds of Black people and gave rise to notions of freedom and rebelliousness. They based this newfound ideology around Nat Turner and his education. Thus, learning to read and write became a thing of the past for the Black community and by the time of the Civil War, many Black people (both freed and slaves) were completely illiterate as a result.
Additionally, the South hoped that the inclusion of white ministers in Black religious services would put an end to the type of plotting that occurred under Turner and his religious services as well. All of these new laws directly resulted from Nat Turner’s overall character. Many viewed his education and religious characteristics as the root causes of his decision to rebel and, therefore, felt that education and religion needed to be restricted to all Black Americans. In a quote by Governor Floyd of Virginia, he proclaims:
“Negro preachers had incited these ‘shocking and horrid’ barbarities; they must be silenced, and slave religious assemblages must be banned” (Goodyear, 124).
In addition to the many laws passed to suppress the Black community, ideas of hate and anger towards the abolitionist movement began to arise throughout the South as well. The abolitionist movement existed only shortly before Turner’s revolt but soon came to be seen as a thorn in the flesh for southern slaveholders. Southerners largely ignored abolitionist views throughout the South, however, and it was not until Turner’s rebellion that slaveholders began to direct their attention to the increasingly alarming abolitionist attacks upon slavery.
Many southerners began viewing the abolitionists as being the root cause of Turner’s insurrection. By flooding the South with anti-slavery rhetoric the abolitionists inspired Turner and his followers to rebel. Alison Freehling describes this newfound sentiment exceptionally well with a quote from a local Virginian:
“New England and British merchants had ‘entailed… this curse,’ by giving “dangerous publications inciting slaves to insurrection and bloodshed” (Goodyear, 138). Ideas of the immorality of slavery and the so called “propaganda” orchestrated by the abolitionist movement led to the misconduct and rebellious actions of the slaves according to many slaveholders. In an article published throughout the north the author, who is unknown, details this southern belief with the following: “advocates of slavery have charged us with being the chief agents in stirring up the elements of commotion,” and “in the frenzy of their rage denounce us, as the authors of all the mischief” (Genius of Universal Emancipation, 1831).
Thus, it is at this point that general feelings of anger and disgust began to emerge within the South in regards to the North.
Aside from fear and paranoia, it is important to note that the idea of “gradual emancipation” began to be adopted by various southerners (particularly Virginians) as well. In the aftermath of the bloodiest slave revolt in American history, some southerners began contemplating the morality of slavery and began questioning the religious ideologies that defended the slave institution.
Above all else, however, these various southerners began to consider the dangers associated with maintaining slaves and the threat it posed to their future safety and well-being. For years the idea of paternalism played a tremendous role in governing the relationship between slaves and masters. Masters viewed their slaves as inferior beings that relied entirely upon them for food, medical aid, religious guidance, safety, and shelter. Masters viewed themselves as only doing what was best for their slaves, and used this ideology to defend nearly all aspects of slavery. With the arrival of Nat Turner’s rebellion, however, this doctrine began to be questioned. As Randolph Scully proclaims: the Turner rebellion completely “shattered the comforting white illusions of reciprocity, respect, and affection between slave and master” (Scully, 2).
Fear played a tremendous role in this conversion of southerners because of the brutal measures incorporated by Turner and his rebellion. These southerners, particularly eastern Virginians, realized the dangerous situation posed by the slave institution. As long as slavery existed the possibility for another Turner-style rebellion loomed.
Additionally, these southerners realized that Nat Turner types could be living, essentially, anywhere. As Alison Freehling describes, “every Black [person] was a potential Nat Turner” (Freehling, 139). It was only a matter of time, therefore, until more white people were killed if slavery continued.
A quote from the Petersburg Intelligencer sums this up well: “the whole African race ought to be removed from among us…” many “are unwilling themselves longer to suffer these inconveniences—some of our best citizens are already removing” until they can see that the “evil will be taken away” (Genius of Universal Emancipation, 1831).
Thus, with this new sense of alarm, there arose ideas of gradual emancipation and the idea to remove slaves and freed Black people through the Colonization effort.
A great debate emerged within Virginia over the issue of emancipation between conservatives and the newfound southern “abolitionists.” On one hand, the conservatives argued for changes to be made to the existing slavery institution, whereas southern abolitionists (primarily eastern Virginians) began calling for gradual emancipation and the removal of freed slaves through the Colonization effort.
Unfortunately, the freeing and removal of slaves and freed Black folks did not offer a viable solution to Virginia’s dilemma with slavery. With nearly a half-million slaves in Virginia ideas of compensated emancipation and colonization “were neither affordable nor feasible” in Virginia (Freehling, 144). The state simply could not afford to compensate slaveholders for their slave’s freedom. Thus began calls for gradual emancipation and for slaveholders to “do their utmost to make the ‘evil’ [slavery] a mild, benevolent institution” for the time being (Freehling, 139).
Public safety, essentially, necessitated abolition of slavery within Virginia, but for many Virginians, the idea of immediate emancipation of all slaves did not offer a workable solution (Freehling, 138). Only gradual emancipation allowed for a practical solution to slavery. Too much had been invested into the institution to simply turn away altogether. Thus, much of the South began calling for improvements and changes to be made in order to preserve slavery while also implementing modifications that helped secure the future safety of white citizens (Duff, 103).
All in all, the southern “abolitionists” maintained a very small voice in a largely pro-slavery-minded southern United States and slavery continued throughout the South for several more decades. The continuance resulted in heated tensions with the growing abolitionist movement in the north. Whereas many southerners now accepted (to a certain degree) the idea of gradual emancipation over time, radical abolitionists in the north led by William Lloyd Garrison began increasingly calling for the immediate freedom of all slaves. Thus, it is here that tensions began to truly arise between the northern and southern United States.
Anti-slavery sentiment among the northern United States changed very little in the years following Turner’s Rebellion. In fact, anti-abolitionist sentiment appeared to be on the rise within the north above everything else. At one point William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of the abolitionist movement and newspaper The Liberator, found himself nearly lynched by a mob of angry northerners who felt his “radical” views served only to stir up trouble within the nation.
Northerners did, however, recognize the dire situation of the slaves and maintained mixed reactions toward the rebellion. While northerners did not necessarily condone the violence that took place they, in turn, argued that these types of attacks could only be expected to continue as long as slavery thrived in the South. While immediate emancipation may not be the answer they argued, steps should still be taken towards the eventual dismantling of the slave institution.
The following two articles written by northern newspapers illustrate these points: “The project of removing them, we believe to be a fallacy: let them have a reasonable prospect of liberation, and prepare them for the change, and there will no longer be danger of insurrection” (Genius of Universal Emancipation, 1831). “They [the insurrection] clearly show the evils of slave-holding…we are not however prepared to say that immediate and total emancipation would remedy the evil” (Christian Register, 1831).
On the other hand, tensions between the northern abolitionist movement and slaveholders continued to intensify. After years of anti-slavery rhetoric being flooded into the South (particularly through the southern mail system), the abolitionist movement finally gained a significant foothold in its offensive against slavery in 1835.
By provoking an intense reaction within Charleston, South Carolina in regards to the anti-slavery tracts and pamphlets produced it allowed the abolitionists to damage the reputation of the south while also gaining northern sympathy for the movement. These actions on the part of the abolitionists only served to weaken relations between the north and south, and eventually led to tensions that culminated into the Civil War nearly thirty years later.
Modern-Day Southampton, Virginia
In closing, northern abolitionist attacks upon slavery sparked a heated debate between the northern and southern United States. By no means did the abolitionists represent the majority of northerners in regards to slavery. Nevertheless, the North did understand that as long as slavery existed the threat of violence would be forever present and implemented by the Black population. Thus, ideas of emancipation began to gradually appear throughout the north as a result of this understanding.
Because slavery provided substantial revenue for farmers and plantation owners in the South, however, not even the threat of violence could stop the thriving slave institution in place. With two opposing viewpoints beginning to emerge, therefore, a general sense of tension began to slowly develop between the North and the South. Over the next few years’ tension continued to grow.
The more aggressively the northern abolitionists pressed their anti-slavery agenda the more defensive the pro-slavery south became. Thus, one might argue that Turner’s rebellion served as a “spark” that, essentially, brought about the tensions that eventually culminated into the Civil War. Had it not been for the rebellion the Civil War may have not developed as quickly as it did, further extending the slaves' detrimental condition.
Suggestions For Further Reading
Greenberg, Kenneth S. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory 1st Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Parker, Nate. The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement. New York, NY: Atria Books, 2016.
Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Nat Turner's Holy War to Destroy Slavery. 2017.
Domestic Intelligence. Christian Register (1821-1835), October 1, 1831: 159.
Duff, John B. The Nat Turner Rebellion: The Historical Event and the Modern Controversy. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Freehling, Alison Goodyear. Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Scully, Randolph Ferguson. Religion and the Making of Nat Turner's Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740-1840. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
The Virginia Insurrection. 1831. Christian Index (1831-1899) September 10, 1831: 174.
The Virginia Massacre. Genius of Universal Emancipation (1821-1839), December 1, 1831: 100.
History.com Staff. "Nat Turner." History.com. 2009. Accessed August 08, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/nat-turner.
Mwatuangi. "Birth of a Messiah: Nat Turner's Spiritual Triumph Through Violent Sacrifice." Medium. October 05, 2016. Accessed June 05, 2018. https://medium.com/@Mwatuangi/birth-of-a-messiah-nat-turners-spiritual-triumph-through-violent-sacrifice-eef4f4fdc92d.
"Nat Turner." Biography.com. April 28, 2017. Accessed August 08, 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/nat-turner-9512211.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Was Nat Turner involved with the abolition movement?
Answer: Turner wasn't directly involved with the abolitionist movement; nor did he maintain any ties/connections with abolitionist leaders. His actions, however, certainly helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement into action against slavery. His rebellion helped show abolitionists across the North the dehumanizing effect that slavery had upon African-Americans.
Question: What were the long-term effects of Nat Turner's rebellion?
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Answer: The long-term effect of Nat Turner's rebellion was that it set the stage for Civil War in the United States by solidifying the positions of abolitionists and slaveholders in the North and South, respectively. For southerners, the rebellion encouraged them to be harsher and more strict with their slaves in order to prevent another uprising from occurring. Simultaneously, it galvanized northern abolitionists into action against slavery more than ever before.
Question: What were the short-term effects of Nat Turner's rebellion?
Answer: In the short term, much more restrictions were placed upon slaves in the Southampton area (and the South, in general). Because Nat Turner had learned to read and write, many Southerners equated literacy with the rebellious spirit that consumed Turner in the early 1800s. As a result, laws were established that prohibited the teaching of slaves in the art of reading, writing, and religious doctrines.
In the North, the immediate effects of the rebellion were best seen in the efforts of the abolitionist movement. For individuals arguing against slavery, Nat Turner's Rebellion offered a perfect example of the dehumanizing effects that slavery had upon blacks and society at large. The abolitionist movement, in turn, immediately used Turner's rebellion as a rallying tool for their efforts.
© 2017 Larry Slawson
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on February 05, 2020:
Thank you so much, Phyllis. I'm so glad you enjoyed! :)
Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on February 04, 2020:
Okay, I signed in properly. lol
Just to add to my earlier comment: Excellent article!
Phyllis Doyle Burns on February 04, 2020:
Larry, this is a very interesting article, well-researched, and well-penned. I enjoyed it very much.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on January 10, 2020:
Thank you so much Paula! I'm glad you enjoyed! Happy New Year to you as well!
Suzie from Carson City on January 10, 2020:
Larry....Thank you for this well-written, interesting History Lesson. I enjoy all forms of continuing education. "Happy New Year!" Paula
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on January 10, 2020:
You are very welcome :) So glad it was helpful to you!
~ Unknown ~ on January 08, 2020:
This was really helpful for my project in school! Thanks..!
Susan Pumpernickle on May 08, 2019:
This did not inform me of my great grandma who ended the hatred, my old ma created the Rebellion and told others. Nat came around to it and started making bigger moves although he wasn't supposed to.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on March 29, 2019:
@Lorde von Bellum Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed!
Lorde von Bellum from Brazil on March 29, 2019:
Incredible content! Congratulations!
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on March 22, 2019:
@Eric Thank you! Glad you came across this one. One of my older articles.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 22, 2019:
Did an overview and reading the conclusion with my 9 year old on Wednesday eve. Thank you. sorry we did not make a note at the time.
Stevenbrine on February 26, 2019:
Thank you this is very useful
Sam on February 26, 2019:
Thanks for this article, Helped a lot
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on January 16, 2019:
@Lena I’m glad the article was helpful to you :)
Lena on January 15, 2019:
I'm an 8th grader doing an assignment and this helped tremendously... thx
John M McNally on May 19, 2018:
Hello Larry, thank you that was very informative. I supported the judgement that you reached in your conclusion. I think the reasoning you provided makes it logical to see the rebellion as a catalyst.
Isaiah Shrock on April 26, 2018:
Thank you for the great talks. Im going to go ride my dirtbike with my dumb redhead friends now, only so that i can make fun of them because they look stupid.
JJ on April 18, 2018:
come on people if you voted you should of put no if you put yes... -_-
natalie on March 07, 2018:
Hunter Street jenkins on February 28, 2018:
Annika on December 18, 2017:
This is a pretty interesting read and a good source for a project I was working on.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on September 29, 2017:
This is a very interesting read. It also explains to me much of the racism of the south. These people were raised to fear their slaves. Fear leads to hate, in my eyes.
Faith-Hope-Love on August 09, 2017:
This is well addressed and very informative. Generates thought. Keep up the good work. My sincere congratulations. Well done.