The Impact of Nat Turner's Rebellion
In August of 1831 Nat Turner, a well-educated slave and self-proclaimed preacher, led a revolt of around seventy slaves and freed blacks into the town of Southampton, Virginia. Claiming to have been sent by God to eradicate slavery, Turner and his rebellion viciously murdered nearly sixty white citizens within the town before the insurrection was finally put down by a local militia. While Turner’s plan of eliminating slavery proved to be largely unsuccessful it did, however, lead to the eventual formation of strong tensions between both the northern and southern United States. These tensions continued to intensify over the following decades before finally culminating into the eventual 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 in which the Founding Fathers and people like Andrew Jackson greatly feared.
Impact and Legacy of the Rebellion
Following the Southampton insurrection, a general sense of paranoia began to sweep through much of the southern United States. Turner’s ultimate goal in leading his insurrection was to instill fear across the southern states and encourage his fellow slaves to revolt against their masters. While Turner did not succeed in creating a widespread rebellion he did, however, incorporate a heightened sense of alert that existed in the minds of white people for years to come. The paranoia that resulted encouraged the widespread persecution of slaves and freed blacks, and eventually resulted in the death of nearly two-hundred blacks by the hands of erratic white mobs. This is particularly interesting since only around seventy blacks participated in the revolt. Essentially, over one-hundred innocent blacks, therefore, 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 and general 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 multiple southern states began adopting laws that prohibited the education and religious gatherings of blacks as well. 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 blacks (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 blacks. 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 directing 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 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/freed blacks 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/freed blacks 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 Virginian’s 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 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. 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.
Did the Nat Turner rebellion help "spark" the tension that led to the Civil War?
In conclusion, northern abolitionist attacks upon slavery sparked 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 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.
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.
"Nat Turner." Biography.com. April 28, 2017. Accessed August 08, 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/nat-turner-9512211.
© 2017 Larry Slawson