Nat Turner’s long shadow
As we shall see, between the years 1791 and 1804, a slave revolt in the French island of Saint-Domingue ended in the massacre or expulsion not only of the French planters and the army the French sent to recapture its possession, but of all the white people on the island. Saint-Domingue, which we know as Haiti, is across a narrow channel from Cuba, and uncomfortably close to the slave plantations of the South. From that time on, slave owners in the South lived in the shadow of a successful slave revolt.
In fact, it was an easy association of ideas. If you expressed criticism of slavery, you must be an abolitionist, and, if an abolitionist, you must advocate a slave rebellion (or, as they called it, “servile warfare”. Advocating servile warfare, you were a traitor to your own race, a criminal, deliberately putting into danger the life and fortunes of millions of white men, women and children.
These leaps of illogic were irrational, but, in an age that did not yet understand the power of the unconscious mind, they were all the stronger for being unconscious. Because of that, when events seemed to validate the logic of their fears, the fears became unquestionable, became dogma, and undercut any grounds for compromise that might have remained. We saw the results of John Brown’s capture of Harper’s Ferry. But nearly 30 years before that was Nat Turner’s rebellion.
Turner’s wasn’t the first slave uprising in the United States. Between the entry of the first slaves in the early 1600s and emancipation in 1865, by some counts there were more than 250 attempted uprisings involving 10 slaves or more, or an average of one a year. But Nat Turner’s was among the most traumatic, and started the most lasting consequences. His revolt took place in August, 1831, without encouragement from, or connection with, any white outsider.. But William Lloyd Garrison’s intemperate newspaper The Liberator had begun issuing fiery condemnations the previous January, and many Southerners jumped to the conclusion that Turner’s revolt was a direct result of encouragement by Northern Abolitionists. If the argument was factually incorrect, it nonetheless followed the emotional logic of the Southern state of siege, which henceforth got ever worse.
Net Turner’s story is simple but strange. He was a slave who lived in Southampton County, Virginia, (near present-day Suffolk) Highly intelligent, able to read and write from a young age, he grew deeply religious, frequently fasting, praying or reading the Bible. He had visions, which he took to be messages from God. In February, 1831, he took a solar eclipse to be the sign he was waiting for, and started preparing for a rebellion against the slave-masters. On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the Sun appear bluish-green, and he took this as the final sign from God that he was to begin to kill his enemies. A week later, on August 21, he and several other slaves and free blacks (ultimately numbering more than 70) began traveling from house to house, freeing the slaves they met and killing all the whites. First to last, they killed about sixty white men, women and children. On the morning of the 23rd, a white militia defeated the band of slaves, and the formal rebellion was over.
But the killing wasn’t. Now it was the turn of white society. Virginia executed 56 blacks, banished many more, and acquitted a few. Nearly 200 more were killed by white militias and mobs in the hysteria that followed. Rumors said that the slave revolt extended as far as Alabama, which was ridiculous except as an illustration of fear fueled by uncertainty. In neighboring North Carolina, rumor had it that armies of slaves had massacred the inhabitants of the city of Wilmington and were marching on the state capital. All across the South, for more than two weeks, whites attacked blacks for little or no cause. One company of militia reportedly killed 40 in one day.
Turner was not captured until October 30, 1831. On November 5, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, and was hanged six days later. His corpse was flayed, beheaded, and quartered.
What followed was a further triumph of fear. The Virginia General Assembly made it unlawful to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write, and prohibited blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister. New legislation in southern states prohibited the movement, assembly, and education of slaves, and reduced the rights of free blacks.
Some good almost came of it. In the spring of 1832, the Virginia General Assembly debated the future of slavery in the state, with some urging gradual emancipation. However, when it came to a vote, slavery won. Virginia was the mother of presidents, the state with prestige unequalled throughout the South. Had slavery been abolished there, no matter how long the timetable, the good results that could have come are incalculable. Didn’t happen. Instead, emancipation would come abruptly, without preparation, without compensation, as a war measure in the middle of the devastation and bitterness attendant to civil war. In other words, it came in about the worst way possible.