The best known of all slave rebels was Nat Turner, a slave preacher and religious mystic in Southampton County, Virginia, who came to believe that God had chosen him to lead a black uprising. Turner traveled widely in the county conducting religious services. He told of seeing black and white angels fighting in the sky and the heavens running red with blood. Perhaps from a sense of irony, Turner initially chose July 4, 1831, for his rebellion only to fall ill on the appointed day. On August 22, he and a handful of followers marched from farm to farm assaulting the white inhabitants. Most of their victims were women and children, for many of the area’s men were attending a religious revival across the border in North Carolina. By the time the militia put down the uprising, about eighty slaves had joined Turner’s band, and some sixty whites had been killed. Turner was subsequently captured and, with seventeen other rebels, condemned to die. Asked before his execution whether he regretted what he had done, Turner responded, “Was not Christ crucified?”
Nat Turner’s was the last large-scale rebellion in southern history. Like Gabriel’s and Vesey’s conspiracies, Turner’s took place outside the heart of the plantation South, where slavery was most rigidly policed. Because Turner began with only a handful of followers, he faced less chance of discovery or betrayal than Gabriel or Vesey. Nonetheless, his revolt demonstrated conclusively that in a region where whites outnumbered blacks and the white community was armed and united, slaves stood at a fatal disadvantage in any violent encounter. Only an outside force could alter the balance of power within the South. Slave resistance, however, hardly disappeared. Turner’s uprising, in fact, demonstrated the connection between outright rebellion and less dramatic forms of resistance. For in its aftermath, numerous reports circulated of “insubordinate” behavior by slaves on Virginia’s farms and plantations.
Turner’s rebellion sent shock waves through the entire South. “A Nat Turner,” one white Virginian warned, “might be in any family.” In the panic that followed the revolt, hundreds of innocent slaves were whipped and scores executed. For one last time, Virginia’s leaders openly debated whether steps ought to be taken to do away with the “peculiar institution.” “The blood of Turner and his innocent victims,” declared a Richmond newspaper, “has opened the doors which have been shut for fifty years.” But a proposal to commit the state to gradual emancipation and the removal of the black population from the state failed to win legislative approval. The measure gained overwhelming support in the western part of Virginia, where slaves represented less than 10 percent of the population, but it failed to win sufficient votes in the eastern counties where slavery was centered.
Instead of moving toward emancipation, the Virginia legislature of 1832 decided to fasten even more tightly the chains of bondage. New laws prohibited blacks, free or slave, from acting as preachers (a measure that proved impossible to enforce), strengthened the militia and patrol systems, banned free blacks from owning firearms, and prohibited teaching slaves to read. Other southern states followed suit. In the debate’s aftermath, Thomas R. Dew, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, published an influential pamphlet pointing to the absurdity of deporting the bulk of the state’s labor force. The state, he insisted, faced a stark choice—retain slavery, or free the slaves and absorb them into Virginia society. Few critics of slavery were willing to accept the latter alternative.
An engraving depicting Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831, from a book published soon after the revolt.
In some ways, 1831 marked a turning point for the Old South, In that year, Parliament launched a program for abolishing slavery throughout the British empire (a process completed in 1838), underscoring the South’s growing isolation in the Western world. Turner’s rebellion, following only a few months after the appearance in Boston of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist journal, The Liberator (discussed in the next chapter), suggested that American slavery faced enemies both within and outside the South. The proslavery argument increasingly permeated southern intellectual and political life, while dissenting opinions were suppressed. Some states made membership in an abolitionist society a criminal offense, while mobs drove critics of slavery from their homes. The South’s “great reaction” produced one of the most thoroughgoing suppressions of freedom of speech in American history. Even as reform movements arose in the North that condemned slavery as contrary to Christianity and to basic American values, and national debate over the peculiar institution intensified, southern society closed in defense of slavery.
1. Given that by 1860 the economic investment represented by the slave population exceeded the value of the nation’s factories, railroads, and banks combined, explain how important slavery was to the national economy and the emergence of the United States as a great power.
2. While some poor southern whites resented the dominance of the “slavocracy” most supported the institution and accepted the power of the planter class. Why did the “plain folk” continue to support slavery?
3. Describe the paternalistic ethos the planters embraced, and explain how it both masked and justified the brutal realities of slavery.
4. Identify the basic elements of the proslavery defense and those points aimed especially at non-southern audiences.
5. Compare slaves in the Old South with those elsewhere in the world, focusing on health, diet, and opportunities for freedom.
6. Describe the difference between gang labor and task labor for slaves, and explain how slaves’ tasks varied by region across the Old South.
7. Enslaved African-Americans developed their own culture. What were the different sources of this culture, and how did it vary by region?
8. Identify the different types of resistance to slavery. Which ones were the most common, the most effective, and the most demonstrative?
1. In Frederick Douglass’s view, how were slaves, in their desire for freedom, closer to the founding ideals than the whites who celebrated the Fourth of July but preserved slavery?
2. Flow did slavery affect the lives and freedoms of both black and white Americans?
3. Flow did the defenders of slavery handle the founding ideas that freedom and equably were natural rights?
4. What constraints were there on the rights of free blacks in the antebellum South?
5. How did slaves think of freedom, and what were the sources for their beliefs?