On this day in 1831, Nat Turner, a slave preacher and self-styled prophet, led Virginia’s only successful slave revolt, which in just twelve hours left fifty-five white people dead in Southampton County. This is an iconic moment in Virginia history: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia. He was worrying about just this sort of thing, which had only just been averted in August 1800. Back then, this remarkable letter—written by a slaveowner to Governor James Monroe warning of Gabriel’s planned uprising—doubtless saved many a white man’s life.
Much of what we know about Turner comes from his “Confessions,” dictated to his lawyer from his jail cell and then widely published as a pamphlet. Even as historians argued over the text’s veracity, William Styron turned it into a beautifully written, if controversial, novel, published in 1967. But if the civil rights era provided the opportunity to look back on Nat Turner, the Nat Turner era provided the opportunity to look back on Gabriel.
Our entry on his uprising will be published next week, but in the meantime, check out “Gabriel’s Defeat,” an account that appeared in the abolitionist paper the Liberator on September 17, 1831. It attempted to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Turner and in so doing greatly peeved the editors of the Richmond Enquirer, who published a scathing rebuttal on October 21, also titled “Gabriel’s Defeat.”
IMAGE: From Nat Turner by Kyle Baker (2006)