This Day (God’s Judgment Edition)

Published:August 21, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

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.”

PREVIOUSLY: On the Voice of Nat Turner; Nat Was Phat!; John Brown, Nat Turner, & Armed Embryos

IMAGE: From Nat Turner by Kyle Baker (2006)


9 Comments on “This Day (God’s Judgment Edition)”

  1. Michael C. Lucas

    How can you say it was a successful slave revolt? Also as per usual there is little empathy considering the innocent whites and/or blacks who were subsequently murdered because of his actions. It resulted in amassing national fear and reprisal leading to further restrictions upon slaves. There was nothing iconic about murder. I believe you have taken Jeffersons quote “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” out of context. The post distorts history.

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Mr. Lucas. It was “successful” in the sense that it achieved its goal of killing white people, unlike conspiracies that never amounted to actual revolts (e.g., from Gloucester in 1663 to Gabriel in 1800). But it was not wholly successful in that the conspirators were arrested and hanged before they could reach the county seat.

    So that’s how we define our terms here, and there was no intention to pass judgment on whether it was right for Turner to kill those who enslaved him.

    And anyway, murder and killing absolutely can be iconic—a moment so important it becomes definitive somehow. We look at Turner’s rebellion that way now, but I believe Virginians and Americans more generally saw it in much the same way then. It was the apotheosis of centuries of fear, on the part of white slaveowners, that their “property” might rise up and slaughter them. For abolitionists, it represented a moment of hope that a slave rebellion might contribute to the institution’s death and, indeed, in Virginia it nearly did!

    That fear and that hope are in part why writers used the opportunity, in 1831, to reflect on Gabriel, who helped plan an even more ambitious insurrection, but one that failed. And faint echoes of that same fear and hope remained even a hundred and thirty years later when Styron wrote his novel.

    The context of Jefferson’s quote is this: it appears in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in answer to Query XVIII on “the particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state?”

    Jefferson addresses those “customs and manners” purely in the context of slavery, which he describes as a relationship of “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

    Jefferson notes that in a warm climate like Virginia’s, no white man will work when he can coerce his slaves to work for him. But how to reconcile this behavior with the idea that a man’s liberties are a gift from God? “That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!”

    Considering numbers—for instance, Virginia’s outsized population of enslaved men and women—that “exchange of situation” Jefferson feared to be “probable” was certainly one in which the slave overcomes his master. The last becomes first.

    I don’t believe there is any other way to read this passage, although if you, Mr. Lucas, have a competing interpretation, you are invited to present it. Jefferson goes on to reassure his French audience, largely hostile to slavery, that change is blowin’ in the wind:

    “The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.”

    In other words, let us free the slaves before they free themselves … by killing us all!

  3. Michael C. Lucas

    Turner’s goal was not to kill white people, his goal was to seize domination of himself and other slaves for their liberation into his Canaan utopia. It failed miserably it did not succeed according to his objectives. It did succeed in one perspective of getting further attention though be it not the attention Turner hoped for by creating national panic, as well as deepening racial despotism, and hatred. Your post reflects bias in support of the actions of Prosser and Turner. They were criminals in the view of the majority in their time, with exception in the view of radical Abolitionists or slaves who agreed with them.

  4. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    I guess I’m not sure how Nat Turner expected “to seize domination of himself and other slaves for their liberation” except to kill white people, but I take your point. Nevertheless, our definition of the term “successful,” as I explained earlier, has nothing to do with this. Unlike, for instance, in Gabriel’s conspiracy, Turner’s men were able to wield their weapons against white men.

    And I’m still not sure how the post “reflects bias in support of the actions of Prosser and Turner.” Can you explain? And how SHOULD we feel? How how should slaves like Gabriel and Turner have resisted their enslavement?

  5. Michael C. Lucas

    It’s bias because it directs the reader to consider they were successful, when they failed miserably, except in an iconic moment of murdering white people. As usual no mention is made considering the 50 or so white victims of Turners revolt, mostly women and children who were brutally massacred.
    There were many cases of manumission of slaves and the free black population was established, so there were possibilities. Turners actions practically ended those options. It was not something he sought finagling through legal means, he was too bound in his fanaticism in delivering a fatal blow, which he himself stated in his “Confessions”, without remorse, he admitted the Travis family had not maltreated him. The latter is also bias in that sense against Turner, but he had committed the crime and we are bound to that testimony and witnesses at that time. We can question it, but it does not change his actions.

  6. Michael C. Lucas

    Styrons work is fiction and has no relevance in the original event. Its relevance is imparting as civil rights era propaganda, and making Turner out to be a hero.

  7. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Mr. Lucas, I do appreciate your comments, but our conversation ends here. You write that “as usual no mention is made considering the 50 or so white victims,” apparently having overlooked my post’s very first sentence! I wish you all the best.

  8. Michael C. Lucas

    Do you really feel it was considerate to state that there were 55 ambiguous whites killed? Without acknowledging or imparting the heinous barbarity of Turner’s actions, in killing women and children.

    A list of persons murdered in the Insurrection, on the 21st and 22d of August, 1831.
    Joseph Travers and wife and three children, Mrs. Elizabeth Turner, Hartwell Prebles, Sarah Newsome, Mrs. P. Reese and son William,Trajan
    Doyle, Henry Bryant and wife and child, and wife’s mother, Mrs. Catharine Whitehead, son Richard and four daughters and grand-child,
    Salathiel Francis, Nathaniel Francis’ overseer and two children, John T. Barrow, George Vaughan, Mrs. Levi Waller and ten children, William Williams, wife and two boys, Mrs. Caswell Worrell and child, Mrs. Rebecca
    Vaughan, Ann Eliza Vaughan, and son Arthur, Mrs. John K. Williams and child, Mrs. Jacob Williams and three children, and Edwin
    Drury—amounting to fifty-five.

    Lest their memory be forgotten

    A List of Negroes brought before the Court of Southampton, with their owners’ names, and sentence.

    Daniel, – – – – – – – – Richard Porter, Convicted.
    Moses, – – – – – – – – – J. T. Barrow, Do.
    Tom, – – – – – – – – – Caty Whitehead, Discharged.
    Jack and Andrew, – – – – – Caty Whitehead, Con. and transported.
    Jacob, – – – – – – – – – Geo. H. Charlton, Disch’d without trial.
    Isaac, – – – – – – – – – Ditto, Convi. and transported.
    Jack, – – – – – – – – – Everett Bryant, Discharged.
    Nathan, – – – – – – – – Benj. Blunt’s estate, Convicted.
    Nathan, Tom, and
    Davy, (boys,) – – – – – Nathaniel Francis, Convicted and transported.
    Davy, – – – – – – – – – Elizabeth Turner, Convicted.
    Curtis, – – – – – – – – – Th omas Ridley, Do.
    Stephen, – – – – – – – – Do. Do.
    Hardy and Isham, – – – – – Benjamin Edwards, Convicted and transp’d.
    Sam, – – – – – – – – – Nathaniel Francis, Convicted.
    Hark, – – – – – – – – – Joseph Travis’ estate. Do.
    Moses, (a boy,) – – – – – – Do. Do. and transported
    Davy, – – – – – – – – – Levi Waller, Convicted.
    Nelson, – – – – – – – – Jacob Williams, Do.
    Nat, – – – – – – – – – Edm’d Turner’s estate, Do.
    Jack, – – – – – – – – – Wm. Reese’s estate, Do.
    Dred, – – – – – – – – – Nathaniel Francis, Do.
    Arnold, Artist, (free,) – – – – – – – – – – – Discharged.
    Sam, – – – – – – – – – J. W. Parker, Acquitted.
    Ferry and Archer, – – – – – J. W. Parker, Disch’d without trial.
    Jim, – – – – – – – – – – William Vaughan, Acquitted.
    Bob, – – – – – – – – – Temperance Parker, Do.
    Davy, – – – – – – – – – Joseph Parker,
    Daniel, – – – – – – – – Solomon D. Parker, Disch’d without trial.
    Th omas Haithcock, (free,) – – – – – – Sent on for further trial.
    Joe, – – – – – – – – – – John C. Turner, Convicted.
    Lucy, – – – – – – – – – John T. Barrow, Do.
    Matt, – – – – – – – – – Th omas Ridley, Acquitted.
    Jim, – – – – – – – – – – Richard Porter, Do.
    Exum Artes, (free,) – – – – – – – – – – – Sent on for further trial.
    Joe, – – – – – – – – – – Richard P. Briggs, Disch’d without trial.
    Bury Newsome, (free,) – – – – – – – – – – Sent on for further trial.
    Stephen, – – – – – – – – James Bell, Acquitted.
    Jim and Isaac, – – – – – – Samuel Champion, Convicted and trans’d.
    Preston, – – – – – – – – Hannah Williamson, Acquitted.
    Frank, – – – – – – – – – Solomon D. Parker, Convi’d and transp’d.
    Jack and Shadrach, – – – – Nathaniel Simmons, Acquitted.
    Nelson, – – – – – – – – Benj. Blunt’s estate, Do.
    Sam, – – – – – – – – – Peter Edwards, Convicted.
    Archer, – – – – – – – –
    Arthur G. Reese, Acquitted.
    Isham Turner, (free,) – – – — – Sent on for further trial.
    Nat Turner, – – – Putnam Moore, dec’d, Convicted.
    cite: Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Pub. Lucas & Deaver. Baltimore. 1831


    Personally, I see Nat Turner as an American hero. So often do we excuse the barbarity of America’s heroes by saying “he was a man of his time.” However, somehow Nat Turner doesn’t get that pass. Despite how I adore him personally, I have to say that he hurt the abolitionist movement. One of the biggest fears whites had was that there would be a race war, and Nat Turner’s rebellion helped to legitimize that fear. Also, reverberations from his uprising included the murder of many slaves to send a message to other potential Nat Turners and the dramatic decrease in the manumission of slaves.

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