Nat Turner's Rebellion Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

Turner was captured on October 30th, tried and found guilty six days later. Turner was hung on November 11th, and then his body was skinned, helping establish a tradition of mutilating blacks accused of wrongdoing, which would survive well into Jim Crow era of the 20th century.


At first blush, it seems difficult to comprehend why Virginia whites would be so distraught about an ultimately unsuccessful slave rebellion. Yes, Turner and his followers did manage to kill a relatively high number of whites, but there were certainly greater losses among the slaves in the area. The militia was able to quash the rebellion quickly, to kill the participants, and to strike sufficient fear into the hearts of the remaining slave population that further rebellion seemed unlikely. However, the people of Virginia were well aware that a similar unsuccessful slave revolt in Haiti had ultimately led to the Haitian Revolution, and the ousting of white land and property owners from the island. In Saint-Domingue, violent conflicts between colonists and slaves were much more common than in the United States:

Bands of runaway slaves…entrenched themselves in bastions in the colony's mountains and forests, from which they harried white-owned plantations both to secure provisions and weaponry and to avenge themselves against the inhabitants. As their numbers grew, these bands, sometimes consisting of thousands of people, began to carry out hit-and-run attacks throughout the colony. This guerrilla warfare, however, lacked central organization and leadership" (Haggerty, 1989).

Saint Domingue's caste system was much more akin to the caste system in New Orleans or Charleston than that of Virginia, and the runaway slaves were not assisted by the free mulattos. In addition, when the free mulattos later attempted their own revolt, white slave-owners were able to use existing tensions between the two groups and use slaves to stop a potentially threatening mulatto revolt. However, a slave rebellion launched in August of 1791 eventually resulted in the overthrow of the French control of Saint Domingue, and placed a New World country under the control of former slaves.

While the result of the slave revolt may have been frightening for slave-owners in nearby countries, like the United States, the process of the rebellion was even more intimidating:

The carnage that the slaves wreaked in northern settlements, such as Acul, Limbe, Flaville, and Le Normand, revealed the simmering fury of an oppressed people. The bands of slaves slaughtered every white person they encountered. As their standard, they carried a pike with the carcass of an impaled white baby. Accounts of the rebellion describe widespread torching of property, fields, factories, and anything else that belonged to, or served, slaveholders. The inferno is said to have burned almost continuously for months (Haggerty, 1989).

That early slave rebellion actually failed; over five times as many blacks were killed as whites as the white militia responded with incredible vengeance. However, when mulattos and other free blacks tenuously joined forces with the slaves, the result was the first free black republic in the world. The fact that this successful revolt, in a colonial system whose plantation system of slavery was as oppressive and brutal as that of the United States, occurred relatively close to the United States was alarming to American slave-owners. While blacks did not outnumber whites in the entire United States, they certainly outnumbered whites in plantation areas, and even though blacks were generally unarmed, the sheer number disparity meant that whites faced substantial danger if slaves chose to revolt. Of course, it must be mentioned that blacks, especially slaves, faced substantial danger from whites every single day.


When one views the rebellion in light of what white Virginians knew had occurred in Haiti a generation prior to Nat Turner's rebellion, it seems that the only response Virginia's could have had was to respond with violence and terror against the free and slave black populations. While that did occur, what is interesting is that the rebellion actually provoked serious discussion about the rights and wrongs of slavery. In the Old South, the system of slavery was predicated upon a series of lies, and one of those lies was that blacks did not desire freedom and needed the paternalistic protection of whites in order to survive. While overseers and others involved in the daily brutalization of black slaves were almost certainly aware that slaves did not benefit from their bondage, it is conceivable that many whites who were not involved in the daily business of slave-driving actually believed the paternalistic nonsense. After all, because slaves were not given the same access to resources and education as whites and were forced to live in subhuman conditions, they almost certainly appeared more brutish and less intelligent than their white counterparts.

What Nat Turner's rebellion made clear is that slaves were not content to live in bondage. Nat was not an isolated slave who murdered a brutal master, as had occurred many times before. Instead, he worked with a number of people, started by killing a master that he acknowledged was a kind man, and the rebellion revealed a degree of hatred for whites, including children, that the white population was probably surprised to discover in the slave population. After all, whites routinely left their children in the care of black slaves, whom they expected to love and care for their children without resentment or danger. So, one unexpected result of the rebellion was that the Virginia legislature actually debated abolishing slavery. However, they did not abolish slavery, and the immediate response by the Virginian people was violent and bloody. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, whites killed and injured hundreds of blacks, far more than had actually been involved in the rebellion. Moreover, while there is not documentation supporting this, one can surmise that whites became more brutal to blacks, both slave and non-slave. There would have been no reason to document this brutality, as whites continued to see themselves as benign and paternalistic, and believed that they were merely responding to a threat posed by blacks.

The legal response, however, is documented, and makes it clear that Virginians increased the brutality of slavery. In the aftermath of the rebellion, the General Assembly of Virginia prohibited the teaching of slaves to read or write, for any reason. Blacks, whether slave or free, were subject to 20 lashes if they were caught learning how to read. Whites who taught free blacks to read or write could be fined up to $50 and imprisoned for up to two months (Lewis, 2009). In addition, the General Assembly prohibited blacks from meeting for religious purposes. These measures were repeated in slaveholding states throughout the south, contributing to the brutality of slavery.


While the reasons for the Civil War were mainly political and not humanitarian, many prominent Northerners were concerned about the brutal realities of slavery. These realities became harder to minimize and ignore when rebellions like Nat Turner's made it clear that slaves, en masse, were not content to live in bondage. Moreover, the Southern response to the rebellion, which was to increase restrictions on slaves, preventing them from gathering for worship or obtaining even a basic education, certainly dramatized the dehumanization that is inherent in slavery. While the whites in power may have been content to broker an end to the Civil War that did not involve the freeing of slaves, when faced with the level of the atrocities committed against these slaves, they could not do so. Therefore, while Nat Turner's rebellion may have been unsuccessful as a revolt, it was one of the many puzzle pieces necessary to end the practice of slavery.


Gray, T. (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the leader of the late insurrection, in Southhampton (county). Retrieved April 06, 2009, from Web site:

Haggerty, R. ed. (1989). Haiti: a country study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress.

Lewis, R. (2009). Up from slavery: a documentary history of negro education. Retrieved April

07, 2009, from Chickenbones: A Journal. Web site:

Silvester, W. (2009). Nat Turner's rebellion: slave…

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