What effect did Nat Turner's Rebellion have on how enslaved and free African Americans were treated in Virginia?
On August 23, 1831, Governor John Floyd received a note from the Southampton County postmaster stating "that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down." At least fifty-five white people, many of them women and children, died before militiamen and armed volunteers converged on the region and put down the insurrection. Angry white vigilantes killed dozens of slaves and drove hundreds of free persons of color into exile in the reign of terror that followed.
Reports of as many as 450 participants gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders, one of which was an enslaved preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner; it was his "imagined spirit of prophecy" and his extraordinary powers of persuasion, local authorities reported, that had turned obedient slaves into bloodthirsty killers. Turner's ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.
While Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and delivery to jail. On October 30, 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave. Local planter and lawyer Thomas R. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his "Confessions," and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was tried, convicted, and executed. Turner insisted that God had given him a sign to act. The "Confessions" became the definitive but controversial source for nearly all subsequent accounts of the event.
Turner's revolt prompted a prolonged debate in the Virginia General Assembly. While many statesmen adhered to the Jeffersonian idea that the ending of slavery was desirable, no coherent plan for eventual abolition emerged. Instead of advocating freedom for slaves, some prominent Virginians developed a positive argument for slavery's good based on their readings of the Bible and classical history. As a result of Turner's actions, Virginia's legislators enacted more laws to limit the activities of African Americans, both free and enslaved. The freedom of slaves to communicate and congregate was directly attacked. No one could assemble a group of African Americans to teach reading or writing, nor could anyone be paid to teach a slave. Preaching by slaves and free blacks was forbidden.
• Revolt—a rising up against the government.
• GEOGRAPHY: Have students locate Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean on a world map, and Southampton County on a Virginia map.
• TIMELINE: Have students create a timeline of slavery placing Nat Turner's revolt on the timeline, as well as other important events in African American history.
Research and Discussion Questions:
• Have students research and discuss the causes of the Nat Turner's revolt.
• In discussing his motivation to start a revolt, Nat Turner stated that God had given him a sign to act. What was Turner's religious background? Why was religion among African Americans a part of the white response to the rebellion?
• What was the connection between illiteracy and slavery? Why did southerners take steps to keep African Americans from learning to read and write? What role did literacy among African Americans play in the rebellion?
Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from
the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 2006.