* note: this piece also appeared on the Roman and Littlefield blog in November.
Today, November 11th, is the 178th anniversary of the execution of Nat Turner. This event is significant in the history of Virginia, but also for the entire Union. The events that Turner set in motion likely caused the solidification of slavery in the South, not ended until the conclusion of the Civil War.
On an August night in 1831, Turner and a band of approximately 60 men went on a murderous rampage in Southampton County killing 65-70 white men, women, and children. The band of slaves and some free blacks slit the throats of men, women, and children. Some were decapitated. Others were thrown into bon fires. When people arrived on the scene, some were being eaten by wolves.
The event caused much anxiety in the state. Several militias were sent from Richmond, and even North Carolina, to the county seat at Jerusalem in order to quell the rebellion. By the time they arrived, however, Turner’s band was dispersed and the threat was nil.
Most of Turner’s men were quickly captured and put on trial. However, “General Nat” would remain at large for over a month. He literally hid in a hole in the ground near one of the sites he and his men committed their violence, be fore he was accidentally discovered by a farmer.
What prompted Turner to become a leader of a slave rebellion comes to us through the pen of others. Turner himself left no surviving manuscript to justify what he did. What we know from such books as the Confessions of Nat Turner, is that his inspiration to violence stemmed from his religious conviction that God wanted him to free the slaves. He believed a February 1831 solar eclipse gave evidence to this divine command.
The violence alarmed none other than Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and his wife, Jane, who believed that the sin of slavery was somehow responsible for the acts committed in Southampton. Not to justify the acts, the Randolphs believed that slavery was an evil that should cease to exist.
The Turner insurrection was thus responsible for the most remarkable debate over slavery in the antebellum period. Led by Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the anti slave forces came to the state legislative session prepared to lay the ground for gradual emancipation.
Unfortunately, he, and the anti-slave forces, failed to secure a gradual emancipation plan for Virginia. No other state had such an open debate on slavery and the principles of the United States; no other southern state would consider in such fashion the emancipation of the slaves.
Turner’s resurrection did not secure the end of slavery, but in the end, served to further entrench the peculiar institution. His irrational act served as a convenient excuse to reject the rational presupposition “all men are created equal.”