Nat Turner Essay

The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by slave rebellions, as African Americans were looking for obtaining of equal rights. One of the most outstanding and meaningful rebellions in the whole history of America was led by Nat Turner, who was also a slave. On the basis of his profound devotion to Christian faith, Nat Turner had developed the idea that he was the chosen one, who could stop the evils of slavery. When he was a slave he was sold from one owner to another, and he had the chance to experience all these evils by himself. Having once run away from his master Samuel Turner, he spent around one month in the woods and this was exactly the moment, when he thought to have received this message from God and intended to do something great for his country and other people. He managed to become a spiritual leader for his fellow slaves and took the decision to prepare the rebellion. The short-term results of the rebellion were not as Nat Turner had expected, but speaking about long-term effects, they proved to be great, as this rebellion changed the future of the whole country and African American citizens there. This rebellion was not formally a success; however, the personality of Nat Turner and his rebellion had profound impact upon slave culture and made the rest slaves convinced that they have the chance to improve their lives.

Nat Turner was born slave in 1800 in Southampton Country Virginia; he received his name from Benjamin Turner, the slave owner of him and his mother. Ten years later Benjamin Turner died and Nat became the property of his son. The boy was known as Nat and only after the rebellion in 1831 he was referred to as Nat Turner. The boy had little information about his father; most luckily the man had escaped from slavery, when he was rather small. The greatest part of his life Turner spent in Southampton County. His home was a plantation area, where the greatest part of the population consisted of slaves. Nat Tuner was described as intelligent and able to apprehend quickly, he learnt to read and write, when he was a small boy and developed profound religious views. He was preoccupied by reading the stories from the Bible. This religious devotion led to him seeing visions and interpreting them as messages from God. “Turner often conducted Baptist services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet”. Turner garnered white followers such as Etheldred T. Brantley, whom Turner was credited with having convinced to “cease from his wickedness” (Gray 1831). At the beginning of 1828 Turner was preoccupied with the idea that he had some certain important mission, assigned by his God. “While working in his owner’s fields on May 12, Turner heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” (Gray 1831). In other words Turner built a strong connection between his religious views and the major motivation for organization of the rebellion. This was a way for him to become an intermediate part of the chain between God’s Kingdom and humans in that socio-cultural context. “He was convinced that God had given him the task of “slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons. Turner said, “I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence” – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam.” (Gray 1831).

In February 1831 Nat Turner assumed that the atmospheric conditions served the sign to start preparation for the rebellion against slavery and slave owners. This was the moment, when annular solar eclipse could be seen in Virginia. Turner saw there a black man, who reached out his hand in order to touch the sun. According to his initial plan this rebellion was to start on July 4th, Independence Day. The choice of this date was explained by the idea that the whole country was going to celebrate its freedom and African Americans could celebrate their freedom as well.  Then it was planned differently because of his illness and delays from the side of his co-conspirators. “On August 7 there was another solar eclipse in which the sun appeared bluish-green, possibly the result of lingering atmospheric debris from an eruption of Mount St. Helens in present-day Washington state. Turner interpreted this as the final signal, and about a week later, on August 21, he began the uprising.” (Allmendinger 2014). When he escaped to the swamps of Southampton, he had to hide there for a month, in order to make the slave patrol abandon the idea to catch him. His fellow slaves prayed for his safe return and he really came back, but he was not brought by slave patrol, instead he did it according to his own will, because he intended to follow his “call”. He married Cherry, who was also a slave, and they lived together at Master Samuel’s farm. When Master Samuel died in 1822, his wife could not manage the farm any more and she had to sell the Nat and Cherry to different masters. When in February 1831 Nat saw the sign, he was waiting for, he gave the order to his close comrades to stir the other black people on the plantation for the revolt. Before starting the rebellion Nat spoke to his followers and he underlined that he neither intended to initiate a war nor a robbery with the aim to satisfy human passions, instead this was a real struggle for freedom. Unfortunately not all of his followers really supported his position and ideas, some of them wanted to do it for the sake of money and there were also others, who wanted to return to their masters in reality. Later historians would state that this fact could be considered the major reason of the failure of the revolt. Even if it was so, still there were a lot of slaves, who supported the ideas of freedom and equal rights for slaves and this was their major goal. Researchers indicated different number of the individuals, taking part in this rebellion, some of them stated there were between sixty and eighty slaves and others assumed there were up to eight hundred African Americans. The flow of the rebellion was also differently described. Irrespective of a great number of the accounts of those events, there were too many interpretations, which hindered understanding of reality. Some of the sources quoted Turner, saying that “indiscriminate massacre was not their intention after they obtained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would have afterwards been spared, and men too, who ceased to resist” (Duff 1971). Nat and his group went from one house to the other and killed all white people there, including women and children and burnt their plantations. This lasted for approximately seven days and by August 28 1831 most of the participants of the revolt were seized, killed or jailed. Nat Turner and several followers managed to escape. So the rebel was put down with the help of military forces of the state. Nat was captured three months later, when he was hiding in a cave in Southampton in Virginia by Benjamin Phipps. He was brought to trial and was sentenced to hanging by the Honorable Jeremiah Cobb. On November 11 1831 this sentence was carried out and Nat Turner was hung for committing murders, which was the end of his life and his revolt. However, this was not the end of the ideas, which were developed by Nat Turner. His rebel proved to be meaningful for other individuals, who started to consider the horrible nature of slavery and perspectives for slaves and the whole country, if it were not abandoned. More and more steps were taken after the revolt with the aim to end slavery. The most important among these steps was President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This is the reason, why Nat’s revolt is considered by most researchers and experts to have unique meaning for the abolitionism movement aiming at ending of the cruel and unjust basis of slavery. It is hard to imagine that the abolitionist movement could be possible without the rebel of Nat Turner. Certainly there are historians, who underline the violence of this revolt and a great number of useless deaths, following it. At any rate they are forced to admit that the whole country had to open its eyes and minds to the problem of slavery and take the needed steps to stop it.

Initially the revolt caused significant fear in the area. The white population expected the repetitions of such revolt and demanded from the governor to use men with guns to put down the possible rebellions. This fear led to killing at least of one hundred of black people in the aftermath, although they were innocent. Governor Floyd associated the revolt of Nat Turner with the work of black preachers and agitators from Yankee. The Southerners were aware of the ideas of Yankee to end slavery and they connected the fact of this revolt to these ideas. They stated that Garrison was connected to the revolt, but he rejected this connection, stating that he and his abolitionists considered themselves to be Christian pacifists and even if they looked for liberation, they saw it possible only through moral arguments.

There were many lawmakers, who started to consider the possibilities of ending slavery before the revolt. Unfortunately the violence of the rebels made them change their attitude and come to the conclusions that it was necessary to keep the black people even under stricter control. The white people assumed that Turner was deceptive and cruel and had just used the religion in order to have more power over the rest slaves and make them perform his orders. Other people supported the view that he was a kind of religious fanatic. At any rate most of the white people considered his actions to be evil and inappropriate. David Walker and Thomas Jefferson warned that such dangerous revolts of slaves could be repeated, if the institution of slavery was not abolished. His revolt had certain impact upon abolitionists, motivating them for more active actions. One more result of the revolt was the meeting of the Virginia legislature. The representatives from the Blue Ridge Mountains insisted upon abolishing of slavery. John Floyd, who himself was a slave owner, supported the idea that only statewide abolition of slavery could be a strong step towards prevention of similar revolts in the future. In the overall atmosphere of paranoia and fear the idea of “gradual emancipation” was adopted even by southerners. After this bloody revolt a lot of individuals started to treat the morality of slavery in a different light and had a lot of questions to the religious institutions, which supported the institution of slavery. Also the white people became aware of the fact that slavery was dangerous for them and could be a serious threat to their well-being in the future. For decades the idea of paternalism played its central role in the relationship between masters and slaves. Masters were convinced that slaves were just inferior beings, who were not able to survive without their food, aid and guidance. On the basis of this masters were convinced that they made the lives of their slaves even better and this ideology was perfect for supporting slavery. This doctrine was seen as rather shaky upon Nat Turner’s revolt. There were also debates regarding gradual abolition of slavery perspectives, but did not reach the consensus and finally concluded that it was better to tighten the slave codes. “These codes strengthened the militia systems. It became illegal for black preachers to preach without a white man present or for blacks to even assemble without a white presence. African Americans were not allowed to own guns or to learn to read or write. Speaking against slavery also became a crime.” (Duff 1971). The reason, why these codes were established, was the intention to hinder any opportunities for African Americans to meet and communicate in large groups. Thus the period between 1830s and 1840s was marked by preserving of slavery and even reinforcement of slave control and discipline with the aim to prevent repetition of similar revolt.

Although Nat Turner was not really successful in his intention to stir the revolt of all slaves against their masters and was finally captured himself, his rebellion still had impact upon the overall sense of alert especially in the southern states. The initial reaction of the whites was certainly terrible, as they started chaotic persecution of slaves and freed blacks. There is even data that there were more black people killed during the aftermath period, than during the revolt itself. “A northern newspaper with an extract of a letter written in the south demonstrates this racist and general sense of paranoia quite well. The excerpt reads as follows: “another such an attempt [insurrection] will end in the total extermination of their race in the southern country—bloody as the remedy may be, it will be better thus to rid ourselves of, than longer endure the evil” (Domestic Intelligence, 1831). In addition to this, the new laws prohibited education for black people, as the whites were convinced that education could only pollute the minds of African Americans and provide them additional motivations for demanding equal rights and freedoms. Soon any opportunities for the black people to learn reading and writing vanished and but the times of the Civil War most of them were completely illiterate.  Considering the situation with Nat Turner, white ministers were introduced into the black religious services, in order to keep the situation under better control. “All of these new laws directly resulted from Nat Turner’s overall character. Many viewed his education and religious characteristics as the root causes of his decision to rebel and, therefore, felt that education and religion needed to be restricted to all blacks. In a quote by Governor Floyd of Virginia he proclaims: “Negro preachers had incited these ‘shocking and horrid’ barbarities; they must be silenced, and slave religious assemblages must be banned.” (Duff 1971).

Unfortunately the ideas of heat and anger towards the abolitionist movement were developed in the South. The abolitionist movement existed some time before the rebel of Nat Turner, but afterwards it was considered as one of the greatest problems for all slave owners. “Southerners largely ignored abolitionist views throughout the south, however, and it was not until Turner’s rebellion that slaveholders began directing their attention to the increasingly alarming abolitionist attacks upon slavery. Many southerners began viewing the abolitionists as being the root cause of Turner’s insurrection.” (Duff 1971). They assumed that slaves were under the impact of the ideas of immorality of slavery and the so called propaganda of the abolitionist movement were the major reasons of this revolt.

African Americans perceived Nat Turner from absolutely different perspective, as they considered him to be their national hero, who tried to protect them against terrible injustice, making the whites pay their own price for this. Turner is still considered to be a rather problematic historical figure. There is no agreement, whether it is possible to accept him as an American revolutionary and consider his violent actions justified or whether his religious position was really too fanatical and his perceptions of himself as a man of God could not justify killing of innocent white people.

Overall, Nat Turner is one of the outstanding and meaningful figures in the history of the Untied States. His personality and his will for freedom has played utterly important role for the future of slaves in America, revealing the immorality and violence of this institution. His revolt was not a success and was the reason of death of hundreds of innocent individuals among both black and white people; however, it served a real motivation for the country to reconsider abolition of slavery and securing of equal rights and freedoms to all citizens.

Works cited:

Allmendinger Jr., David F. Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014

Domestic Intelligence. Christian Register, October 1, 1831

Duff, John B. The Nat Turner Rebellion: The Historical Event and the Modern Controversy. New York: Harper & Row, 1971

Gray, Thomas. The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, Maryland: Lucas & Deaver, 1831

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

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[Accessed: August 11, 2022] (2016) The terms offer and acceptance [Online].
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"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

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