Monday 21 August 2023


Today in History, August 21st 1831, Nat Turner led a rebellion of enslaved and free African Americans. Their cause was freedom. But in killing at least 55 men, women, and children, they heightened the culture of Southern fear that precipitated America's bloodiest war.

The fear of slave rebellion was deep-rooted among white planters, especially in states like Virginia, where the enslaved/free black population exceeded 40%. This fear was partly a product of the American Revolution; Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” had spread elsewhere—including nearby Haiti—where the majority enslaved population rebelled and established a republic.

Fearing such tales of emancipation would inspire America’s enslaved, actions were taken to limit their access to education and interaction with free blacks. Still, multiple uprisings were attempted in the early 19th century, and their failure did not fully deter others—like Turner, an enslaved preacher—from trying the same. He claimed he was “ordained for some great purpose” and received visions telling him to overthrow slavery.

Turner’s recruits knew their fight for liberty was a suicide mission, but not all were willing to take this risk. As the rebels went from house to house with swords and axes—sparing “neither age nor sex”—most of the enslaved refused to join. Whites, meanwhile, quickly joined forces to bring the revolt to an end. And in the coming days, they tortured and lynched dozens of non-participants. 31 rebels were convicted at trial, and many, including Turner, were executed.

Interestingly, the state legislature’s first reaction was to consider gradual emancipation, but when this narrowly failed, Virginia and other Southern states restricted the rights of blacks to assemble, receive an education, hunt, own livestock, and even preach.

Yet, as threatened slaveholders further responded by calling on Congress to protect and expand slavery, their tensions with the North grew, setting the stage for Civil War.

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