Nat Turner's Rebellion, 1831
A Document-Based Question
by Jonathan Nash @ the Center for Teaching American History, Binghamton University
Historical Context: During the late 18th and early 19th century, slave rebellions and revolts were erupting throughout the Western hemisphere. These rebellions frightened Southerners with the thought that their slaves might rebel. Their thoughts turned to reality during the closing days of August 1831 when Turner's Rebellion terrorized the Virginian countryside. The leader of the rebellion was a slave, Nat Turner. Turner and a group of forty (40) to sixty (60) slaves slaughtered many of the white slave-owning families of Southampton County, Virginia. Turner and his followers killed about fifty-eight (58) whites. Members of the Virginia militia quickly and brutally ended the rebellion. During the suppression and aftermath of the rebellion, white Virginians murdered around two hundred (200) free blacks and slaves. After the rebellion, Virginians began to rethink and solidify the institution of slavery in hopes of preventing another rebellion. Turner's Rebellion is important for study because it enlightens us not only about the tradition of African resistance to slavery, but also about Southern antebellum society.
Directions: Carefully examine and read the following seven (7) documents. Following each document will be questions designed to test your ability to work with and analyze historical documents. Answer each of these questions by using the information contained in the document and your existing knowledge of slavery and antebellum southern society.
Task: Using the documents provided and your own knowledge, explain what Turner's Rebellion reveals about the institution of slavery, southern society's view of slaves and slavery, and the African tradition of resistance to slavery.
Part A: Short Answer Questions
Document 1 "Nat Turner Preaches Religion"
1. What aspects of slave religion does this painting of Nat Turner portray?
Document 2 The Confessions of Nat Turner
In my childhood a circumstance occurred which made an indelible impression on my mind, and laid the groundwork of that enthusiasm which has terminated so fatally to many, both white and black, and for which I am about to atone at the gallows. It is here necessary to relate this circumstance. Trifling as it may seem, it was the commencement of that belief which has grown with time; and even now, sir, in this dungeon, helpless and forsaken as I am, I cannot divest myself of. Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something, which my mother, overhearing, said it had happened before I was born. I stuck to my story, however, and related some things which went, in her opinion, to confirm it. Others being called on, were greatly astonished, knowing that these things had happened, and caused them to say, in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shown me things that had happened before my birth. And my mother and grandmother strengthened me in this my first impression, saying, in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast.
2. What does this document reveal about the religious aspect of African slave culture?
3. How might this childhood event have influenced other slaves to join Turner in rebellion?
Document 3 The Richmond Enquirer, August 30, 1831
We cannot say how long they were organizing themselves, but they turned out on last Monday morning early (the 22nd) upon their nefarious (sinful) expedition. They were mounted to the number of 40 or 50; and with knives and axes, knocking on the head, or cutting the throats of their victims. They had few fire-arms among them, scarcely one, if one, was fit for use. But as they went from house to house, they drank ardent spirits (alcohol) and it is supposed, that in consequence of their being intoxicated, or from mere fatigue, they paused in their murderous career about 12 o'clock on Monday.
4. How many slaves participated in the rebellion?
5. The census of 1830 states that there were 7,756 slaves in Southampton County where the rebellion occurred. Why did such a small percentage of slaves participate in the rebellion?
6. How does this passage describe the rebelling slaves and their actions?
Document 4 The Constitutional Whig, August 29, 1831
Various parties (White Militias) have scoured the country, and a number of the insurgents (rebelling slaves), have been killed or taken. There are thirteen (13) prisoners now at this place, one or more of them severely wounded. At the Cross Keys, summary justice in the form of decapitation has been executed on one or more prisoners. The people are naturally enough wound up to a high pitch of rage, and precaution is even necessary to protect the lives of the captives. Scouring parties are out, and the insurrection may be considered already suppressed.
7. What does this rage and violence of the ruling white class reveal about their attitudes towards Africans and slaves?
Document 5 Trial of Nathan, Tom, and Davy
Question being asked by the Court relative to the ages of the prisoners it appeared that the oldest was not more than 15 years, the other two much younger, the oldest very badly grown. The Court after hearing the testimony and all the circumstances of the case are unanimously of opinion that the prisoners are guilty in manner and form. Tuesday the 20th day of September instant on which day between the hours of ten o'clock in the morning and two o'clock in the afternoon they be taken by the Sheriff to the usual place of execution and there to be hanged by the neck until each of them be dead and the Court from all the circumstances of the case do recommend to the Governor to commute the punishment of the said Nathan, Tom and Davy to transportation. And the Court doth value the said slaves to the sum of three hundred (300) dollars each.
8. How does the action of not sentencing the children to death strengthen the institution of slavery?
Document 6 American Beacon, November 2, 1831
He (Nat Turner) acknowledges himself a coward and says he was actuated to do what he did, from the influence of fanaticism, he says the attempt originated entirely with himself, and was not known by any other Negroes, but those to whom he revealed it a few days before, and then only 5 or 6 in number! -- he acknowledges now that the revelation was misinterpreted by him, and says it was revealed to him not to follow the inclination of his spirit -- he is now convinced that he has done wrong, and advises all other Negroes not to follow his example. He was taken about 12 o'clock on Sunday, in a Cave that he had just finished and gotten into; and while in the very act of fixing the bushes and bows to cover him, a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Phipps, walked up near the spot, and was only led to examine it by accidentally seeing the brush shake; after removing the covering he discovered Nat., and immediately pointed to kill him with his gun, but he exclaimed "don't shoot and I will give up," he then threw his sword from the Cave, that being his only weapon, and came out and went with Mr. Phipps, until they reached some other gentlemen, when after staying at the Keys all night they proceeded here today.
9. How does the author describe Nat Turner?
10. What does the author's description of Nat Turner reveal about white society's view of slaves?
Document 7 Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself
Not far from this time Nat Turner's insurrection broke out; and the news threw our town into great commotion. Strange that they should be alarmed when their slaves were so "contented and happy"! But so it was. By sunrise, people were pouring in from every quarter within twenty miles of the town. I knew the houses were to be searched; and I expected it would be done by country bullies and the poor whites. I knew nothing annoyed them so much as to see colored people living in comfort and respectability. Those who never witnessed such scenes can hardly believe what I know was inflicted at this time on innocent men, women, and children, against whom there was not the slightest ground for suspicion. Colored people and slaves who lived in remote parts of the town suffered in an especial manner. In some cases the searchers scattered powder and shot among their clothes, and then sent other parties to find them, and bring them forward as proof that they were plotting insurrection. Everywhere men, women, and children were whipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet. Some received five hundred lashes; others were tied hands and feet, and tortured with a bucking paddle, which blisters the skin terribly.
11. In what ways does this passage illustrate the white slaveholder's fear of Africans and blacks?
12. Why are poor whites allowed to harass Africans and inspect their homes?
Part B: Conclusion
Explain the relationship of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the institution of slavery, slave resistance, and southerners’ view of slavery.