The Fires of Jubilee Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion, by Stephen B. Oates

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From: 1Dennis R. Garver
To: Dr. Kris Runberg Smith fig. 1

History 105 - U. S. History to the Civil War

April 17, 2008

The Fires of Jubilee

Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion, by Stephen B. Oates

The Fires of Jubilee is an excellent account of the Nathaniel Turner rebellion in Southampton County Virginia on August 22, 1831. The author Stephen B. Oates paints a very authentic and real feeling account of the life and times of Nat Turner. Oates gives much background into the people and places involved in the tail. The motivations of Nat as an intelligent, learned, preacher and profit are well developed. Nat is given a real personal touch, with much attention paid to his personality and motivation. The reader is left with a good feel, and understanding of this young slaves place, in Virginian society, and how he feels and reacts to it. The author's depiction of the rebellion is very graphic and sets the stage for what is to follow. Oats does a good job of showing the reactions of white society to Nat's bloody rebellion. Oates describes the blood lust and revenge, which was leveled against many slaves and even freeman, which were killed by blind individual reprisals, or hung by misguided court action. The Southern whites also had to blame someone else for Nat's actions; they could not possibly be at fault. So the Northern abolitionists were given far more credit for the uprising then they were due. (p.-129) This denial led to a very suspicious Southern mindset. This event leads directly to a shift in the patterns of slavery in the South. The fear of further slave rebellions, and the displaced guilt for slavery, causes an overreaction. The spirit of the American Revolution had led to a loosening of slave controls in Virginia. It had become easier for a slave to become a freeman. Black religious practices had become tolerated, and even classical learning was made available. After 1831 this all changed, and the stage was set for the civil war.
“No one knows how many innocent Negroes perished in this reign of terror - at least 120, probably more.” (p.-100) The extreme drive for vengeance, and the blood lust that followed the slave revolt of 1831, did little but justify the abolitionist drive that had been gathering momentum throughout the 1820s. (p.-129) “The worst outrages were committed by a cavalry company out of Murphysboro - the horseman stormed through the Virginia backwoods, butchering some forty blacks decapitating fifteen slaves and placing their heads on piles.” (p.-99) “Others joined in the carnage out of sheer racial hatred having come to Southampton, as one man said, “to kill somebody else's niggers” without being held accountable for it.” (p.-99) Prior to the rebellion there had been a movement in the southern states to eliminate slavery. Governor Floyd of Virginia had announced in his diary, “Before I leave this government. I will have contrived to have a law passed gradually abolishing slavery in this state, or at all events to begin the work by prohibiting slavery west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” (p.-137) Floyd never went through with his plans, because the climate had changed, and the opportunity had been lost. People like the then Vice President of the U.S. John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, who was not in favor of emancipation, joined in the spirit of revenge. He pushed states rights, and nullification of several tariffs passed by Congress in order to protect the slave system. The horrors of the reign of terror combined with the political opportunism of various political players, placed a wedge between the northern industrial states and the agricultural south.
As often happens during times of great fear and despair human beings experience a state of denial of their own actions and responsibilities. “Desperately needing to blame somebody for Nat Turner besides themselves Southern whites inevitably linked the revolt to a sinister Northern abolitionists plot to destroy their cherished way of life.” (p.-129) William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp had begun publishing the Liberator in January 1831, out of Boston. This southern state of denial led to many false accusations being made, and even a bounty being placed on the heads of the publishers. It is ironic in that, “the circulation of the Liberator was never more than few thousand.” (p.-133) But all the publicity and controversy caused the concept of abolition to become better known, and discussed. “Many Northerners may have opposed slavery in the abstract, but most rejected actual emancipation unless accompanied by a wholesale colonization.” (p.-134) “No matter what anyone said, anxious Southerners believed what they wanted to believe. From 1831 on, Northern abolitionism and slave rebellion were inextricably associated in the Southern mind.” (p.-135) The distrust and psychological stress between the North and South had reached a point of combustion, over the slavery issue.
The spirit of the American Revolution had caused a change in the American mindset towards slavery. “The Methodist, Quakers, and antislavery Baptists made some whites feel guilty enough to liberate their slaves, especially in backwater Southampton County, where a number of “free coloreds” began to appear.” (p.-9) Many blacks were allowed to read and write, and most importantly to sing and worship on their own. The sounds of their native drums could be heard, as they found release, from the pressures of slavery. It was unfortunate that it was this very environment that gave rise to Nat Turner's knowledge and desire for rebellion. “Nat Turner had taught white Virginians a hard lesson about what might happen if they gave slaves enough education and religion to think for themselves.” (p.-140) The discourse that the rebellion caused, lead to a hardening oppression of the slaves. “Professor Thomas R. Dew’s of William and Mary College, review of the debate of the Virginia legislature of 1831 and 1832 (Richmond, 1832), which contained the most comprehensive vindication of slavery,” (p.-140) became the justification for an entrenchment of even more oppressive slavery. Nat’s rebellion, which had hoped to free slaves, only worsened their condition. ”Thanks to white intransigence and to those oppressive new codes, Virginia's blacks were more shackled to the rack of slavery than they had ever been.” (p.-141)
The slave rebellion of 1831 marks a turning point in American history. The institution of slavery was on the way out. Many people were arguing that the only way to ensure against slave rebellion, as had happened in Santo Domingo, was gradual emancipation with recolonization. There were other technical advancements on the horizon that would have reduced the manpower needs in Southern agriculture. Had the rebellion not occurred, when it did, one of the primary causative factors for the Civil War would not have been in place, in 1861. The bloody reprisals that were levied against innocent slaves gave credence to the arguments of Northern abolitionists concerning the cruelties of Southern slavery. The inadvertent advertising that Southern whites gave the abolitionist movement only caused the issue to become better known in the North. The clampdown on basic religious and educational opportunities of slaves by Southern whites only made the abolitionist cause more convincing. Slavery was not the primary cause of the American Civil War, but it was the primary propaganda tool, used by the Northern industrialists, to motivate the primarily Irish immigrant troops filling the ranks of the North’s army. Nat Turner's rebellion deepened and entrenched the institution of slavery in the South. It also created a sense of mistrust towards Yankees in general. These factors formed some of the major preconditions for the Civil War of 1861.

Fig. 1 Plot. The Granger Collection, New York

Fig. 2 Discovery. The Collections of the Library of Congress, Wash. DC


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