Why does Nat Turner say he led a revolt against slavery? What does his account tell us about the radical potential of slave religion?

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On the 12th of May, 1828, I 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.

Question: Do you not find yourself mistaken now?

Answer: Was not Christ crucified?

Since 1830, I had been living with Mr. Joseph Travis, who was a kind master who had placed great trust in me. On Saturday evening, August 20th [1831] we decided to meet the next day for a meal and to work out our plan of attack....It was quickly agreed we should start at home (Mr. J. Travis') on that night.

I took my station in the rear, and, as it was my object to carry terror and destruction wherever we went, I placed fifteen or twenty of the best armed and most to be relied on in front, who generally approached the houses as fast as their horses could run. This was for two purposes--to prevent their escape and strike terror to the inhabitants.

Confessions of Nat Turner, 1831


Why does Nat Turner say he led a revolt against slavery? What does his account tell us about the radical potential of slave religion?

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and government official, was born of a white father and a black slave mother in Maryland, in 1817. Despairing of his future under slavery, he escaped and found his freedom in a coastal town in Massachusetts, where he learned to read and write and to speak tellingly and with prophetic strength about his ordeals as a slave and as a runaway. The abolitionists were impressed with him, and he was heard on hundreds of platforms in the US, and in Canada and England, calling for rights for all. He opposed the colonization movement, which would have freed slaves only for the purpose of settlement in such African outposts as Liberia. He was a loud and clear advocate of the uncompromising struggle for immediate emancipation in his speeches and in the pages of his newspapers as well. He became famous, and he numbered Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth among his friends and admirers.

In later years he served his nation as diplomatic minister to Haiti and as a government official in a succession of administrations. He was Marshal in the District of Columbia for annual celebrations of freedom. He traveled and lectured widely here and abroad, and became an international figure whose judgments in speech or print were widely respected. In his life story, My Bondage and My Freedom, he wrote that "I have worked hardest to get equal rights for Negroes" but this focus "does not keep me from working to help people of all races."


William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) issued the first number of The Liberator on January 1, 1831. The radical tone of the paper was unprecedented because it labeled slave-holding a crime and called for immediate abolition. When the Nat Turner rebellion of August 1831 escalated Southern fears of slave uprisings, some Southern states passed laws making circulation of The Liberator a crime and called for prosecution of Garrison. Although he had detractors, Garrison quickly became a noted leader of the anti- slavery movement and helped launch the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833. Until he ceased publication in 1865, Garrison employed the Liberator to advance militant anti- slavery views. He especially opposed African colonization, as is shown in the article entitled "Emigration" in column one of this issue.


Fugitive Slave Act


 The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the group of laws referred to as the "Compromise of 1850." In this compromise, the antislavery advocates gained the admission of California as a free state, and the prohibition of slave-trading in the District of Columbia. The slavery party received concessions with regard to slaveholding in Texas and the passage of this law. Passage of this law was so hated by abolitionists, however, that its existence played a role in the end of slavery a little more than a dozen years later. This law also spurred the continued operation of the fabled Underground Railroad, a network of over 3,000 homes and other "stations" that helped escaping slaves travel from the southern slave-holding states to the northern states and Canada.


Federal legislation enacted by Congress that mandated that states to which escaped slaves fled were obligated to return them to their masters upon their discovery and subjected persons who helped runaway slaves to criminal sanctions.

The first Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by Congress in 1793 but as the northern states abolished slavery, the act was rarely enforced. The southern states bitterly resented the northern attitude toward slavery, which was ultimately demonstrated by the existence of the Underground Railroad, an arrangement by which abolitionists helped runaway slaves obtain freedom.

To placate the South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462) was enacted by Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850. It imposed a duty on all citizens to assist federal marshals to enforce the law or be prosecuted for their failure to do so. The act also required that when a slave was captured, he or she was to be brought before a federal court or commissioner, but the slave would not be tried by a jury nor would his or her testimony be given much weight. The statements of the slave's alleged owner were the main evidence, and the alleged owner was not even required to appear in court.

Northern reaction against the Fugitive Slave Act was strong, and many states enacted laws that nullified its effect, making it worthless. In cases where the law was enforced, threats or acts of mob violence often required the dispatch of federal troops. Persons convicted of violating the act were often heavily fined, imprisoned, or both. The refusal of northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act was alleged by South Carolina as one reason for its secession from the Union prior to the onset of the Civil War.

The acts of 1793 and 1850 remained legally operative until their repeal by Congress on June 28, 1864 (13 Stat. 200).


Abolitionists were people who sought to end the institution of slavery.

From slavery's very beginning, some people had opposed it and wished to see it abolished. Before the late 1700s, many abolitionists were people who were currently slaves themselves or were former slaves who had gained their freedom. However, by the 1780s, abolitionists in Great Britain and the United States, where most enslaved people were African, began to include white people as well.

In North America, one of the earliest groups to speak out against slavery was the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. The Quakers believed in an Inner Light. According to their religious beliefs, a piece of God, the Inner Light, existed in all human beings. Because God exists in all people, the Quakers opposed violence and war. During the late 1700s and the 1800s, the Society of Friends also protested against slavery. If God existed in all humans, how could another human, the Quakers pondered, own or whip a piece of God?

Other white people also began to oppose slavery during the late 1700s in the United States. Unlike the Quakers, most of these people did not necessarily oppose slavery on religious grounds. Some white Americans contended that slave owners violated the principles that the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence had established in 1776. They argued that whites were hypocrites for fighting for their own freedom from Great Britain during the American Revolution while keeping African Americans enslaved. White Americans were not creating a country where all people had the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Many of these people believed that the young republic would fail if basic liberties were not guaranteed.

At the same time, other whites, including some slave owners, began to believe that slavery was no longer cost effective. Many farmers in the South used slave labor to grow tobacco. By the 1770s, the tobacco market had become glutted due to over-production. In some cases, it began to cost the slave owners more money to grow the crop than they received when they sold it. Some farmers switched to grain crops, which did not require the same number of workers as the tobacco crop did. As a result of these factors, some whites began to believe that slavery would soon come to an end.

Another group dedicated to slavery's abolition was the American Colonization Society. Founded in 1817, most members of the American Colonization Society came from religious groups, especially the Society of Friends, in the North or were slave owners from states in the Upper South like Kentucky and Virginia. Many of the organization's members advocated gradual emancipation. In this way, slaves would gain their freedom slowly over time and in small numbers. Many Northern states passed laws in the late 1700s that stipulated a slave would gain his or her freedom upon reaching a certain age. Gradual emancipation laws would hopefully reduce the fears of reluctant whites. Many Northern and Southern whites opposed an end to slavery because they did not want to face competition from or to live next to former slaves. To deal with these objections, the American Colonization Society proposed sending former slaves and African Americans who had been born free to Liberia in Africa. The American Colonization Society also pressured the federal government to compensate slave owners who freed their slaves. By 1830, the American Colonization had managed to send only 1,400 blacks to Liberia. More slaves were born every week in the United States than the American Colonization Society sent back to Africa in an entire year.

During the 1830s, a new type of radical abolitionist appeared. These abolitionists called for the immediate end to slavery. One of the most prominent radical abolitionists was a man named William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison called for slavery's immediate end as well as equal rights for African Americans with whites. Not all radical abolitionists agreed with Garrison on the granting of equal rights to African Americans. However, they did declare that slavery was a crime against humanity and that it must end.

In 1831, Garrison began to publish an anti-slavery newspaper known as The Liberator. This paper's purpose was to educate white Northerners, many of whom had never seen a slave, about slavery's cruelty. By informing white Northerners about slavery's injustices, Garrison hoped to recruit members to the abolition movement. In 1833, he helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society. This organization sent lecturers across the North to convince people of slavery's brutality. In 1839, the society split. Garrison and his supporters called for the creation of a new government that disallowed slavery from the very beginning. He contended that the United States Constitution was an illegal document for denying African Americans their freedom. If the South would not agree to create a new nation that outlawed slavery, Garrison argued that the North should secede from the United States and form its own country.

Other members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, including Salmon P. Chase and Joshua Giddings, contended that Garrison's views were too radical. They agreed that slavery was wrong but also said that the United States Constitution had created a legitimate government under which the people had the right to end oppression. Rather than threatening to break apart the United States, these abolitionists hoped to elect people of their beliefs to political office. Then the elected representatives could make laws outlawing slavery. To achieve this end, these abolitionists formed a political party, the Liberty Party. Over time, the Liberty Party evolved into the Free-Soil Party and eventually became part of the new Republican Party. This division between abolitionists remained until the end of the American Civil War. In 1865, the United States officially outlawed slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 permitted slave owners to reclaim their runaway slaves, even if the African Americans now resided in a free state. To gain complete freedom, runaway slaves had to leave the United States. As a result, Underground Railroad stops were created in Ohio and other free states, providing runaway slaves with safe passage all of the way to Canada.

While these abolitionists lived in a free state, they faced opposition from many whites. Most of these white people feared the end of slavery. They believed that African Americans would flee the South and come to the North, taking jobs away from whites. Some of these people also believed African Americans were inferior to whites, or the whites had economic ties to slaveholding states. On January 22, 1836, a group of white Cincinnatians urged their city government to keep James Birney from publishing his anti-slavery newspaper, The Philanthropist. Birney was undaunted. To prevent him from publishing, a mob of white Cincinnatians destroyed the newspaper's printing press on July 12, 1836. Undeterred, Birney remained in Cincinnati and continued to publish his newspaper. The mob returned on July 30, 1836, and once again destroyed his printing press.



Welcome to the Underground Railroad Conductor

 Interest in the Underground Railroad has become a national phenomenon, and new information is being rediscovered daily. A renewed effort to identify and document the Underground Railroad is underway in many of the sections of the U.S. and Canada where it was active. Local groups are working to celebrate the selfless deeds and heroics of men and women, both black and white, who devoted their lives to helping the oppressed become free. They have become, like me, the Underground Railroad conductors of the present day.


Above is a map based on the work of Wilbur Siebert that shows the major thoroughfares of the Underground Railroad.  Runaway slaves also escaped to areas in Florida, where there were a number of maroon colonies (that is, exile fugitive slave colonies) and Mexico.


The Underground Railroad

After Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, she returned to slave-holding states many times to help other slaves escape. She led them safely to the northern free states and to Canada. It was very dangerous to be a runaway slave. There were rewards for their capture, and ads like you see here described slaves in detail. Whenever Tubman led a group of slaves to freedom, she placed herself in great danger. There was a bounty offered for her capture because she was a fugitive slave herself, and she was breaking the law in slave states by helping other slaves escape

If anyone ever wanted to change his or her mind during the journey to freedom and return, Tubman pulled out a gun and said, "You'll be free or die a slave!" Tubman knew that if anyone turned back, it would put her and the other escaping slaves in danger of discovery, capture or even death. She became so well known for leading slaves to freedom that Tubman became known as the "Moses of Her People." Many slaves dreaming of freedom sang the spiritual "Go Down Moses." Slaves hoped a savior would deliver them from slavery just as Moses had delivered the Israelites from slavery.

Tubman made 19 trips to Maryland and helped 300 people to freedom. During these dangerous journeys she helped rescue members of her own family, including her 70-year-old parents. At one point, rewards for Tubman's capture totaled $40,000. Yet, she was never captured and never failed to deliver her "passengers" to safety. As Tubman herself said, "On my Underground Railroad I [never] run my train off [the] track [and] I never [lost] a passenger."


william lloyd garrison, publisher of the liberatorharriet beecher stowe, author of the book uncle tom\'s cabin

Abolitionists were People AGAINST the practice of slavery, and took direct action against it. A number are still well-known: Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, among many others. Usually white and middle-to-upper class, they believed that slavery was a sin against God, and that it had to be removed at ANY cost. We could easily liken these crusaders of the nineteenth century with our present-day pro-life activists. BOTH saw themselves as doing God's work, rooting out a moral wrong sanctioned by the law; BOTH faced enormous criticism by the majority in society; BOTH would use any means they thought necessary to achieve their goals. The abolitionist movement, like the anti-abortion crusade of our own time, was rooted in the powerful religious beliefs of the time. Religion was the source, the seed-bed of the anti-slavery crusade. In the end, it would triumph.frederick douglass, anti-slavery writer and oratorsojourner truthwendell phillips, anti-slavery orator


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