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This Day in Labor History: August 21, 1831

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On this date in 1831, Nat Turner, a slave in Southhampton County, Virginia, led the largest slave revolt in the history of the United States, killing 60 white people before being brutally put down by the militia. This event frightened the slaveholding class that believed their human property could slip from them at any time, leading to increasingly draconian measures across the South to institute control over slave labor.

Nat Turner was a bit of an odd man it seems. He was a religious mystic who claimed to have visions that guided his actions. Unlike most slaves, he learned to read as a child and immersed himself in the Bible. He thought God spoke to him through his visions. He ran away in 1825 for an entire month before a vision told him to return to his master. Despite this history of erratic behavior and escaping, he was allowed to lead religious services for slaves. In 1828, he had a vision while working in the fields to prepare to lead his people from slavery. He began preparing for this, building a trusted cadre of followers. In February 1831, an eclipse could be seen from Virginia, which Turner interpreted as the sign to make final preparations for his revolt. A follow-up eclipse in August signaled it was time to begin.

On August 21, Turner and his trusted group of 6 slaves began a war of extermination against the slaveholders. Armed with axes, knives, and blunt instruments, they went house to house in Southampton County, killing all the slaveholding whites they found. At about 2 a.m., they reached the Travis household, where they murdered the entire family as they slept. Some of those slaves joined their force. They avoided poor whites, preferring to concentrate on the slaveholders, in part so they could then free those slaves and expand their rebel army. Eventually, they had about 40 people willing to do anything to free themselves, even kill their masters.

The next day, Turner decided to march toward the town of Jerusalem. Although they moved swiftly and silently (not having any guns was part of this strategy–plus it was hard for slaves to acquire them), within 48 hours, the rebellion had been suppressed. They faced an attack from the militia and were scattered. They attempted to attack another house, were repulsed and some captured. They then faced an organized militia force that quickly dispersed them, killing 1 slave and capturing more. Most of the rest of the rebels were captured over the next few days.

Turner himself actually eluded capture for over 2 months. The state of Virginia wanted him alive so they could try him. Fearing he was hiding in the Great Dismal Swamp where he could live indefinitely, the state offered a $500 reward for his capture. He was finally discovered hiding in a hole on October 30, tried on November 5, and executed on November 11.

Retaliation against Turner and his band was swift and harsh. They were almost all executed, 56 in total. The militia also started a reign of terror against the local slave population, rounding up and murdering at least 100 innocent people. Northern editors decried the wanton killing, but for southern plantation owners, all blacks were potentially murderers.

Image depicting massacre of whites by Nat Turner’s force.

The aftermath also saw southern states pass sweeping legislation to crack down on slave education and mobility. Most notably, states, including Virginia, passed laws making it illegal for whites to teach blacks how to read. Seeing Turner’s apocalyptic visions based on the Bible as a very real threat to their control of labor and lives (after all, if slaves read the Bible, they might come across that slightly inconvenient story of Exodus…), they sought to undermine it through forced illiteracy. The law was fairly unenforceable; if an elite slaveholder like Stonewall Jackson wanted to teach his slaves to read in quiet, the state wasn’t going to do anything about it. But the laws did increase illiteracy and served to control the information slave labor had about the outside world. The state also made it illegal for either slaves or free blacks to preach, but that was obviously unenforceable.

The revolt also put the final nail in the coffin of Virginia’s long-standing, if increasingly dying, debate over whether to find an end to slavery. That legacy of Jefferson and Madison already went out of fashion with the cotton gin and profitable investment in cotton lands in Alabama and Mississippi, but the fear of free blacks ended it entirely.

Most of what we claim to know about Turner comes from The Confessions of Nat Turner, written by a local white doctor named Thomas Gray. How much of that document came from Turner’s mouth is impossible to say. It’s hard to think of it as all that accurate; on the other hand, it’s pretty much the only document we have on the man.

This is the 38th installment in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Cody

    This has a disturbing number of parallels with current events. The most obvious is the people in power dumbing down their labor so they don’t catch on to the clear contradiction between what they’re doing as “Christians” and what the Bible says to do.

  • rea

    an elite slaveholder like Stonewall Jackson

    The prewar Jackson was hardly elite–he was just an untenured college intructor

    • Bill Murray

      prewar Jackson also wasn’t called Stonewall

    • merl

      And he wasn’t a big slaveholder and he spent time in jail at least once for teaching slave children to read.

  • c u n d gulag

    Yes, and this is why the effort’s are being made to keep the “blah” people from voting.

    Look at what happens when an organization like ACORN gets out more “blah” voters – we end up with a “Blah” President who’s a GodlessCommunistFascistSocialistAtheistMuslim born in Kenya!

    America must STAY STRONG!

    Keep the old “wha” people in charge.
    “WHA” People Power!

    And male ones – none o’ them evil seducto temptresses sashayin’ ’round ‘n urgin’ on men to ravish them, and then bitchin’ ’bout it afterwards.
    You know you wanted it!
    If you didn’t want it, what was you doin’ sashayin’ ’round temptressinin in the first place?

  • DrDick

    Good post and nice to see one dedicated to a labor segment essential to the rise of modern capitalism. Without slave labor to produce cheap cotton, sugar, tobacco, and other commodities, the industrial revolution might never have taken place.

    • J

      and slave labor got the work….the money went to…..and probably still today….the same families are “rich”……

    • ajay

      Without slave labor to produce cheap cotton, sugar, tobacco, and other commodities, the industrial revolution might never have taken place.

      [citation needed], as they say. In fact, a whole lot of [citations]. Abolition in the British Empire was 1833; did the Industrial Revolution suffer a sudden slowdown in 1834 because tobacco and sugar suddenly became slightly more expensive?

      • DrDick

        You seem to eliding the period 1619-1833 when slavery allowed the cheap mass production of those commodities and which corresponds to the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution. It is also the case that England continued to buy cotton and other slave produced commodities from the American South until the end of the Civil War. I also did not say it was the only factor, colonial exploitation in India in the 18th and 19th centuries was also important.

        • Well, really African slaves weren’t the dominant labor force in Virginia until the 1680s. But of course in the Caribbean it was far earlier.

          • DrDick

            Which nonetheless still leaves 153 years when it was the dominant mode in the American South and only reduces the total by roughly 60 years.

            • Right. The difference to your point is essentially meaningless. But for the sake of accuracy, blah blah.

        • Malaclypse

          Yep, this is a useful bit of historical anthropology on many levels.

      • Barry

        “Abolition in the British Empire was 1833; did the Industrial Revolution suffer a sudden slowdown in 1834 because tobacco and sugar suddenly became slightly more expensive?”

        Did they?

      • did the Industrial Revolution suffer a sudden slowdown in 1834 because tobacco and sugar suddenly became slightly more expensive?

        If I’m remembering the book “Inhuman Bondage” by David Brion Davis correctly, then the answer is “Yes, it did”.

    • Lurker

      In fact, I would venture to say that non-slaveholding plantation economy is about as productive as a slaveholding one. The important point is the control of the land.

      The problem with sugar and cotton plantations is that they exist in climates where subsistence agriculture is easy and profitable. Thus, if a labourer has a chance to grow sweet potatoes for his family, he’ll do that instead of working on a plantation for starving wages. Or, in the US, the labour might migrate to more liveable conditions (e.g. North)

      In practice, there are two important things to control: the plantation owners must control the land so that reliance on subsistence agriculture is impossible for the majority of labouring population, and they must make migration troublesome. If these are not feasible, slavery is the only answer for plantations.

    • Lurker

      You forget an important thing: sugar and cotton were mostly luxury products. They didn’t really bring that much to the West European economy or increase its production. Instead, quite like South American gold, they helped to change the division of capital: from nobility to merchants.

      • DrDick
      • Hogan

        They didn’t really bring that much to the West European economy or increase its production.

        Except for the enormous profits (made possible by unpaid labor) that could be invested in factories, especially once steam power got underway, and the raw materials that could keep textile factories running and make them a profitable investment.

        • DrDick

          Which was a part of my point, especially with sugar. Tobacco was another example of this.

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  • Cartoonist Kyle Baker did a really excellent graphic novel about Turner. It’s usually fairly inexpensive on Amazon, if they’ve got it in stock…

    • Bill Murray

      Harrumph

  • mike in dc

    This would make a really great indie horror flick. Nat Turner’s ghost returns, in a gated community in Orange County, and starts killing off well-to-do racist white people in suitably graphic and ironic fashion. Only a descendant of the original victims, who has grown up free of racism, can defeat the ghost…

    • Isn’t this almost the plot of Tarantino’s Django movie, minus the ghost plot?

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  • Brad Lee

    I Salute Brother Nat, When A Person Knows That Something Is Wrong Or That They Are Treated Unjustly, It Is Their God-Given Duty To Teach Themselves And To Defend Themselves!
    The Word Of God Is In The Heart And Mind Of His People!
    Brother Nat Knew That Because I KNOW God Talked To Him!
    “If A People Don’t Treat You Right They Are Not Going To Teach You Right!”
    So Your Duty Is To Teach Yourself And Then Teach Those Who Are Lacking In The Knowledge Of Self!
    Society Can Enhance Your Intelligence, But Only God Can Teach You The Wisdom!
    That Wisdom Is The Revelation Of Truth!
    “You Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Shall Make You Free!”
    People, There Is Much More To Live Than This World!
    Don’t You Know The Power Of The One Who Created All Things Seen And Unseen!
    This Is Why God Spoke To Our Brother Through The Very Book That Your Oppressors Didn’t Want You To Read!
    There’s A Mystical Consciousness With Words, You Don’t Necessarily Have To Know Their Definition, God Moves Upon You To Act Accordingly!
    Thank You Brother Nat, You Are Still A Warrior In The Army Of God!
    Peace Be Unto You My Warrior Brother!
    I AM ONE WITH GOD!

  • Poicephalus

    George Thomas!
    Pardon me, General Thomas.
    http://goo.gl/rLA5KN

    • Incidentally, I am at Gettysburg, going to the battlefield tomorrow.

  • CatoUticensis

    Worth noting that what would become the Citadel in South Carolina was founded specifically in the wake of an earlier rebellion against slavery as insurance against any future uprising against that corrupt and vile institution.

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