The Uprisings of Nat Turner and John Brown: Response and Treatment from the Abolitionist Movement and the Press
Humanity Will Out
At John Brown’s funeral, in North Elba, New York--- on December 8th, 1859--- Wendell Phillips, one of Brown’s closest supporters and friends, spoke the following words:
However, it takes nothing away from the legacy of John Brown to remember that the first true blow to the roots of chattel slavery in Virginia came twenty-eight years before Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, at the hands of a man who lived and died a slave: Nat Turner.
There are several reasons why Nat Turner’s legacy had already been largely forgotten, even only a quarter-century after the Southampton Insurrection. Arguably, the most important among these reasons is the fact that John Brown left behind a considerable volume of correspondence in which his ideas and plans were stated and discussed in great detail.65 On the other hand, very little is known about Nat Turner; and insofar as any historian has able to determine, he did not reveal his plans to anybody until the eve of the insurrection. Moreover, his papers, if they existed at all, have disappeared entirely.66
Thus, it becomes understandable that Turner’s final objective became, almost as soon as the Southampton Insurrection was over, the subject of speculation. Indeed, to this day it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty what his objectives might have been. It stands to reason, then, that Nat Turner’s legacy has taken a backseat to the imposing historical figure of John Brown, who appeared to see himself as a man who would be judged by history, and acted accordingly.
The contrast between the coverage of Brown’s and Turner’s attempted insurrections can be readily seen within Northern publications. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison was a young activist, only twenty-six, who had begun to focus his vast moral outrage on what he saw as the worst evil of all: Human bondage. He started The Liberator in the early months of this year, and quickly shocked Northerners and Southerners alike with his strident assaults on the “conspiracy of silence” which he believed had thus far aided and abetted the institution of chattel slavery in the United States.67
Arguably, Garrison went further than anybody else ever had, up to that point, in the fight against slavery, asserting that slavery violated not only the laws of morality, but also the cherished ideals of the Declaration of Independence--- stating that slaves deserved “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” just like white people, and that every slave in the nation must be immediately and unconditionally emancipated. “I will be as harsh as the truth, and as uncompromising as justice,” he wrote in his manifesto in the very first issue of The Liberator.68
However, just seven months after the publication of the first issue, Nat Turner’s insurrection took place, and Garrison was quick to disavow Turner’s actions, and emphatically deny the charges that he was attempting to incite slave insurrections, going as far as to publish an editorial in which he sought to qualify his position, adopting instead a rhetoric more in line with gradual, paternalistic emancipation. “We aim to overthrow slavery in this country,” he wrote, but asserted that by “immediate emancipation” he did not mean that slaves should be “let loose to roam as vagrants” or that they should be “instantly invested with all political rights and privileges.”69
Moreover, he declared his belief to be that slaves should be placed under the “benevolent supervision” of white Americans until the slaves “learned religion…and became economically secure.”70 Finally, he asserted that his intention was to overthrow slavery “not by encouraging rebellion, nor for the free states to interfere, nor by forcing laws on the South which would amount to despotism.”71 This disavowal by the staunchest anti-slavery advocate of the nation echoed that of the majority of the Northern press, and it is easy to imagine the rhetoric employed by those with less extreme views when faced with the repudiation of the most aggressive abolitionist of his time.
Garrison’s views regarding the Southampton Insurrection are, as mentioned in the above paragraph, not unlike the reactions of the rest of the Abolitionist community of the 1830s. In this sense, Garrison acted as a man of the times, albeit one who had displayed a strong anti-slavery predisposition. The aforementioned contrast does not appear then, obviously, until one examines the position that he took in the months that followed Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Ever since the inception of The Liberator, on January 1st, 1831, Garrison had positioned himself as an apostle of nonresistance, singing the praises of abolitionism as a pacifist endeavor.
At the time of Brown’s raid, Garrison was still an avowed proponent of non-resistance in the face of slavery, and was therefore staunchly opposed to the violent means Brown had undertaken. Still, he considered Brown a martyr, and was thrilled with the public demonstrations on December 2nd, 1859, the day of Brown’s death. His exaltation was, once again, in line with that of the public at large: “The sympathy and admiration now so widely felt for Brown prove how marvelous has been the change effected in public opinion during thirty years of moral agitation--- a change so great, indeed, that whereas ten years since, there were thousands who could not endure the lightest word of rebuke of the South, they can now easily swallow John Brown whole, and his rifle into the bargain. In firing his gun, he has merely told us what time of day it is. It is high noon, thank God.”72
Clearly, Garrison’s transformation into a more militant figure within the abolitionist movement had already begun, though it was not yet complete. Exactly one year later, at a commemorative meeting in Tremont Temple, which included speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, Garrison finally endorsed violence as a means by which slavery may be defeated, declaring the following: “Brand that man as a hypocrite and a dastard, who, in one breath, exalts the deeds of Washington and Warren, and in the next, denounces Nat Turner as a monster for refusing longer to wear the yoke and be driven under the last.”73
In this quote, Garrison echoes the words of Wendell Phillips, who had for some time been making allusions to the American Revolution in his anti-slavery rhetoric. In time, he became even more militant in his words, asserting, for example: “Give me Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord rather than the cowardice and servility of a Southern slaveholder.”74
In William Lloyd Garrison, we can see a microcosm of the public opinion surrounding the two events. What can be derived from the press coverage and thought surrounding Brown’s and Turner’s respective insurgent actions is a knowledge of the ways in which the abolitionist movement evolved in the years that spanned the two events. It is clear from Garrison’s transformation that even this man, the most assertive white proponent of anti-slavery sentiment, was not without the very same baseline of racism that pervaded American society during this time period.
In 1831, he had seen Nat Turner as a criminal, had directed his sympathy towards Turner’s victims as he disavowed the Southampton Insurrection. In 1859, he saw John Brown as a Christ-like figure, a martyr on a cross. An argument can be made that this is a product of the different times in which the two attempted revolts took place. Following this particular line of reasoning, we might say that, clearly, what was unthinkable in the summer of 1831 had become thinkable in 1859.
However, this narrative would discount the fact that there was also a strong movement to disavow the actions of John Brown in the immediate aftermath of his raid on Harper’s Ferry. It is not, then, as if the public had been long primed for a John Brown to light the fires of revolution. Pushback existed, and this can be seen in the efforts made by the Infamous Six to distance themselves from Brown in the days and weeks following the raid, as well as in the words of Garrison himself, who wrote, only two days after Brown’s arrest, that the raid had been “a misguided, wild, and apparently insane…but well intended” endeavor.75 What appears to be historical fact is that the abolitionist movement in the late 1850s saw, in Brown’s death, an opportunity to turn the tables of public opinion on the institution of chattel slavery. However, this opportunity can also be argued to have existed in the aftermath of the Southampton Insurrection, perhaps even to a greater degree.
After all, the abolitionist movement would have had the added benefit of a narrative which saw hundreds of slaves summarily executed at the hands of a vengeful Southern people--- who committed, in John Hampden Pleasants’ words, acts that were “hardly inferior in barbarity to the atrocities of the insurgents.”76 Moreover, the Southampton Insurrection was carried out without the active participation of any white people, a fact which might have served to lend far more power to a potential martyrization narrative unleashed by the abolitionist movement--- after all, these were not white men who abhorred slavery on moral grounds and thus sought to end it, but rather black men who lived their lives under the Southern lash, and had struck their masters in a desperate blow to achieve their own freedom.
In light of these facts, it stands to reason that the aforementioned argument could be made with some success, but only if one were to disregard valuable data which shows that conditions for a martyrization narrative were perhaps even better in the aftermath of the Southampton , an argument which begs the following question: Why did the abolitionist movement seek to turn Brown into a martyr in 1859, when Nat Turner had presented a far better opportunity to strike a massive blow to the public perception of chattel slavery twenty-eight years earlier? First, we must keep in mind that the time period in which both of their lives took place was thoroughly marked by a racial divide which was not logical, but rather driven by a division which struck deep at the core of the nation.
Thus, it is imperative that the quantitative reasoning encompassing the theory that the public’s collective memory of these two men is skewed by such things as volume of correspondence be set aside, and instead replaced with a hypothesis which seeks to illuminate these two men in the context of what mattered most to nineteenth-century Americans--- race. What it comes down to, in the most basic of terms, is that Nat Turner was black, and John Brown was white. Turner lived and died a slave; Brown, a free man. This dichotomy, so deeply ingrained in their very existence, drove them to seek a conclusion which was as similar as it was unique. Indeed, the comparison between the two can only be made insofar as their ultimate goal. At the end of the day, it is clear that the divide between the two is as deep as the nineteenth-century zeitgeist dictated: Brown acted as the white man seeking to set the slaves free, and Turner as a slave seeking to free himself, and his people77.
This distinction may serve to account for their historical legacy, and the manner in which the press framed their descent into history. The manner in which Turner and Brown sought freedom, so disparate in the incredibly basic way that Turner was himself held in bondage as Brown enjoyed the liberties conferred upon him by the color of his skin, represent two ends of the same spectrum. In the eyes of the press, informed as they were by the baseline of racism present within the society in which they developed, Brown’s actions were as acceptable as they were dangerous. After all, he was a free man, privy to the full protection of the United States Constitution and the founding values of the nation. On the other hand, Turner was a piece of property, and thus had no right to rebel, even as the white man enjoyed the right to free him.
Examples of this dichotomy can be found even in the coverage of Southern newspapers. In the aftermath of the Southampton Insurrection, The Richmond Enquirer asserted that the rebels displayed “a horrible ferocity,” and labeled them “monsters.”78 When referring to Turner, they wrote that he was “a fanatic preacher…artful, impudent and vindictive.”79 However, when the same newspaper covered John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, they were quick to attenuate the blame placed on Brown’s shoulders, writing the following: “Violated laws and murdered citizens demand a victim at the hand of justice, if Brown is a crazed fanatic, irresponsible either in morals or law, there are yet guilty parties. He is then the agent of wicked principals.
If the Northern people believe Brown insane, what punishment is due to those who have poisoned his mind with the ‘irrepressible conflict’ and spurred his fanaticism to deeds of blood and carnage?”80 Some might argue that indeed, John Brown had pursued a plea of insanity in the Court of Virginia, and this in turn allowed the press a certain leeway in morally prosecuting others who may have influenced him. However, this narrative proves to be false in the face of the fact that Turner was also believed to suffer from some degree of insanity, and himself spoke--- through the voice of Thomas R. Gray, who took and edited his highly controversial confession--- of having visions and hearing voices.81 He relates, for example, the experience of having a vision:
Whether or not Gray’s pamphlet can be reasonably asserted to constitute a true depiction of Turner’s confession is immaterial. The pamphlet was widely circulated, and thus Turner’s purported insanity, which would surely be classified as schizophrenia in modern times, was common knowledge. Surely, this constitutes stronger evidence for an insanity plea than Brown ever presented.
Another matter of great importance was the Southern reaction to the Northern response to John Brown’s raid. Twenty-eight years before Harper’s Ferry, both sides of the Mason-Dixon line had joined in a quasi-brotherly sentiment of mourning for the lives lost at the hands of Turner and his men. The Northern reaction to Harper’s Ferry and the subsequent trial and execution of John Brown and his insurgents, on the other hand, sparked a sense of Southern outrage the likes of which had never been seen before. As Southerners attempted to dismiss Brown as a “damned black-hearted villain…with a heart black as a stove-pipe,”83 Northerners took direct aim at Southern culture and its vision of itself as the birthplace of American honor. James Redpath, a personal friend and close associate of Brown, for example, wrote that Brown had made Virginia “tremble in its breeches,” and revealed the “disgraceful truth” that the South was nothing but a “cowardly braggart.”84
He went on to insist that Brown had become Virginia’s “one hero on her soil” since the Marquis de Lafayette.85 Later still, he would single-handedly demolish all codes of Southern pride and manhood when he mocked: “They are not done quaking yet, I am very much afraid that diapers will be needed before the trial of Old Brown shall be finished.”86 Finally, Redpath concluded that Brown’s raid had been a “brilliant success,” as it had become a “demonstration of the cowardice of the South.”87
Perhaps more importantly than the personal attacks on Southern culture sparked by John Brown’s raid, the Southern states saw the attempted revolt as a stark reminder that the North was winning the slavery debate: As the criminal became the martyr, it became clear to the South that the damage was not, in fact, the invasion itself, but rather the wholesale condemnation of slavery that exploded throughout the North with Brown’s execution. Southern pro-slavery leaders such as John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander Stephens had, for a long time, recognized that the survival of chattel slavery south of the Mason-Dixon line hinged solely on whether slavery could be acquitted in “the tribunal of morals.”88
Without the weight of morals, they believed, justice became but an empty vessel; law became a dead letter compared to the anarchy of higher law and the dictum that might makes right--- this axiom of moral persuasion was the reason why the aforementioned Southern leaders had long attempted to censor anti-slavery writings, speeches and images since Nat Turner’s rebellion had set in motion the wheels of anti-slavery discourse twenty-eight years earlier.
Perhaps history panned out in such a way that the Southampton Insurrection became the silent precursor to the Northern reaction regarding Harper’s Ferry, as well as the subsequent widening of the rift between North and South. However, the central question to which the mind always returns still remains. A strong argument can be made that the end of slavery could have been precipitated in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s rebellion, but was instead left to fester for almost three more decades by an abolitionist movement which was far too passive in its pursuit of anti-slavery rhetoric.
There is no reason, barring the notion that it was far too radical to publicly support the violent actions of men who were held in bondage, that slavery could not have been brought before the aforementioned “tribunal of morals” in the summer of 1831. Indeed, one could even argue that to do so at that particular moment in time, thus forgoing the three decades of rising tensions and racial division that followed, may have avoided the possibility of a Civil War altogether.
In the months that followed the Southampton Insurrection, there was a window of time which saw a real possibility that Virginia might begin the process of emancipation--- a process which would eventually lead to the complete abolishment of the “peculiar institution” within the borders of the state. About forty petitions, signed by over two thousand white men, were submitted to the Virginia House of Delegate by the middle of October. Some of them called for the removal of the entirety of Virginia’s black population to Africa, but most of them instead called for the gradual emancipation of all of the slaves in the state. The Quakers of Charles City County, in a petition dated December 14, 1831, asked the House of Delegates to consider slavery “an evil in our Country…an evil which has been of long continuance, and is now of increasing magnate.”
This petition declared that slavery should not only be abolished, but that there should a “restoration of the African race to the inalienable rights of man.”89 Of course, this petition was among the most radical, but there were others which were far more in line, whether by their wording or their extent, with what might feasibly have been accomplished through peaceful, legal means. For example, a petition from Buckingham County, signed around the same time as the Quaker petition, also suggested emancipation, but did not do so on the basis of such abstract concepts as “the inalienable rights of man,” but rather on the basis of the signers’ worry that the state’s slave population was growing at a rapid pace, while the white population had grown stagnant--- a fact which would leave the state unstable, and at the mercy of “the menace of slavery.”90
These petitions, all of which called for the end of slavery in Virginia through a variety of means, were scheduled to be discussed at the General Assembly of Virginia’s new session, which was set to begin on December 5th. Some might preliminarily argue that these petitions to end slavery in Virginia were a product of a small minority of citizens, with the accompanying implication that they never truly had a chance to become anything substantial. However logically sound this line of reasoning might appear at a cursory glance, a deeper look into the matter reveals a bonafide grassroots movement that even enjoyed the support of some of the most ardent pro-slavery newspapers in the state.
On November 17th, shortly after the execution of Nat Turner, The Constitutional Whig urged Virginia legislators to have the courage to act promptly and decisively: “Every man feels the force of Mr. Jefferson’s metaphor, that we have the wolf by the ears, and its increasing truth. There is a general acknowledgment that something ought to be, and must be done.”91 The debate raged on until the end of January, 1832, and ended with what The Constitutional Whig termed “a ludicrous finale.”92 Every petition put forth by the citizens of Virginia failed at one point or another, and the only bill which managed to pass into law was one which forbade both free and enslaved blacks from preaching, and prohibited slaves from attending nighttime religious meeting unless accompanied by their masters.
Moreover, it barred free blacks from participating in trades if they refused the opportunity to be sent to Liberia. In the end, the movement that sought emancipation failed, and instead, Virginia enacted new slave codes to prevent future uprisings. One hundred and nine years later, historian Joseph Robert described the 1832 slavery debate in Virginia as the “final and most brilliant of the Southern attempts to abolish slavery.”93
In the wake of this failed political movement which would have seen the end of slavery in Virginia, what remains is a window of time--- which perhaps lasted for a little longer than four months--- in which the Northern press had a real possibility to impact the outcome of the movement. Indeed, what was William Lloyd Garrison writing about when Virginia’s General Assembly gathered on December 5th? As shown by The Liberator’s December 10th issue, he was, in fact, spewing vitriol towards the American Colonization Society, which he called “the best calculated attempt to corrupt the morals of society.”94
He was also discussing the first anniversary of Boston’s Philomathean Society,95 and a meeting in Philadelphia which saw the appointment of a Mr. William Robinson as chairman of an anti-colonization society.96 What he was not writing a single word about, however, was the very real possibility that Virginia may abolish slavery within its borders as a result of Nat Turner’s rebellion. It is possible that Garrison did not have access to information regarding the situation developing in Virginia. After all, it is known that Southern newspapers had a large degree of control over the dissemination of information, mainly through their use of postmasterships.
However, this is unlikely, as many of the major newspapers in Virginia were openly supportive of the nascent Southern abolitionist movement. Still, this might have been the missed opportunity, the moment to which modern citizens may look back to and believe that everything may have turned out differently. Of course, it is impossible to say what may have happened with any degree of certainty, but it would not be a stretch to theorize that the movement to abolish slavery within the borders of Virginia in the fall of 1831 may have had a much different outcome with the support of the North. Garrison, of course, is merely a stand-in for everybody else, for no degree of research reveals a single influential Northern figure or newspaper that saw what was happening in Virginia as an opportunity to further to cause they purportedly fought for.
When the North decided to act, in the wake of Harper’s Ferry, the further decades of rising tensions and sectional division had created a South that saw secession as the only solution to the issue of slavery. The glimmer of abolitionist discourse that appeared in Virginia following the Southampton Insurrection was replaced by pushback against the North itself. Brown’s raid convinced Southerners that, as a group, Northerners could no longer be trusted. George Fitzhugh, a leading pro-slavery writer, acknowledged that even Southern unionists must now see that having “Northerners among us is fraught with danger,” and explained that, even as the North might not “tamper with our slaves and incite them to insurrection, one man can fire a magazine, and no one can foresee where the match will be applied, or what will be the extent and consequence of the explosion. Our wives and our daughters will see in every new Yankee face an abolition missionary.”97
After Brown’s raid, there was no talk in the South of abolition as a means to solve the problem of slavery. Instead, secessionist doctrines became the dominant force within Southern political discourse.98 Quite obviously, the moment for lawful de-escalation had passed by, due in no small part to the passivity demonstrated by the North when it had the chance to dictate a peaceful resolution in the fall of 1831. Twenty-eight years later, in the summer of 1859, the South was too far gone, and Civil War had become inevitable.
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