Was Nat Turner Right?


Continuing the thread on Nat Turner from yesterday, it's long been held that Turner's revolt essentially scuttled any chance of manumission in the South. The early 1830s in Virginia were the last time when emancipation was taken up for debate before the Civil War. For those who believe that the Civil War was tragic, the Virginia debates stand out as a good point to plant a counterfactual. But we should be clear about what Virginia meant by "emancipation." 

Here's Virginia governor John Floyd in 1831:

I shall in my annual message recommend that laws be passed to confine the slaves to the estates of their masters, prohibit negroes from preaching, absolutely to drive from this state all free negroes, and to substitute the surplus revenue in our treasury annually for slaves, to work for a time upon our railroads etc. and then sent out of the country, preparatory, or rather as the first step to emancipation.

So what we have is a curious emancipation -- repression, apprenticeship, and then exile. Eric Foner actually concludes that, far from stifling talk of emancipation, Turner's revolt fueled this spirit of repression and abolition:

It has been an enduring myth in historical literature that in 1831 Virginia was on the verge of abolishing slavery and that Turner's revolt prevented such action. As recently as 1970 Frank Vandiver wrote in his history of the Confederacy that Turner "killed the debate for manumission." Yet the very opposite is true: far from killing the debate, Nat Turner opened it. In the closing months of 1831, petitions poured into the Virginia legislature from throughout the state. Some called for the removal of all free blacks from the state blaming them for fomenting unrest among the slave; some demanded new restrictions on the black population; but many, arguing mainly from the fear and insecurity the Turner revolt had created and point to the continuing increase of the black population, called for the gradual emancipation of the slaves and their colonization outside the country.

This gets us right back to the question of the Civil War. Would such repression, paired with indentured servitude, and then the effective exile of Virginia's black population, have been preferable to the Civil War? The question itself is rather bizarre. I suspect that there are actual reasons why emancipation never came to the state, though it seemed ripe for it. At the time of Turner's rebellion, the locus of slaveholding was moving West. 

Question for further reading: Virginia eventually became a kind of breeder state, one which exported slaves to western slave states like Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee. What were the family situations of the men who joined Turner? Were they separated in any degree from their loved ones? Did this play any role in their willingness to resort to such violence?

More questions: We recoil in horror at Turner massacring women and children. But in several of the primary documents, men countenance genocide in response to Turner (or the next revolt). How different was the scale of Turner's violence? We have, in the records of Virginia, men killing Native American women and children over land disputes. Does Turner stand out because of the massacre, or because of the fact that the massacre was perpetrated by a slave in revolt?

We need not have answers today. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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