Was Nat Turner Right?

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In September of 1831, following the rebellion in Southampton, William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, the Liberator, attacked slavery (in typically colorful fashion) as the root cause of Nat Turner's uprising:

All the blood which has been shed will be required at your hands. At your hands alone? No -- but at the hands of the people of New England and of all the free states. The crime of oppression is national. The south is only the agent in this guilty traffic. But remember! The same causes are at work which must inevitably produce the same effects; and when the contest shall have again begun, it must be again a war of extermination. In the present instance, no quarters have been asked or given. 

But we have killed and routed them now -- we can do it again and again -- we are invincible! A dastardly triumph, that can think, without emotion, of the extermination of the blacks! We have the power to kill all -- let us, therefore, continue to apply the whip and forge new fetters.

It's interesting that Garrison was very clear that the entire country was indicted in the crime of slavery. (This is a man who called the Constitution "a covenant with death.") More interesting for our purposes is Garrison's insistence that Southerners might seek the "extermination of the blacks." It's tempting to dismiss this as Garrison's typically superflous rhetoric. But in fact Garrison might well have been pulling from the contemporary sources of his time.

In reading Southern reports of Nat Turner's uprising, I was a little surprised to see how often the writers alluded to the possibility of ethnic cleansing/genocide/pogroms.

From the Richmond Whig on September 3, 1831:

Not having witnessed the horrors committed by the blacks, or seen the unburied and disfigured remains of their wives and children, we were unprepared to understand their feelings, and not at first admit to that extenuation, which a closer observation of the atrocities of the insurgents suggested. Now, however, we indivdually, fell compelled to offer an apology for the people of Southhampton while we deeply deplore that human nature urged them to such extremities. Let the fact not be doubted by thoee whom it most concerns, that another such insurrection will be the signal for the extirpation of the whole black population in the quarter of the state where it occurs...

Lest you doubt the implication of "extirpation," the Whig doubled down later in the article:

We assert that 20 armed whites would put to the rout the whole negro population of Southampton, and we repeat our persuasion, that another insurrection will be followed by putting the whole race to the sword.

From a letter sent to the New York Morning Courier and Enquirer from Petersburg, Virgina, published September 7, 1831:

The recent attempt if these deluded fanatics has opened the eyes of the people placed every man on his guard -- another such an enterprize will end in the total extermination of their race in the Southern country -- bloody as the remedy may be, it will be better thus to rid ourselves of, than longer endure the evil...

From the National Intelligencer, published September 15, 1831:

No one knows better than we do the sincerity with which the intelligent population of New England abhor and reprobate the incendiary publications which are intended by their authors to lead to precisely such results (as concerns the whites) as the Southhampton tragedy. But, we appeal to the people of New England, if not in behalf of the blacks, whose utter extermination will be the necessary result of any general commotion, whether they will continue to permit their humanity to lie under the reproach of approving or even tolerating the atrocities among them which have already caused the plains of the South to be manured with human flesh and blood.

From a diary published in the New York Daily Sentinel on September 17, 1831:

Call on Mr. Herthorn at 12 o'clock A.M. Had a conversation on slavery. Mainted that the blacks, as men, were entitled to their freedom and ought to be emancipated. Mr. Herthorn, his clerk, and a country doctor were the only persons present. The doctor assumed that blacks were not men, and that they out to be exterminated. "They had declared war first," he said, "let them be hunted like wild beasts..."

The author of this diary entry was, himself, soon driven from Virginia by a mob. 

What accounts for this willingness to contemplate a Final Solution for Virginia's black population? Foner notes that at the time of Turner's insurrection, Virginia's slave economy was in decline. Overfarming of tobacco had destroyed much of the soil, and the action seemed to be further west in states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. 

And yet slavery was pioneered in Virginia. It was Virginia where the first of the slave codes were authored. It was Virginia that first established whiteness as the basis for a broad aristocracy. It was Virginia that built American freedom on a foundation of American slavery. By the time of Nat Turner's revolt, Virginia was home to more enslaved black people than any state in the country.

In short, you have a state saddled with a massive population of enslaved labor, saddled with two centuries of culture and tradition resulting from enslavement, and yet a declining demand for that population's work. My sense is that the debates around manumission in the 1830s had very little to do with Christian goodwill, and a lot more to do with a deep-seated fear that the crimes of the state's forebears might someday come due.

All through the primary documents, you find white slaveholders asserting that they did not create the problem of slavery, and have thus been unfairly saddled with its resolution. Using another rebellion as a pretext to effect the "utter extermination" of black Virginians, or the blacks of that sector of Virginia, would allow the state to wash its hands of the dirty business which made it great.

I raise all of this to further buttress a point which I have pushed since I began this exploration: The American slave society, at its very core, was a system of existential violence. Perhaps it shocks us to read men so easily contemplating ethnic cleansing. But why? Is there really such a difference between the weight of the former crime, and the willingness to effect through sale the banishment of someone's mother, father, son, daughter, wife, husband to oblivion? And not just to do so rarely, or under great duress, but to effectively hold it as a business model? I maintain that the systemic retailing of enslaved black people is only a shade away from systemic murder. If you believe that it is your right to destroy family whole families, why would you not believe it was your right to destroy a race?

To understand Nat Turner's rebellion, to understand a man who would usher women and children into oblivion, you must see a world in which black women and children lived under that same perpetual threat. Slavery was war against the black family. Most important, you must reject the expectation of a dehumanizing hyper-morality. You can not ask Nat Turner to be twice as good. Most black people are not. 
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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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