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."
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.
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.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.