In 1831, a Virginia slave named Nat Turner assembled an “army” of slaves and led a rebellion that killed 55 white men, women, and children. Turner was tried, convicted, and hanged. Read the documents below and try to determine what kind of person Nat Turner was—a hero or a lunatic?
Confessions of Nat Turner – Thomas R. Gray
Source: These confessions were narrated to lawyer Thomas R. Gray in prison where Nat Turner was held after his capture on October 30, 1831. His confessions were published on November 5, 1831 for his trial. (Figure below).
The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. As Fully and Voluntarily Made to Thomas R. Gray, in the Prison Where He Was Confined, Nov. 5, 1831, For His Trial.
Cover Page of the Confessions of Nat Turner
[To the Public]
[Thomas R. Gray:]
Public curiosity has been on the stretch to understand the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influences its diabolical actors.... Every thing connected with this sad affair was wrapt in mystery, until Nat Turner, the leader of this ferocious band, whose name has resounded throughout our widely extended empire, was captured.... I determined for the gratification of public curiosity to commit his statements to writing, and publish them, with little or no variation, from his own words.
Agreeable to his own appointment, on the evening he was committed to prison, with permission of the jailer, I visited NAT on Tuesday the 1st November, when, without being questioned at all, commenced his narrative in the following words:--
SIR,--You have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it--To do so I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born. I was thirty-one years of age the 2d of October last, and born the property of Benj. Turner, of this county. In my childhood a circumstance occurred which made an indelible impression on my mind, and laid the ground work of that enthusiasm, which has terminated so fatally to many, both white and black, and for which I am about to atone at the gallows. It is here necessary to relate this circumstance--trifling as it may seem, it was the commencement of that belief which has grown with time, and even now, sir, in this dungeon, helpless and forsaken as I am, I cannot divest myself of. Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something, which my mother overhearing, said it had happened before I was I born--I stuck to my story, however, and related somethings which went, in her opinion, to confirm it--others being called on were greatly astonished, knowing that these things had happened, and caused them to say in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shown me things that had happened before my birth. And my father and mother strengthened me in this my first impression, saying in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast--[a parcel of excrescences which I believe are not at all uncommon, particularly among negroes, as I have seen several with the same. In this case he has either cut them off or they have nearly disappeared]--My grandmother, who was very religious, and to whom I was much attached--my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house, and whom I often saw at prayers, noticing the singularity of my manners, I suppose, and my uncommon intelligence for a child, remarked I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave--To a mind like mine, restless, inquisitive and observant of everything that was passing, it is easy to suppose that religion was the subject to which it would be directed, and although this subject principally occupied my thoughts....
[Thomas R. Gray:]
He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably. On other subjects he possesses an uncommon share of intelligence, with a mind capable of attaining any thing; but warped and perverted by the influence of arly impressions. He is below the ordinary stature, though strong and active, having the true negro face, every feature of which is strongly marked. I shall not attempt to describe the effect of his narrative, as told and commented on by himself, in the condemned hole of the prison. The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.
Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When and where was it published? What kind of publication is it?
Close Reading: Describe Nat Turner according to himself.
Close Reading: Describe Nat Turner according to Gray’s introduction and conclusion notes.
Corroboration: Is there a contradiction between Turner and Gray’s description? How and why?
Sourcing: Is this a trustworthy source? Does this account of Turner’s character seem believable? Explain.
“An Address to the Slaves of the United States” – Garnet
Source: Speech delivered by Henry Highland Garnet at the National Negro Convention of 1843 held in Buffalo, New York. The convention drew 70 delegates including leaders like Frederick Douglass.
You had better all die--die immediately, than live slaves and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity. If you would be free in this generation, here is your only hope. However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves....
The patriotic Nathaniel Turner followed Denmark Veazie [Vesey]. He was goaded to desperation by wrong and injustice. By despotism, his name has been recorded on the list of infamy, and future generations will remember him among the noble and brave.
Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When? How long after the Turner rebellion was this document written?
Sourcing: Who is the author of this document speaking to? How does his audience affect what he says and how he says it?
Close Reading: According to the author of this speech, what kind of person is Nat Turner? What proof does he provide to illustrate that Turner is this type of person?
Contextualization: Why does this author think of Nat Turner in this way? Think about when this article was written: How does the author’s historical context shape how he thinks of and represents Turner?
Sourcing: Is this interpretation of Turner trustworthy? Why or why not?