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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

Cover Page of the Confessions of Nat Turner

[To the Public]

Thomas R. Gray: Public curiosity has tried to understand Nat Turner’s motives behind his diabolical actions.... Everything connected with the rebellion was wrapped in mystery, until Nat Turner the leader of the violent and savage band, was captured.... I was determined to end public curiosity and write down Nat Turner’s statements, and publish them, with little or no change, from his own words.

Nathaniel Turner:

As I child, I knew I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had showed me visions of things that had happened before my birth. My father and mother said I was intended for some great purpose. I was a child of uncommon intelligence and I knew I was never meant to be a slave. To a mind like mine, restless, curious and observant of every thing that was happening, religion became the subject that occupied all of my thoughts.

Thomas R. Gray: Nat Turner is a complete fanatic. The calm way he spoke of his late actions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him. I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.

Vocabulary

diabolical
evil, like the devil
prophet
a person God chose to protect and lead people
fanatic
intense dedication to an idea
fiend
monster, demon, devil

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When and where was it published? What kind of publication is it?
  2. Close Reading: Describe Nat Turner according to himself.
  3. Close Reading: Describe Nat Turner according to Gray’s introduction and conclusion notes.
  4. Corroboration: Is there a contradiction between Turner and Gray’s description? How and why?
  5. Sourcing: Is this a trustworthy source? Does this account of Turner’s character seem believable? Explain.

“The Southampton Tragedy” – The Richmond Enquirer

Source: Editor. “The Southampton Tragedy.” The Richmond Enquirer. Virginia, 27 September 1831.

I am led to believe, from all that I can learn, that Nat Turner has been planning his mischief and disruption for quite some time. After pretending to be inspired to rebel by God, he made his announcement of rebellion to the Blacks. He has used every means in his power, to gain control over the minds of the slaves. A dreamer of dreams and a would-be Prophet, he used all the arts familiar to such pretenders, to trick, confuse and overwhelm the slave’s minds.

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When and where was it published? What kind of publication is it?
  2. Sourcing: Who is the author of his article speaking to? How do you know this? How does his audience affect what he says and how he says it?
  3. Contextualization/Close Reading: According to the author of this article, what kind of person is Nat Turner? Think about when this article was written: How might its publication date affect how the author represents Turner? Refer to your timeline if necessary.
  4. Sourcing: Is this a trustworthy source? 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 far better all die—die immediately, than live slaves, and throw your misery upon your children. However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of freedom 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 was driven to desperation by the wrong and injustice of slavery. By force, his name has been recorded on the list of dishonor, but future generations will remember him among the noble and brave.

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When? How long after the Turner rebellion was this document written?
  2. Sourcing: Who is the author of this document speaking to? How does his audience affect what he says and how he says it?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. Sourcing: Is this interpretation of Turner trustworthy? Why or why not?

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