Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
From 1791-1804, Haiti fought its independence war (Haitian Revolution). This was no ordinary revolution, however; it was a massive slave rebellion. To people in the United States, particularly the American South, the Haitian Revolution was their worst nightmare come to life. To make matters even worse, a slave named Gabriel Prosser attempted to start his own slave rebellion in 1800. Another massive revolt was started near New Orleans in 1811 by Charles Deslondes. The greater the fear of American slave owners became over the idea of a slave insurrection, the harder they fought to defend the institution of slavery.
It was into this world that Nat Turner was born in 1800. A Virginia slave, Turner would end up leading one of the largest slave rebellions in American history. His revolt failed to topple the evil of slavery but still managed to shape the century and pushed the country closer towards civil war.
The Second Great Awakening
To understand Nat Turner's Rebellion, we need to understand a little more about the world he lived in. In the early 19th century, Americans started turning more and more towards religion to understand their lives. This sparked a massive religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Characterized by individual expressions of faith and a focus on a personal role in the Church, this revivalist movement greatly impacted the lives of millions of Americans.
Nat Turner was one such individual. He was a Virginian slave, bought and sold several times, and he started to eagerly participate in the religious fervor of the era. He molded himself into something of an unordained preacher, spreading the gospel amongst his fellow slaves. He became pretty well respected for it, too, and emerged as a spiritual leader.
Turner, like many Americans at the time, felt he had a special role to play in this world. He believed that God had chosen him for a purpose, and in the 1820s he had a series of visions that confirmed his belief. Turner interpreted these visions to mean that God had chosen him to start a slave rebellion and kill all the slave-owners.
Nat Turner told his six most trusted friends of his vision, and they decided to kill all white people connected in any way with slavery: including men, women, and children. Then, they waited for a divine sign to start their insurrection. On August 31 of 1831, the sun appeared bluish-green due to an atmospheric irregularity. Turner and his men had their sign.
They started on Turner's own plantation, killing the entire family while they slept. From there, they moved onto 11 nearby plantations in 24 hours, gathering more supporters as they went. In total, Turner inspired between 40 and 60 slaves to take up arms and follow him. Fifty-five people were killed by the mob.
News of the rebellion spread quickly, and the governor assembled a militia to combat Turner. The white citizens were so terrified at the stories of the rebellion that they were quick to join this militia. Turner and his men turned from the rural plantations and started marching towards the town of Jerusalem, with the intent of burning it down and killing all who lived there. However, they found the road blocked by the massive and heavily armed militia. The slaves panicked and scattered. Many of the rebels were hunted down and killed, but Nat Turner eluded capture for two months before being captured.
Aftermath and Impact
Nat Turner was tried and executed by the state of Virginia, as were 55 other slaves who had participated or known about the rebellion. White mobs across the state started accusing other slaves of being conspirators, and the death toll continued to rise as blacks were murdered without trial. The governor tried to stop this vigilantism, arguing that the law must remain supreme to individual actions.
So, what was the overall impact of Turner's Rebellion? Although it failed, it had some lasting influences. For one, it demonstrated that slave communities were interacting and communicatiing far more than most white slave-owners realized. In particular, Turner's role as a spiritual leader had been instrumental in building up the networks that would support his rebellion. Many plantation owners restricted the ability of their slaves to interact with people from outside the plantation after this.
The rebellion also worked to further the debate against slavery. Many in the North saw it as proof that slavery was inhumane and could only lead to more violence. There was even a serious push in Virginia itself to abolish slavery after the rebellion. However, the violence also confirmed white Virginians' worst fears about slave revolts, and instead they voted to pass new laws further protecting slavery and restricting rights of free and enslaved blacks. The rest of the South followed suit, buckling down on slavery and racial division. Most historians see the rebellion as having greatly increased the conflict over slavery in American society, bringing the nation ever closer to civil war.
Nat Turner (1800-1831) was a Virginian slave who led the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831. Turner was a religious man, deeply impacted by the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, who believed he had been chosen by God to start a slave revolt. The revolt escalated quickly, attracting between 40 and 60 slaves and killing 55 white Virginians. A state militia stopped the rebellion, and Turner and others were executed. In the end, the Nat Turner Rebellion failed to overthrow slavery but did manage to deepen anti-slavery support. As a result, slave-owners held onto slavery even tighter, and the United States became more divided. In another 30 years, those tensions would finally break.
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