Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion: Including the 1831

Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion: Including the 1831 "Confessions"

by Herbert Aptheker

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In the summer of 1831, a band of some forty slaves led by Nat Turner attacked slave-owning residents of Southampton County, Virginia. One of the largest and most violent revolts in the history of the young nation, the rebellion took the lives of some sixty white men, women, and children. An outcry against the South's exploitative slave system, the revolt was…  See more details below


In the summer of 1831, a band of some forty slaves led by Nat Turner attacked slave-owning residents of Southampton County, Virginia. One of the largest and most violent revolts in the history of the young nation, the rebellion took the lives of some sixty white men, women, and children. An outcry against the South's exploitative slave system, the revolt was suppressed within forty-eight hours, and Turner, who eluded authorities for months, was eventually captured, sentenced to death, and executed.
The impact of Turner's uprising was monumental. Abolitionists looked for ways to encourage and support future insurrections while white Southerners took revenge on both slave and free African-Americans. Nearly 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured, and murdered by white mobs.
Herbert Aptheker's account of the bloodiest slave uprising in U.S. history was the first full-length study of its kind. Meticulously researched, it explores the nature of Southern society in the early nineteenth century and the conditions that led to the rebellion. Described by the Journal of American History as "a thorough and scholarly treatment," the text includes Turner's "Confessions," recorded before his execution in 1831.

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Including the 1831 "Confessions"

By Herbert Aptheker

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 The Estate of Herbert Aptheker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13730-8



The Turner Revolt was the extra drop of water that overflows a cup, it was the precipitated pebble that causes ripples in a pond. And just as the effect of that one drop or that pebble would be nil, or almost indiscernible were there an empty cup or a dried-up pond, so the significance of the Revolt would have been very slight if it had not been true that it came at about the end of a decade of depression and some five or six years of intensive agitation among the slaves in this hemisphere. It is, then, important for a clearer understanding of this event to consider these two probably closely related factors which made up the vital setting.


It is possible to point to the pictures of eastern Virginia drawn by Virginians (usually Western) in the debate of the House of Delegates of 1831-1832. They would be pictures of "desolation and decay," of "stationary" towns and "declining" villages. But these descriptions are noteworthy for a lack of preciseness, and one's faith in them may further be lessened by realization of the fact that most of the artists had axes to grind. Yet, though we turn to facts and figures, and to the accounts of more disinterested and less rhetorical witnesses, the picture remains much the same.

Thus Craven points to the lamentations of Virginia papers in the 1820s. They referred to the fact that gentlemen farmers and fine dwellings had disappeared and: "In their places had come poorer homes, truck patches of cabbages and potatoes where once the great gardens of jassamines, tulips and roses grew, and families that knew not education or hospitality." It is at about this time that John Randolph writes of "Poverty stalking through the land while we are engaged in political metaphysics....." The decade of the twenties was the period between the former high natural fertility of the soil and the future scientific methods of farming, which, together with the returned prosperity of the lower South and thus a greater market for Virginia slaves, were to cement the interests of the propertied classes of most of Virginia with the entire slave system.

In an Alabama newspaper of 1831 may be found this item: "The Cotton Market—The very low price of this great staple commodity of the southern country and the depressed condition of the market in every part of the world, furnish matter of anxious interest to the cultivator of the soil." In an appendix to an article by David Christy of Cincinnati this appears: "Production and manufacture of cotton now [1825] greatly above the consumption, and prices fell so as to produce general distress and stagnation, which continued with more or less intensity throughout 1828 and 1829. The fall of prices was about 55 per cent."

With the fall in the price of cotton went a very closely corresponding decline in the price of slaves, which spelt disaster to Virginia, the most important slave-market of this country. (The marketing of slaves was very important in making the slave system profitable to the slaveholders of eastern Virginia.) This fact is clearly shown in the table prepared by U. B. Phillips. Both cotton and slaves were the cheapest from 1825 to 1830 that they were to be until the one disappeared. The approximate price in Virginia of a prime field hand hit rock bottom ($400) in 1825 and stayed there until 1829. Not until 1836 was the money value of a slave as great as it had been in 1819, but the uptrend started in 1830. About one year later the uptrend in cotton prices had also definitely started.


As already indicated, the piling up of Negroes in the tidewater counties was an indication of economic maladjustment. Virginia supplied the lower South with slaves. A depression in the lower South meant less of a demand for slaves. A lowered demand meant a lowered price and a clogging of the market, i.e., an increase in the slave population. This was what happened in the ten years preceding the Turner Revolt.

The data support this generalization but a precise soul would be driven to distraction by these same data, for disagreement in detail is their distinguishing feature. But the figures are, usually, close enough to satisfy any but the most precise; surely close enough to make valid certain generalizations.

The figures, in a few different kinds of sources, for Virginia as a whole reveal for the two decades, 1810-1820, 1820-1830, a slow but steady growth in the three classifications of population.

a) Population changes in Virginia as a whole 1810-1830.

But when these figures are allotted according to geographic sections, it becomes easier to understand why the Turner Revolt had, in Virginia, the effects it did. It helps one to understand the uneasy condition of society directly preceding the episode, which will later be discussed in detail, and the debates, bills, letters, laws, migrations, terror and ideological changes which, after the Revolt swept Virginia and, soon thereafter, the rest of the South. The salient factors in these figures are the low rate of increase of the white population in eastern Virginia and the higher rate of increase of the Negroes therein from, especially, 1820-1830, with the reverse being true in Western Virginia.

The errors concerning these figures are serious. First, Niles gives two sets of figures, both of which agree quite closely with the official data, as far as Western Virginia is concerned, but the first of which is completely wrong as far as eastern Virginia is concerned. The most significant error here is his figure for Whites in Tidewater Virginia for 1830, 158,523, which is 100 less than the same region had in 1820. His second set of figures gives this item as 166,089 which is fairly close to the official figure of 167,001. And, what aggravates the case, Niles, in discussing the figures, uses the first set, the wrong set, and thus states ".... the Tidewater counties have actually decreased in their White inhabitants...." A. O. Craven makes the same kind of an error, but the magnitude of his is greater than that of Niles. Craven says: "From 1820 to 1830 Virginia's rate of population increase fell from 37½ per cent where it had stood in the previous decade, to 13½ per cent. The increase of free whites fell from 35 per cent to 15 per cent for the state as a whole with a loss of 92,625 persons in the eastern section." (Craven's references for this are "United States Census; Farmer's (sic) Register, I, 5.") He goes on: "The total increase of whites in the next period (1830-1840) was only a trifle over 3 per cent and there were some 26,000 fewer people in the older portions of the state in 1840 than there had been ten years earlier. Many counties in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions lost population and only the growth of the western counties gave the state any gain whatsoever." And the reference here is "Farmer's (sic) Register, I, 40."

The census figures will shortly be given. They disagree with those cited by Craven, and Craven, it is believed, misread Edmund Ruffin's journal also. The same percentage figures are there given, but the first, 37½, does not apply to the decade 1810-1820, but from 1790-1800. Where Craven got the figure 92,625 is not known. What the source he cites says is ".... while, in 1790, there was in that district (Eastern Virginia) a majority of 25,000 whites, the slave and free colored population outnumbered them at every successive census, until, 1830, the excess was upward of 81,000."36 The second series of statements made by Craven is also in error. The reference to a periodical of 1834 cannot, of course, substantiate Craven's statement concerning population trends from 1830-1840. Where that was gotten from is not known. It does not agree with the official figures. The source mentioned to substantiate his ideas about population changes in counties does not do so. It is there37 simply stated, and not quite accurately, that some eastern counties lost in whites from 1820-1830, but nowhere is it said that ".... only the growth of the western counties gave the state any gain whatsoever."

The facts concerning population in Virginia as given by the official publication of that state, based upon census returns, are:

b) Sectional population changes, Virginia 1810-1840

(District 1 includes the counties from the sea coast to the Tidewater; district 2 the counties from the head of the Tidewater to the Blue Ridge Mountains—commonly called the Piedmont; district 3 the counties between the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Mountains, commonly called the Valley; district 4 the counties West of the Allegheny Mountains.) 1810

Percentages will display the trend more clearly:

c) Population change by percentage and districts, Virginia, 1810-1840. (1830-1840 is added for comparison and will be further used later.)

It appears, then, that as to the quality of the trend Niles and Craven were right but both exaggerated, the latter more than the former, its quantity.


To make more complete the picture of the economic environment surrounding the Turner Revolt, it is necessary to examine Southampton County, the precise scene of its occurrence. The first thing to observe is that it is located in the southeastern part of Virginia, in the Tidewater section, bordering on the State of North Carolina. It is, further, important to realize that Southampton was an important economic unit within the Tidewater area. Its size is 600 square miles. In 1840 it was the leading county in the number of swine, in cotton produced and products of the orchard. It was second in potatoes and in rice. In 1830, out of 39 Tidewater counties, only three surpassed Southampton in its number of free Negroes, and only four in its number of whites and its number of slaves.

Since it was one of the Tidewater counties, one expects it to show signs of the economic decay prevalent for some dozen years preceding 1831. The following table will illustrate both this decay and the relative economic position of the county:

d) Economic position of Southampton County, 1810-30. (In 1810 there were 104 counties, in 1820 there were 110 and in 1830 there were 111 in Virginia.)

The population changes in this county for these twenty years reflect the same disturbing trend as those for the eastern section as a whole: That is, the rates of growth of the slave population, and of the free Negroes were considerably faster than that of the white population. It may here be noted that according to Drewry, there were "numerous Quakers" in the county. He gives no reference and no figures on this have been seen.

e) Population changes, Southampton County, 1810-30.

Moreover, directly prior to the Turner Revolt there had occurred a series of events which were more stirring, more mass-awakening, than soil exhaustion, or price decline, or disproportionate population growth. The latter were, indeed, the main figures in the picture, but there were significant minor features, shadows and colorings. There were evidences of slave unrest, both here and in foreign lands, there were anti-slavery pamphlets, letters, petitions and speeches, repressive legislative efforts, Negro conventions, the beginnings of Garrisonianism. These must be shown to complete the setting for the event under consideration.


With the growth of industrial capitalism in the first half of the nineteenth century went a growth in the democratic movement. Both these developments were very prominent in England and the increasing agitation over slavery in her colonies is one manifestation of the progressive spirit of the times. There is evidence that some members of the West Indian slave-holding group considered slave labor of doubtful economic utility. Niles, in 1829, tells of a petition from the coffee growers of Dominica (a small island now part of the Leeward Islands, about 25 miles from Martinique) to Parliament praying that they be permitted to export all their slaves. This project was vehemently denounced by the sugar planters of the same island. Niles goes on to point out that while in 1812 there were 27,000 slaves in Dominica, on December 31, 1828 there were but 12,200. Furthermore, staple crop producers within British India, where slavery was forbidden, petitioned Parliament to abolish slavery in the West Indies. And it was in the decade of the twenties that "Exhaustion of the soil and the competition of foreign sugar from Cuba and Brazil were depressing their (the British West Indian slaveholders') one staple industry.....

The abolition movement in England grew not only because it fitted the Zeitgeist, and appears to have been supported by some economic groups, but also because from 1829 to 1832, there were numerous, and, at times, serious slave uprisings or plots within some of the British West Indies, and in Martinique, Santiago (then called St. Jago) and Brazil.

The first island, apparently, in which a slave uprising at this period occurred was Martinique. A little later, report is made of an uprising in Antigua and then in St. Jago (Santiago). Next is a report of an outbreak in Caracas (Venezuela) starting on May 11, 1831 and some months later of the start of a revolt in Jamaica. From the contemporary reports it appears likely that the plots in Tortola and Brazil occurred a short time after the Turner Revolt.

Whether these revolts, economic facts and the general progressive spirit are the explanations of the revivified abolitionist propaganda in England or not, the fact, and for this discussion, the important fact, remains that the propaganda was vitalized and it did have its repercussions in this country. According to one contemporary English writer, the change in the abolitionist movement was qualitative as well as quantitative in 1830, moving to a demand for immediate emancipation. G. H. Barnes writes: "In the nation as a whole, however, the progress of the [British Anti-Slavery] movement was noticed only in a small way before 1830; but the parliamentary debates in August of that year put it on the front page of the great daily newspapers. Everywhere men were asking what it signified for America..... With interest painful or exultant, Americans followed the struggle in parliament and the agitation in the empire." On January 10, 1831, John Quincy Adams wrote "The abolition of slavery will pass like a pestilence over all the British Colonies in the West Indies; it may prove an earthquake upon this continent."

Some events in Spanish America also help one to understand the "peculiarly sensitive" condition of the slaveholders. It is true, of course, that the anti-slavery law, promulgated by Mexico in 1829, was evaded by American slaveholders resident in Texas, who now called their slaves apprentices. But, as Miss Martineau stated: "The Mexicans took alarm; decreed in the State Legislature of Texas that no apprenticeship should, on any pretense, be for a longer term than ten years; forbade further immigration from the United States; and sent a small body of troops to enforce the prohibition. This was in 1829 and 1830." True, soon Mexico itself exempted Texas from the abolition law, and within seven years the sovereignty of Texas was recognized and the problem satisfactorily resolved for the slaveholders. But in 1830 it was a problem and it did cause uneasiness. The attempt of Mexico, and Colombia, apparently backed by England and France, to get rid of slavery and Spanish rule in Cuba and Puerto Rico, starting in the late 1820s, was another source of concern for the American slaveholder at this same period.


There were, too, in the years directly preceding the Turner Revolt, events at home of a very disturbing nature.

Governor John Floyd of Virginia, in his message to the Legislature of 1829-1830, stated: "A spirit of dissatisfaction and insubordination was manifested by the slaves in different parts of the country from this place [Richmond] to the seaboard." The newspapers of the south, and, indeed, of the rest of the country were exceedingly stingy in allotting space to such news. But the following item indicates, if not actual disturbances among the Virginia Negroes, certainly fear of this: "On Saturday, last week, before the court of Hastings at Richmond, came on the trial of Jasper Ellis, a colored man charged with the design of promoting an insurrection of the slaves, about the beginning of August. A witness related the conversation which he had overheard between Ellis and another colored man, relative to the supposed rising of the blacks. The case was submitted to the court without argument, when the prisoner was acquitted."


Excerpted from NAT TURNER'S SLAVE REBELLION by Herbert Aptheker. Copyright © 2006 The Estate of Herbert Aptheker. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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