Slavery caused many problems in the south, especially in Virginia in the 1830’s. The documents found in Kenneth Greenburg’s book The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents show how slavery was the cause for both the whites and the blacks to act in cruel manners to those of the opposite race. The white slave owners, even if they did treat their slaves well, were still involved in slavery, the idea of taking away someone’s rights and owning them as property, and treated them very unjustly. On the other hand, slaves revolted against their masters, in terrorist-like ways, also acting inappropriately. Both the white slave owners and the black slaves committed unmoral crimes against the other group. This act did however unite both the whites with the whites and the blacks with the blacks, having a common cause to work together, whether it was to defend slavery or fight against it.
Nat Turner was an African American slave, owned by Joseph Travis. He was born October 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia. Ever since he was a young boy, people believed that there was something special about him, and he believed that he was a prophet here on earth to do God’s will. He was able to read but was never taught how to and received signs from God that led him to initiate the Nat Turner Slave Revolt. Nat was joined by fellow slaves because they agreed that the masters weren’t always the evil, it was more the idea of slavery. His followers believed that Nat really was receiving signs from God and that he was the prophet they should follow. Nat was a religious man and because the Protestant faith he believed in, said that in order to be good, you were responsible to remove sin from the world, he felt it was his responsibility to destroy slavery even if his master treated him well.
Slavery is what kept the economy of Virginia alive, as well as among other southern states. “There is $100,000,00 of slave property in the state of Virginia, and it matters but little how you destroy it […] when it is gone, no matter how, the deed will be done, and Virginia will be a desert.” (Dew, 131). The south’s economy was based mainly on cotton, but also on tobacco, sugar, and corn, all of which are products which require labor, most easily supplied by the slaves on the plantations. Without the labor of all the slaves, numbering approximately 470,000 (Dew, 119), the production of these goods would decrease drastically and the economy would suffer. There were many arguments and debates among the southerners after the rebellion as to whether or not they should emancipate the slaves and hurt their economy or keep them and go against the freedom of men.
Virginia raised slaves for other states in the south, keeping what they needed and selling the others to make more money for themselves. There were approximately six thousand slaves sold to other slave states each year. If slaves were emancipated, in order to make up for the money they would lose by not selling their extra slaves each year, the government of Virginia would have to find an extra $94,000,000 (Dew, 119). Most people agreed that losing that much money in order to free the slaves made no sense and fought against emancipation.
The only way a master would free one of his slaves and emancipate him is if the state government paid the master for his slave property, like it was stated in Thomas R. Dew’s, Abolition of Negro Slavery. The masters were under no obligation to free the enslaved men without compensation for their own benefit. The slave owners were fully aware of this fact, and therefore knew that they could make the slaves do anything they wanted and unless they were paid in full for the slave, they would always be there, having at least a certain level of respect for their master. This was the belief of the white men, that is, until Nat Turner led his slave rebellion.
The slaves read about in this book did not rebel just because they wanted to, their masters pushed them to the point where they realized how wrong slavery was, and decided they need to do something about it. An article from the Liberator on September 3, 1831 blamed the revolt on the masters. It made a valid point that these white men took pride in liberty, being freemen that were individuals who were for the most part in control of their own lives. Meanwhile, as they took pride in this, they hypocritically turned around and enslaved men, taking away all of their freedoms and making them their property. Who wouldn’t be angry at the person who took away their liberty and now owns them, they have to do whatever their master says when they say it.
The slaves in Virginia, more specifically in Southampton County, were growing tired of being treated so unfairly so they decided to take action against their owners, in what most people would find a horrendous way. In August 1831 Nat gathered a group of slaves and began going around the county killing every white family he came in contact with. He started with his own master’s family, the Travis’ family, where he struck him in the head and killed him. The revolt didn’t last for very long, for you can only kill so many white families before the word gets out and people begin to counteract the rebellion. The slaves did however, commit an atrocious crime, killing sixty-one white people, both men, women and infant children (Floyd, 111). Although they had been treated unjustly by their masters, living a very undesirable life, they had no justification for murdering family after family.
When a group of people have a crime committed against them, it is human nature to come together and work as one. This was seen on the part of the slave owners, as families were being murdered in numerous numbers. They set up troops of men in order to suppress the rebellion against the whites, having many volunteers willingly help to defend their race and put down the slave uprising. “In a few hours the troops marched, Captain Randolph with a fine troop of cavalry and Captain John B. Richardson with light artillery, both from this city and two companies of Infantry from Norfolk and Portsmouth.” (Floyd, 104). They had no doubts that it was their duty to take back their control over the slaves and remind them that they are the ones in charge, that they own the black men on their farms and plantations.
Just the fact that there were slaves made the white men feel more powerful and they no longer looked down upon each other. If you were a white man, you had a higher status than the slave and that was all that mattered. The battle between the slaves and the whites was that of race, not of an economic division. No matter how capable a slave could have been, because they were black, they would always be seen at a lower level than any white man, whether he was successful or not. White men didn’t want to emancipate slavery because they were concerned about their own public status, that they wouldn’t be seen so highly if there weren’t slaves below them. They wanted to keep slavery because of selfish motives, not caring about the cruelties that the slaves were living under.
Not only did the revolt cause the whites to join together, but the slaves did as well. They started with just a few men, Nat and nine others, Nat being the leader they looked up to. As they traveled from house to house killing the whites, the slaves from each household joined the rebellion, sometimes it was by force and others they were very willing to make a statement against their enslavement. By the time they were completely suppressed, they had traveled twenty miles and had formed a group of about seventy men (Floyd, 111). Many of these men had wanted to do something against their masters, to show their unhappiness, but they did not have the motivation to do it on their own, they needed Nat to push them forward.
Slavery in Virginia caused many problems, both against the black men who were enslaved and also among the slave owners, when Nat Turner decided to lead a rebellion against them. Both groups of people, the white men as well as the black slaves, committed crimes which resulted in many deaths. This led to the uniting of the blacks with the blacks and the whites with the whites, even non slave owners with the slave owners. Since slavery was such a necessity to keep the economy alive in the south, whether or not to emancipate the slaves was a large question that lead to many debates.
Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Boston, MA: Bedford, 1996.
Greenberg, Kenneth, S. The Confessions of Nat Turner: Introduction. Boston, MA: Bedford, 1996.