5 min read

Sparks to the Tinder of Black Revolt and White Hysteria

Sparks to the Tinder of Black Revolt and White Hysteria
AI visualization of enslaved men plotting the Nat Turner's revolt in 1831.

The handful of readers who have followed these posts from the beginning will get a bit of deja vu from this week's video, the script for which came from the companion post to the very first video I posted on the YouTube channel a little more than six months ago. It remarks on the counterintuitive difference between Virginia fire-eater Edmund Ruffin's reaction to John Brown's failed raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal of 1859 (Ruffin made a point of traveling to "the seat of war" to witness Brown's hanging) and his very different response to the hysteria provoked by the Nat Turner revolt of 1831.

Shifting vantage points from South to North, it turns out that Southern reaction to Turner's rebellion was what alerted the Boston elite to something it had been oblivious to througout 1831: the emergence of a radical new publication in its midst. From Thomas H. O'Connor's Lords of the Loom: The Cotton Whigs and the Coming of the Civil War:

His honor, Harrison Gray Otis, Mayor of the City of Boston, did not understand it at all. On his desk were explosive letters from the Governor of Virginia and the Governor of Georgia, demanding that he take action against some "incendiary" newspaper, published in Boston, that was being circulated among the plantations, inciting the black people to riot and revolt. Nat Turner's abortive uprising in August, 1831, had recently struck terror into the heart of the entire South, and many Southern leaders blamed the Liberator for inciting the Negro rebellion. Althouth there was no evidence that either Turner or his associates had ever seen the paper, the South demanded an end to such outrageous publications. Senator [Robert Y.] Hayne of South Carolina had just sent a blistering letter insisting upon action against the editor of the offending newspaper, and the National Intelligencer even now was publicly inquiring of "the worthy mayor of the City of Boston" whether any law could be found to prevent publication of such "diabolical papers."
Mayor Otis was at a complete loss. Although the Liberator had been making its appearance for almost a year now, he had never heard of it – nor had any of his friends and acquaintences. Obviously, however, this was a matter that must be looked into; and the Mayor ordered an investigation of the offending publication. In due time His Honor was informed that the newspaper called the Liberator was edited by a man named [William Lloyd] Garrison, whose office was nothing but an "obscure hole," whose only "visible auxiliary" was a Negro boy, and whose supporters were only a few "insignificant persons of all colors."
Harrison Gray Otis breathed a sigh of relief – it was obviously only a tempest in a teapot – and sat down to reassure his friends in the South that this unfortunate incident was of no consequence. This new "fanaticism," he wrote, had no influence whatsoever among persons of consequence in the Bay State. "Nor was it likely," he emphasized, "to make proselytes among the respectable classes of our people."
"In this, however," wrote a bewildered Harrison Gray Otis, some years later, in a masterpiece of understatement, "I was mistaken."
Just how mistaken he had been, even Otis himself [who died in 1848] would never know. This "obscure" little paper and its "fanatic" editor were destined to revolutionize completely the antislavery movement in the United States, and tear apart what has been called the "great conspiracy of silence."

Clement Eaton, in his book Freedom of Thought in the Old South, situated the Nat Turner rebellion and the emergence of the Liberator in the ongoing rise "rise of the common man to political power in the South" and the decline of the old liberal Tidewater aristocracy "as exhausted tobacco fields and rice plantations became less productive" and "'[c]otton capitalism' became a strident aggressive force in politics and the intellectual life of the section":

The synthesis of the two conflicting forces, Jacksonian democracy and the repudiation of eighteenth-century liberalism, was attained in connection with the slavery question. The Jacksonian democrats made no effort to disturb the vast complex of property rights involved in the institution of slavery. Although they murmured at times against the inequality of slave taxation compared with the taxation of other property, they accepted it. Furthermore, they cooperated in the censorship of belated Jeffersonians who criticized slavery. The great Whig planters, on the other hand, became the most tolerant, the moderating, group in the South. ... Aristocrat and plebian alike, however, wished to keep the land of Dixie a white man's country. The turning point in the Southern attitude to slavery came about the year 1831. In that year occurred both the shock of the Nat Turner rebellion, and the irritation caused by [the] appearance of the abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. In the autumn of that year the famous debate on emancipation in the legislature of Virginia began, and shortly afterwards Thomas Dew published his classical defense of slavery – one of the first big guns in the proslavery argument that held slavery to be a positive good.

Later, in a chapter on Southern fears of servile insurrection, Eaton notes:

Although the Southampton insurrection was quickly suppressed, the latent danger of the slave system was poignantly revealed. The most frightening fact was this: The revolt was not due to cruel treatment, for Nat had received throughout his life kind consideration from his masters, and the rebel leader had been a faithful and industrious slave. But his was a complex personality. He was the son of a wild African woman and a runaway slave who had not been captured. His mother had led him to believe that he was a prophet, that he had the power of healing. Consequently, he adopted and air of reserve and mystery in his relations with his fellow slaves. Nat was, in truth, a mystic who saw visions of white and black angels engaged in battle and blood flowing in streams. At the same time he possessed a highly observant and restless mind, which impelled him to experiment with making paper and gunpowder, and to learn to read. Thomas R. Gray, who interviewed him in prison and wrote down his "Confessions," believed that the savage outbreak was due to "the gloomy fanaticism" of the Negro. This primitive fanaticism was an unfathomable quality in the Negro character, which might at any time furnish a spark to the tinder of revolt. It was curiously ironic also, that Nat had been profoundly affected by reading the prophecies of vengeance in the Book of Revelation. The insurrection was made more terrifying by the fact that, maddened by apple brandy, the slaves committed fiendish murders. ...
The Nat Turner revolt started a wave of contagious fear in other Southern states. ... The Southern newspapers did much to spread "the black terror." John Hampden Pleasants, returning from an investigation of the Southampton insurrection, found that there was a great deal of exaggeration in the newspapers accumulated on his desk.

This squares with Ruffin's recollection of "a condition of extended & very general community-insanity."

See you next post. If you'd like to get these delivered to your inbox (for free), hit the subscribe button and enter your email address. You may need to check your spam folder for the confirmation email, but I'll never spam you or share your address. You'll just get these posts with the video embedded. (If you use Gmail, you may need to drag the first regular email from your Promotions folder to your inbox, but then you should be good to go.)