Nat Turner: Maniacal Murderer or Virtuous Visionary?

Understanding the legal definition of murder helps to answer the question

August 21, 2011 is the 180th anniversary of Nat Turner’s revolution. It was in Southampton County, Virginia where he and others killed 55 persons to bring about an end to slavery. Did those killings mean that he was a maniacal murderer like Ted Bundy or a virtuous visionary like the colonial patriots such as the Sons of Liberty and the Boston, New York City, and Providence activists who beat, shot and killed Brits?

Well, let’s talk first about who he was and what he did before we determine what he was. Born on October 2, 1800 in Virginia, Nat was remarkably intelligent and learned to read and write. As an aside, I should mention that he and his family, friends, and followers never referred to him as Nat Turner and that was because he refused to acknowledge ownership by Samuel Turner, the man who had purchased him as a child. Following Samuel’s death, Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. Nat’s father had escaped when Nat was very young. And his father’s mother had been captured in what is now Ghana at age 13 and was shipped to this land. She was from an Akan ethnic group, specifically the Coromantee, which was notoriously rebellious against European and colonial enslavement—so much so that legislation was introduced in 1765 to ban their importation into the colonies because the were not “docile” enough. However, it never became law because their physical strength made them potentially excellent laborers. Although he came from a fiercely independent bloodline, he was profoundly religious and, in his words, “studiously avoided mixing in society … (instead) devoting (his) time to fasting and praying.” His love for Christianity and the Bible led him to become a preacher, later known as “The Prophet.” Following his escape in 1821, he returned a month afterward because, as he pointed out, the Holy Spirit in a vision told him to.

Four years later, he had another vision, this time wherein he saw “drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both black and white…” In 1828, he had a third vision, and it was in this one that “the Spirit… said the Serpent was loosened and Christ … (stated) I should fight against the Serpent… (and) should… slay my enemies with their own weapons.” Two years thereafter, he was transported to the home of Joseph Travis who was the new husband of Thomas Moore’s widow. His official master now became a child named Putnam Moore. In 1831, he received a fourth sign, and this was in the form of a solar eclipse that directed him to strike a serious blow against slavery. He therefore informed four compatriots and they planned the attack for July 4th but his illness caused it to be rescheduled. His fifth and final sign came on August 13th as another solar eclipse. It was then that the fateful date of August 21, 1831 was set. And it was at 2 a.m. on that date that the five-foot-eight-inch, 160-pound, broad-shouldered, slightly goateed, large-eyed Nat and his cadre of six men began their mission, stopping first at the home of the slave owning Travis family where each of the occupants were killed. Dozens of other deaths followed.

It was during the August 22nd midday march toward Jerusalem, Virginia that a militia and then state and federal troops moved in on the group. But Nat and some others escaped, with Nat successfully evading capture for nine weeks before being tracked down on October 30th. On November 5th, he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. A week later, on November 11th, he was hanged, skinned, beheaded, and quartered, with body parts being dispensed as souvenirs. Nat and his followers—a group that had grown to approximately 70 blacks, including 40 enslaved and 30 free—ultimately killed 55 whites and spared others. In Virginia and as far as North Carolina, approximately 250-300 enslaved and free blacks—with most having absolutely no direct or indirect connection to Nat—were accused and murdered by white mobs or executed by state government officials. And, by the way, slave owners were reimbursed for their losses, i.e., the deaths, of their “slave property.”

So, what was Nat? Did he have the “mens rea” required in criminal law? Was his purpose simply to commit murder? Did he have a malicious goal or a political one? The answer is he did not have the “mens rea” or a murderous purpose but most certainly had a political goal. The law defines murder as an unjustified killing motivated by malice, meaning wickedness. And the law also declares that a killing is justified if the person “subjectively” and reasonably “believes it to be necessary to avoid a harm or evil to himself or to another” and if that “harm or evil (e.g., slavery) sought to be avoided by such conduct (e.g., the killing) is greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense charged (e.g., murder).” Therefore, Nat is not guilty. Case closed.

What other option did he have? He couldn’t sue because he, like all blacks, had no legal standing, as the various courts had consistently affirmed and as the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly confirmed 26 years later in Dred Scott. And even if he did, the laws in effect during his time completely slammed the courthouse door in his face. For example, a 1705 Virginia law proclaimed that “If any slave resists his master … (and is therefore punished by his master) and shall happen to be killed … the master shall be free of all punishment … as if such ‘accident’ never happened … ” And in the North Carolina v. Mann case, an enslaved woman named Lydia had attempted to escape from a whipping. As a result, she was shot and wounded by her master’s overseer. The state Supreme Court in 1830 refused to convict him and ruled that slave masters have “absolute authority” over slaves and cannot be found guilty of any crime committed against them.

Did Nat do a good thing by killing people? Is killing ever a good thing? Of course not. But in response to lethal or otherwise serious attack as well as in response to repression and injustice, it’s sometimes a necessary thing. Look at the Founding Fathers’ response to Britain’s taxation without representation. Look at the Unionists’ response to the Confederates’ treason. Look at President Roosevelt’s response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time of Nat’s revolution, slavery as it had come to be known had existed on this land for 212 years since August 20, 1619. How long is long enough? What would you do in response to the centuries long and brutally violent loss of freedom, family, land, language, name, culture, religion, human status, limb, sexual dignity of daughters, mothers, and sisters, and often lives of dear loved ones? Slavery had to end, and Nat had the virtuous vision to see it end 34 years later with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment following the Civil War. He deserves our thanks, even if it’s 180 years ago from this very date.