Friday, February 5, 2010

Garrison Comments on Nat Turner's Rebellion

Many historians of the nineteenth century consider 1831 a watershed year. In fact, this year is of such significance that a book has even been written covering its momentous events (1831: Year of Eclipse by Louis P. Masuer).

Two of the those important events in 1831 had much in common. On January 1, 1831 William Lloyd Garrison (pictured here) started publishing his antislavery newspaper The Liberator in Boston. Garrison's clear and unabashed abolitionist views expressed in his press were not well received, even in the North. Eight months later, on August 21, Nat Turner led a group of slaves on a bloody rampage through Southampton County, Virginia. Turner and his band eventually killed at least 55 white men, women, and children before they were stopped by the Virginia militia. Turner initially escaped capture by hiding out, but he was caught on October 30, tired and then hanged on November 11. Many Southerners blamed Garrison and his newspaper for bringing abolitionist views to their slaves' knowledge and thus fomenting insurrection. Of course most slaves couldn't read and the circulation of The Liberator was not of much significance this early in its career, but nonetheless, such views were not to be tolerated in the slave states.

I was curious about what Garrison wrote in his paper concerning Nat Turner's rebellion. After doing a little searching I found an interesting passage from the September 3, 1831 issue of The Liberator that I thought I'd share.

"What we have long predicted,-at the peril of being stigmatized as an alarmist and declaimer,-has commenced its fulfilment. The first step of the earthquake, which is ultimately to shake down the fabric of oppression, leaving not one stone upon the other, has been made. The first drops of blood, which are but the prelude to a deluge from the gathering clouds, have fallen. The first flash of lightening, which is to ignite and consume, has been felt. The first wailings of bereavement, which is to clothe the earth in sackcloth, have broken upon our ears.

In the first number of the Liberator, we alluded to the hour of vengeance in the following lines:
Wo if it come with storm, and blood, and fire,
When midnight darkness veils the earth and sky!
Wo to the innocent babe-the guilty sire-
Mother and daughter-friends of kindred tie!
Stranger and citizen alike shall die!
Red-handed Slaughter his revenge shall feed,
And havoc yell his ominous death-cry,
And wild Despair in vain for mercy plead-
While hell itself shall shrink and sicken at the deed!

Read the account of the insurrection in Virginia, and say whether our prophecy be not fulfilled. What was poetry-imagination-in January, is now bloody reality. 'Wo to the innocent babe-to mother and daughter!' Is it not true? Turn again to the record of the slaughter! Whole families have been cut off-not a mother, not a daughter, not a babe left. Dreadful retaliation! 'The dead bodies of white and black lying just as they were slain, unburied'-the oppressor and the oppressed equal at last in death-what a spectacle!"

Garrison ends his column with this sentence: "IMMEDIATE EMANCIPATION can alone save her from the vengeance of Heaven, and cancel the debt of ages."

Garrison and other abolitionists clearly saw that the only way to prevent further outrages such as Turner's rebellion was to immediately free the slaves. He believed that only more bloodshed could come from their continued enslavement. Garrison would again appear to be somewhat prophetic when one considers the loss of life that the Civil War would cost only 30 short years later.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! Thank you for investigating this. Really appreciate your efforts.