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Speech of James M'Dowell, Jr.

Speech of James M'Dowell In the winter of 1831-32, inspired by Nat Turner’s insurrection in August 1831, the Virginia House of Delegates engaged in a lengthy debate about slavery, which eventually came down to a decision between two resolutions: one rejecting all thought or discussion of emancipation and another calling for the preparation for voters of an emancipation plan. On January 21, 1832, James M’Dowell Jr. entered the debate on the side of ending slavery, and in his speech he discusses Turner, not just as a man who had led a failed insurrection, but as an exemplar of what slaves were capable of and the lengths to which they would go to secure their freedom. For M’Dowell, Turner was less a man than a tragic case study of the horrors and evils of slavery. In quoting extensively from letters written at the time of the insurrection, M’Dowell speaks of the panic and terror that overcame the local whites, both in and around Southampton during the insurrection. Many families fled their homes, and “in numerous instances females, with their children, fled into the night with but one imperfect dress and no provisions.” An insurrection by blacks in just one county led to calls for defense and arms from some “thirty or more counties of the State.” M’Dowell draws the conclusion that Turner’s insurrection was a spark that fired the latent fear all Southern whites had of their slaves. 

Was it the fear of Nat Turner and his deluded and drunken handful of followers which produced or could produce such effects? Was it this that induced distant counties where the very name of Southampton was strange, to arm and equip for a struggle? No, sir, it was the suspicion eternally attached to the slave himself, the suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, that the same bloody deed could be acted over at any time and in any place, that the materials for it were spread through the land and always ready for explosion.

 The full text of this speech is available through the Internet Archive.


James M’Dowell Jr., Speech of James M’Dowell, Jr. (of Rockbridge,) in the House of Delegates of Virginia, on the Slave Question. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.