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"The Southampton Insurrection" from the New York Ledger


The Southampton Insurrection

This rendering of the life of Nat Turner by Emerson Bennett clearly paints Turner as a charlatan whose warped mind forced him to believe himself a prophet, convince others of the same, and use his power over his fellow slaves to carry out the rebellion. The story opens with a scene from Turner’s childhood in which several slaves, including Turner’s mother, discuss his uncanny ability to know things that occurred before he was born. It was this discussion that “made him a fanatical monster, as cold-blooded, unswerving, unmerciful and terrible as a thug of India.…” Turner’s belief in his supernatural abilities along with his intelligent yet generally uninformed mind led him to create his own religion: “Getting a few scriptural phrases jumbled together in his ignorant mind, he sought to evolve a faith and religion of his own.” Once Turner believed himself to be a prophet ordained by God, he became convinced that he was meant to bring an end to slavery and “to be a sort of Saviour of his race.” He was easily able to convince the slaves around him of this and his followers “became blind tools in his hands.” He followed signs and dreams that he contorted to fit in with his plans:

He had, or professed to have—undoubtedly he believed he had—communications from the unseen world telling him to prepare for some great and astounding revolution, and his sleep was full of wild dreams and visions, which he interpreted to suit his dominant hallucinations.

After his rebellion had failed, his allies were hanged, and Turner was left alone, he could no longer see himself as a prophet: “The Utopian dream was over, the hallucination was passed, the chimeras had vanished, the scales had fallen from his eyes, and he was now only a hideous outlaw.” Bennett concludes that had Turner not been convinced of his own supernatural abilities since childhood, the rebellion never would have occurred. “All these murders, terrors, miseries and sufferings, because an old, gray-headed negro had said in the presence of a young one, that the latter was a born prophet, destined to astonish the world.”

Emerson Bennett, “The Southampton Insurrection,” New York Ledger. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.