In the years following Nat Turner’s insurrection, William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper in Boston, published several letters and articles about the rebellion. The writers often argued that Turner should be remembered as an abolitionist hero, comparable to George Washington and other heroes of the American Revolution. In 1836, a contributor named only as “L” argued that not only should Turner be celebrated as a military leader like Washington, but that his cause was even greater.
Washington, who with our fathers purchased our freedom by blood and violence, are lauded as patterns of patriotism and Christianity. Nat Turner, and his associates, who endeavored to work out their own salvation from an oppression incomparably more grievous and unjust than our fathers endured, were treated as rebels, and murderous assassins, and were ruthlessly hung, or shot like wolves, and their memory is corrupt. (February 13, 1836)
According to “L,” the dehumanization of these freedom fighters distorts their work, and it is part of the cause of abolition to recast it in the heroic light it deserves.
Two years later in July 1838, Garrison took up this same point. In a printed speech he delivered on the Fourth of July for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, he posed the question, “Was he [Nat Turner] a patriot or a monster?” He argues that had Turner been successful, he would be remembered as we remember Washington, Lafayette, Hancock, and Warren. During the American Revolution, “‘Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God,’ was our revolutionary motto. We acted upon that motto—what more did Nat Turner?” (Liberator, July 13, 1838).
Turner deserves a place in the pantheon of our nation’s freedom fighters, argues Garrison, and frequent contributor to the paper H. C. Wright reiterates this point a few years later. He argues that “Nat Turner and his compeers, in imitation of Washington and the revolutionary heroes, appealed to arms to free themselves from bondage” (March 18, 1842). Like Washington, Turner needed to resort to violence in order to escape oppression and as such, should be celebrated as an abolitionist hero and leader.