The Abolitionist Movement

The Abolitionist Movement

Slave Uprisings

Abolitionism in North America began when enslaved Africans ran away from their masters or organized rebellions in name of freedom. Well before a religiously motivated, transatlantic, and interracial abolitionist movement developed in the nineteenth-century, numerous slave rebellions and insurrections occurred during the preceding centuries. Rebellions were rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. There is evidence of more than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings, each involving 10 or more slaves from the seventeenth-century up to the Civil War.

One of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history took place in 1811. The German Coast Uprising took place outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, and involved some 500 slaves, according to accounts; however, it only was responsible for the casualties of two white men. Volunteer militias and a detachment of the U.S. Army suppressed the rebellion. Ninety-five black people were killed as a result of executions and direct confrontations with opposing militia forces. In the weeks following the uprising, an additional forty-four accused insurgents were captured, tried, and executed.(12)

Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Two-panel drawing (top and bottom). In the top panel, three scenes labeled as follows: Figure 1 'a mother intreating for the lives of her children.' Figure 2: 'Mr. Travis, cruelly murdered by his own slaves', Figure 3'Mr. Harrow, who bravely defended himself until his wife escaped.' On the bottom panel, one scene: Figure 4: 'A company of mounted Dragoons in pursuit of the Blacks.'
Wood-cut depiction of the various stages of Nat Turner’s Rebellion from the first massacres to the search and capture of Turner’s conspirators.Figure 6-1: Horrid Massacre in Virginia by Library of Congress has no known copyright restriction.

Another large slave uprising, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, took place in 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia. Like many slaves, Nat Turner was inspired by the evangelical Protestant fervor sweeping the republic. He preached to fellow slaves in Southampton County, gaining a reputation among them as a prophet. He organized them for rebellion, awaiting a sign to begin, until an eclipse in August signaled that the appointed time had come.

Turner and as many as seventy other slaves killed their masters and their masters’ families, murdering a total of around sixty-five people. Turner eluded capture until late October, when he was tried, hanged, and then beheaded and quartered. Virginia put to death fifty-six other slaves whom they believed to have taken part in the rebellion. White vigilantes killed two hundred more as panic swept through Virginia and the rest of the South.

Thomas R. Gray was a lawyer in Southampton, Virginia, where he visited Nat Turner in jail. He published The Confessions of Nat Turner, the leader of the late insurrection in Southampton, Va., as fully and voluntarily made to Thomas R. Gray in November 1831, after Turner had been executed:

“For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew… it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand… And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, … Ques. Do you not find yourself mistaken now? Ans. Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work—and on the appearance of the sign, (the eclipse of the sun last February) I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”

Nat Turner in the woods brandishing a knife and staring down a white man who is pointing a musket at him.
“Discovery of Nat Turner”Figure 6-2: Nat Turner Captured by William Henry Shelton is in the Public Domain .

Nat Turner’s Rebellion provoked a heated discussion in Virginia over slavery. The Virginia legislature was already in the process of revising the state constitution, and some delegates advocated for an easier manumission process. The rebellion, however, made that reform impossible. Virginia and other slave states recommitted themselves to the institution of slavery, and defenders of slavery in the South increasingly blamed northerners for provoking their slaves to rebel. (12)

One of those northerners who instilled fear among white southerners was David Walker, a free black man who, like Turner, advocated for rebellion if slavery did not immediately end. Walker was born a free in North Carolina in 1796. He moved to Boston in the 1820s, lectured on slavery, and promoted the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal (11) In 1829, he published An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World , one of the most radical and impassioned abolitionist pleas in American history. Walker highlighted the nation’s hypocrisies, including its promise of freedom and its sanctioning of slavery. He also called out some of the nation’s Christians for their complicity in the system of slavery and their willingness to use and distort scripture from the Bible to sanction it. Walker also warned whites who practiced or tolerated slavery that their day of reckoning was close at hand. There is no evidence Nat Turner ever read An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World , but Walker’s apocalyptic words foreshadowed Turner’s looming rebellion. (1)

a black man wearing a cotton robe and standing on a mountain top and raising his arms and hands to the sky as if calling on God.
Frontispiece from the 1830 edition of David Walker’s AppealFigure 6-3: David Walker Appeal by Britannica Encyclopedia is in the Public Domain .

“I count my life not dear unto me, but I am ready to be offered at any moment. For what is the use of living, when in fact I am dead. But remember, Americans, that as miserable, wretched, degraded and abject as you have made us in preceding, and in this generation, to support you and your families, that some of you, (whites) on the continent of America, will yet curse the day that you ever were born. You want slaves, and want us for your slaves!!! My colour will yet, root some of you out of the very face of the earth!!!!!!” (13)

Walker died months after the publication of his Appeal, and debate continues to this day over the cause of his death. Many believe he was murdered. Regardless, Walker became a symbol of hope to free people in the North and a symbol of the terrors of literate, educated blacks to the slaveholders of the South. (11)