Nat Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831, for his bloody insurrection in Virginia 29 years before the Civil War officially took place, but the slave’s revolt contributed even more fuel to the simmering fires between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists.
Anti-abolitionists believed if the slaves were set free, the result would be a bloody race war in which freed slaves would slaughter slaveowners and non-slaveowners alike. Abolitionists no doubt felt the slaveowners, at the least, deserved it. They denounced slavery in the strongest possible terms, calling slaveholders sinners and criminals. Sixty white people were killed in the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Virginia. Those who supported slavery blamed the rebellion directly on abolitionists.
William L. Garrison wrote that “The Liberator” had predicted the revolt in January 1831 in its debut issue with this poem:
“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 siare—
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 a bloody reality. …”
The Liberator came into being through the meeting of Garrison and Benjamin Lundy, a New Jersey Quaker, who circulated his journal, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, as he traveled all throughout the land, on horseback and on foot, attempting to raise public consciousness against slavery. Lundy is credited with igniting William Lloyd Garrison’s interest in freeing the slaves. In 1831 Garrison founded a paper in Boston, called the Liberator, and became the most noted of radical anti-slavery abolitionists. James Russell Lowell noted the genesis of Garrison’s involvement in the movement in these lines from his poem:
“To W. L. Garrison
In a small chamber friendless and unseen
Toiled o’er his types one poor, unlearned young man:
The place was dark, unfurnitured and mean,
Yet there the freedom of a race began.”
The battles for freedom were far from over and in 1884, a poem about Nat Turner attributed to T. Thomas Fortune, was published:
HE stood erect, a man as proud
As ever to a tyrant bowed
Unwilling head or bent a knee,
And longed while bending to be free:
And o’er his ebon features came—
A shadow ’twas of manly shame—
Aye, shame that he should wear a chain
And feel his manhood withered with pain.
Doomed to a life of plodding toil,
Shamefully rooted to the soil!
He stood erect; his eyes flashed fire;
His robust form convulsed with ire;
“I will be free! I will be free!
Or, fighting, die a man!” cried he.
Virginia’s hills were lit at night—
The slave had risen in his might;
And far and near Nat’s wail went forth.
To South and East, and West and North,
And strong men trembled in their power.
And weak men felt ’twas now their hour.
“I will be free! I will be free! ,
Or, fighting, die a man!” cried he,
The tyrant’s arm was all too strong,
Had swayed dominion all too long;
And so the hero met his end,
As all who fail as Freedom’s friend.
The blow he struck shook Slavery’s throne:
His cause was just, e’en skeptics own;
And round his lowly grave soon swarmed
Freedom’s brave hosts for Freedom’s armed.
That host was swollen by Nat’s kin
To fight for Freedom, Freedom win,
Upon the soil that spurned his cry:
“I will be free, or I will die!”
Let tyrants quake, e’en in their power,
For sure will come the awful hour
When they must give an answer, why
Heroes in chains should basely die,
Instead of rushing to the field
And courting battle ere they yield?
Timothy Thomas Fortune was born a slave in Florida in 1856, four years before the Civil War began. He became a well-known “author, a journalist, an agitator, and a lecturer … the first to suggest the Afro-American League, an organization in the interest of the Negro race. He was the president of the first convention of this league, which met in Chicago in 1890. His address as president of the convention was a scathing arraignment of the South. …
The National Negro Business League was the outcome of a conversation between Booker T. Washington and Mr. Fortune. …
The whole energy of his [Fortune’s] life is devoted to the interests of the Negro race in America. He wields a sharp rapier. He is the complement of Booker T. Washington. Each is doing his own work in his own way; the one supplements the other’s work. …” (20th Century Negro Literature, Daniel T. Culp, 1902).
Benjamin Lundy was 42 when Nat Turner was executed. He died 8 years later. W. L. Garrison was almost 26 and he was 55 when the Civil War began. T. Thomas Fortune was a child throughout the Civil War, yet all of them saw the evils of slavery through the eyes of the slave who was called “The Prophet.”