Eric Foner on Nat Turner’s Rebellion

(December 25, 2016) In this lecture Columbia’s history professor Eric Foner shares thoughts about Nat Turner, who was a Virginia slave that started an uprising in 1831 in a failed attempt to end American slavery. In pondering Turner’s place in history, Dr. Foner said:

There is no [postage] stamp of Nat Turner. Now, why not?…Is it because he killed a lot of white people?…But there are plenty of native Americans on postage stamps that killed white people; Geronimo, Crazy Horse…But somehow native Americans doing that doesn’t seem to bother anybody whereas African-Americans doing it…seems to be beyond the pale.

Dr. Foner fails to mention a number of points suggesting that Turner may not merit the honor of a postage stamp. It is especially unfortunate that he fails to mention them given that Foner’s audience is composed of impressionable college students.


First, most of the approximate fifty whites that Turner and his followers killed were women and children.

Second, many victims were defenseless. The first victim was Turner’s owner, Travis, who was sleeping in bed, as were all the family members. Turner struck the man a hatchet blow to the head. It was done so ineptly, however, that Travis started to get out of bed. The murder was finished when one of Turner’s followers stuck Travis a second blow to the head with a broadax.

After his gang killed the rest of the sleeping family, Turner led his group into the baby’s room. The infant apparently recognized Turner and smiled at him. Turner backed away but instructed another group member to kill the baby. The follower complied by smashing the infant’s head against a brick fireplace.

Third, Turner may have been insane. He found omens in the sun and the moon as well as hieroglyphic portents in the leaves and suchlike. His confidence in his supernatural powers to discern things that nobody else could see and his claims that God spoke to him directly had enabled him in prior years to become a kind-of a religious leader to slaves near the Travis farm. They came to label him as “The Preacher.”

Fourth, initially Turner’s rebels may have been intoxicated. Only a few hours before the first murders they celebrated “The Preacer’s” Sunday sermon with a feast that included apple brandy, which was abundantly available in the area.

Fifth, the great majority of slaves in the area declined to follow Turner’s lead even though blacks composed nearly 60% of the population. In a number of instances they even protected their owners from Turner’s rampage. Out of more than 9,000 blacks in the region, “The Preacher” was only able to recruit about sixty followers. There is even evidence that some masters gave weapons to their wards and that the armed slaves helped put-down the insurrection.

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Clifford Dowdey The Land They Fought For; Francis Simkins and Charles Roland A History of the South



4 thoughts on “Eric Foner on Nat Turner’s Rebellion

  1. Eddie Inman

    I wonder if Mr. Foner ever read The Confessions of Nat Turner and the brutality and savagery that was done to those women and children victims. And why celebrate the individual who single-handedly tipped the scales of the Virginia legislature against emancipation?

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      I don’t know if Foner read Styron’s novel or not, but I suspect he has. One thing I have discovered, however, is that the Turner appologists excuse the use of hatchets and broadaxes because murders with such weapons were less likely to attract attention than would firearms.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Here are some responses I got to this post on the American Civil War Facebook page.

      Nat Turner should have a statue. On Monument Avenue.

      Nat Turner fought against being enslaved. Of course he deserves recognition. Mention of attacking defenseless people deserves a comparison to Lee’s army enslaving free blacks in 1863. So if we use the same logic that means Lee shouldn’t have monuments either, right?


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