The Confessions of Nat Turner cannot be easily separated from the legal proceedings that created it. Unlike the other slave narratives in the collection, Nat Turner’s was not produced by choice. Nat Turner’s anti-slavery work was done in action, not in the written word, but the popularity of The Confession may have had as much of an impact as the rebellion he organized and led.
Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of only a handful of full-blown slave rebellions in 19th century North American history, alongside the 1811 New Orleans uprising and two failed conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey). As any first year student of American history knows, Nat Turner’s revolt is significant because it convinced the South that slavery was an institution that could no longer be debated and in the last thirty-five years of slavery in the United States, the planting class defended its cruel system with all its legal, political, and intellectual power—leading eventually to a growing sectional divide and the Civil War, which led to the greatest American slave revolt with almost 200,000 armed escaped slaves invading and occupying the lands they once worked.
The document itself is simply Nat Turner’s confessions made in jail over the course of a few days of conversation with Thomas Gray. Soon after this talk he was executed. As the trial transcripts put it: “The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the house of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” (264–265) The confession is bracketed by these official documents, Grays comments, and information on the whites killed in the uprising and the fate of the captured blacks. Some of these were free before the rebellion and for all intents and purposes were free for the duration of their insurrection.
There is not that much in The Confessions of Nat Turner in way of autobiography, but what he focuses on is significant for what is tells us about the nature of power in antebellum Southern slavery. Nat Turner wanted the world to know how he taught himself to read and how he was given a mission by God. In this way, he established his intellectual and moral independence from his masters. Several years before the rebellion, he escaped and apparently could have stayed away, but he returned after a month in order to fulfill this mission. Thus, he also wanted to make clear to his accusers that he from that moment on a slave by choice.
Most of the confession is his description of the various murders he and his group were engaged in. The description of the rebels taking axes to the skulls of children are hard to read, but Nat Turner is brutally honest about the necessity for justice and the divine nature of his mission. To blunt, Nat Turner’s actions was no less shocking than what was done to slaves throughout the nation, everyday, for decades. It was less of a tactical mission than a martyrdom. He makes comparisons to Christ. “Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heaves that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work—and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.” (253) Success was not promised him and apparently it was not expected. His mission was to awaken and shock the conscience of the nation. The response by whites suggests he was successful.
We can also read The Confessions of Nat Turner as yet another example of the state suppression of libertarian movements. Examples of this abound, of course, but this one is particularly clear and well-documented, particularly in the courts refusal to consider the context, their rapid application of lethal justice, and the indiscriminate killing of many of the participants in the rebellion.