North Carolina and The Nat Turner Slave Rebellion: Whites and their Beloved Enemies

Introduction

In August of 1831, a large slave rebellion took place twenty miles from the border of North Carolina in Southampton, Virginia. The rebellion was led by Nat Turner, a spiritual leader and slave, fighting not only for his personal freedom, but for liberation of all slaves. Turner led between fifty to sixty slaves during the rebellion, which resulted in the murder of fifty-five people across eleven plantations in Virginia. The rebellion was quickly put down by a large militia, but fear spread throughout the region into eastern North Carolina that other slaves would revolt like Turner. This fear is seen throughout North Carolina, as false rumors of more slave insurrections appeared all over the state. Although no actually rebellions occurred, many of these rumors were reported as fact. White mobs went throughout areas of eastern North Carolina searching for slave rebellion plots that did not exist. Innocent slaves would be tortured until they gave a false confession, and many slaves were murdered in mob violence or executed by the state. North Carolina state legislation responded with stronger restrictions on the rights of slaves and free blacks, and some proposed the end of slavery for the sake of protection for white families. A major defense among whites about the morality of slavery during this time was patriarchal one. Slave holders argued that slaves were simply part of the family and that slavery was a system of both love and honor for both the master and the slave. Slaveholders argued that they and their slaves carried mutual love for one another in that slaves fulfilled their obligation and submitted to their masters, and in return received their master’s provision (Rothman 2005, 20). North Carolina’s response to the Nat Turner slave rebellion strongly contrasts the “patriarchal” defense, and actually insinuates that whites saw African-American slaves as enemies rather than family.