Nat Turner’s story is the stuff of legend. In August 1831, the enslaved Virginia preacher with a reputation for resistance led the largest slave revolt in the history of the United States. In a jailhouse interview given shortly after his arrest, Turner shared the spiritual reasons behind his decision to lead dozens of Black men in the revolutionary uprising that took the lives of more than 50 White men, women and children.
He also revealed the originally scheduled date for the rebellion: “It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th of July last.” But for a brief illness, Turner and his followers would have turned the national holiday into a nightmare for enslavers and their proslavery allies.
The revelation is unsurprising. In the decades before the Civil War, many enslaved Americans revered the Fourth of July. Given their status as property rather than people, the annual celebration of the Declaration of Independence and the idea that all men were created equal made the national holiday an incredibly powerful symbol for them. They repeatedly marked the occasion by running away, revolting and in other ways resisting their enslavement.
The tradition of enslaved people striking for freedom on the Fourth of July led some of slavery’s defenders to try making the holiday a White-only event.
In Charleston, after an enslaved cook poisoned the Independence Day dinner on his owner’s plantation, Frederick Dalcho declared that the Fourth of July belonged “exclusively to the white population of the United States.” As the status of “Negroes” had not changed since the American Revolution, it was necessary to exclude them from the annual celebration of national independence. “In our speeches and orations, much, and sometimes more than is politically necessary, is said about personal liberty, which Negro auditors know not how to apply, except by running the parallel with their own condition,” Dalcho said. “They, therefore, imbibe false notions of their personal rights, and give reality in their minds, to what has no real existence.”
Despite Dalcho’s admonishment, enslaved people continued to observe Independence Day and use it as a flash point for resistance. Evidence abounds in the classified pages of southern newspapers, which every summer documented the flight of enslaved people on Independence Day.