The Third Deadliest Terrorist Attack on U.S. Soil--And What We Can Learn from It

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Mr. Boulton is Assistant Professor of History at Villa Julie College, Stevenson, Maryland.

September 11 was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The second deadliest was Oklahoma City. The third? It was Nat Turner's Rebellion, which took place in Southhampton, Virginia. There are striking parallels between 9-11 and Nat Turner, both of which may have equally dramatic, long-term, and unforeseen consequences.

The Southampton attack of 1831, began around two o’clock on the morning of August 22nd, when Nat Turner started an insurrection of slaves by bringing a hatchet down upon the head of the man who claimed to own him, Joseph Travis. Within minutes, the remainder of Travis’s family, his wife and three children were summarily executed. Turner and about fifty of his followers, mounted on stolen horses and with the guns, axes, swords, and clubs that they took from neighboring plantations, went on a murderous rampage. Within twenty-four hours they had killed fifty-five people, including thirteen women and twenty-seven children.

Nat Turner had been driven to these deeds by a series of religious visions, and he chose his target, the county seat of Jerusalem, Virginia, at least partly for its symbolic significance. Nevertheless, Turner and his allies must have known that their mission was futile. Within hours a white militia force assembled and hunted them down. Thirty slaves were convicted of being involved in the raid, and nineteen of them were executed. Nat Turner, himself, eluded capture for several months but was ultimately captured, tried, and executed.

A reaction to these events swept across Virginia. Rumors of suspected conspiracies and planned future attacks spread across the state. Over one hundred slaves may have been executed without a trial in the days and weeks that followed. The heads of fifteen of them were placed on poles along a local road that took the name “Blackhead Sign Post.” Nat Turner’s skeleton and his skull were passed around in the community for years after his death. One man claimed to own a purse made of Turner’s hide.

As the fear of future slave insurrections grew, the white community in the South pulled even closer together. Following Nat Turner’s attacks, the Virginia State Legislature in the last months of 1831 and through 1832 debated plans to end slavery by sending all the slaves out of the country. When this legislation failed to pass, Virginia and other slave states passed a series of laws restricting the activities of both slaves and free blacks. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write. They could no longer own a horse, or firearms, or buy liquor. Free blacks were no longer allowed to preach to slaves. Slave patrols were organized. Death was the penalty for an increasing number of crimes from insurrection to raping a white woman, to poisoning, to committing arson.

In South Carolina, the fear of slave uprisings combined with political and economic issues in 1832, nearly resulting in an armed conflict over a state’s right to “nullify” Federal tariff regulations. Andrew Jackson’s threat of military action, plus the passage of more moderate tariffs, ended South Carolina’s premature rebellion, but fear and frustration increasingly pulled Southerners like gravity toward a hardening defense of slavery, states’ rights, Southern nationalism, and white supremacy.

Elsewhere in the nation, however, the Turner rebellion prompted a searching look at America’s ideals of social equality. In the North, a small number of people, themselves living in comfort, recognized a connection with those who felt the pain of the lash upon their backs. In Boston, William Lloyd Garrison had just published the first edition of his anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator. In its opening editorial Garrison declared, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation . . . I am in earnest - - I will not equivocate - - I will not excuse - - I will not retreat a single inch AND I WILL BE HEARD.” Not many people would agree with Garrison’s polemics, but he and Turner had succeeded in reframing America’s continuing argument with itself about the rights of man. The age-old practice of slavery, accepted as part of the natural and divine order in nearly every civilization, had now become a moral issue.

William Lloyd Garrison and his fellow abolitionists unanimously condemned Nat Turner’s senseless taking of innocent lives. Garrison, himself, in the Liberator proclaimed that he was “horror-struck” by the atrocities. Within the last forty years, however, most historians have followed the example of the novelist William Styron (in his book The Confessions of Nat Turner), and expressed some sympathy for Turner. Ironically, however, it may have been Virginia’s Governor John Floyd in 1831 who gave the earliest defense of Nat Turner’s actions when he wrote in a letter to the Governor of South Carolina that “the white people rebelled against England to obtain their freedom, so have the blacks a right to do.”

The arguments that began in 1831 over the rights of man, the justifications of social inequality, and the power of the state, would erupt thirty years later in a Civil War that forced many Americans to re-evaluate some of our basic values as a nation.

Today the stage on which such issues are being played out has expanded dramatically. We can no longer afford to ask such questions solely on the local, the state, or even the national level. The centrifugal forces of globalization force us to look at the consequences of our actions in an increasingly interconnected world. The issues that Americans faced in 1831 are obviously not the same ones we face today. No one in the Muslim world is a slave to any American. Nevertheless, there are poignant parallels between the plights of people trapped in an economic and political system that makes suicidal violence seem like a viable alternative to a life of powerlessness, poverty and despair. We may hope that the events of 2001, like those of 1831, may lead us to a new introspection about our moral responsibilities in the larger world.

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Kenny Bush - 9/26/2002

Comparing Nat Turner to Osama is sick. I can tell from the bat that you, and those who think like you, have not experienced slavery or are of slave descent. Please take the time to really evaluate the totality of the situation.

kenny - 9/26/2002

Comparing Nat Turner to Osama is sick. I can tell from the bat that you, and those who think like you, have not experienced slavery or are of slave descent. Please take the time to really evaluate the totality of the situation.

Jeff - 8/18/2002

I don't think that what happened at Pearl Harbor counts in this context because it was a military target.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 7/28/2002

Jim Loewen seems to lump together incidents of social violence having various motives or causes with "terrorism." It's this taxonomical fuzziness that has made "terrorism" as arbitrarily asigned to dissent, violent or otherwise, that's so exceptionally dangerous. The tendency by regimes including our own to label their oppositions with the word is scary to me, and should be to Jim Loewen. I note with interest (and also some alarm) that Jim includes "all the Indian wars" as "terrorist attacks." Please let's recall that the coinage of the word grew out of the conservative reaction to the French Revolution, and still retains more than a connotation of the Kissingerian formulation that order with injustice is preferable to justice with any disorder. I found the comparison of Nat Turner's Rebellion with contemporary "terrorist attacks" interesting in terms of its impact on what was famously written of as "the freedom of thought struggle in the Old South." That, it seems to me, is something that can and should give us all pause.

Oscar Halpert - 7/27/2002

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John Donovan - 7/25/2002

Does Pearl Harbor count?

Jim Loewen - 7/24/2002

Perhaps choosing Nat Turner's Rebellion as the Third Deadliest Attack allowed Prof.
Boulton to make the comparisons he wanted to make, vis-a-vis the deadliest, but
the Turner Rebellion was hardly the Third Deadliest Attack.

It's always dangerous to make too much out of these number games anyway, but
here are some attacks far deadlier than Turner's:

NYC Draft Riot, 1863; Tulsa, OK, race riot by whites against blacks, c.1922; all Indian
wars; the Mountain Meadow Massacre in Utah (Mormons against the Fancher train);
the Colfax Riot in Louisiana during Reconstruction, and several others.

Irene - 7/24/2002

I want to discuss some parallels to Nat Turner, leader of the rebellion and Yassir Arafat, leader of the PLO. Evidence demonstrates that Nat Turner, like Yassir Arafat, never actually killed anyone; he sent his minions to do the dirty work.
True, Mr. Garrison condemed the attack, but he meant it, Arafat, as events have proven, speaks from both sides of his mouth.
To compare the slavery of African-Americans to homicide bombers is not only a gross insult to slaves, it is an insult to the Palestinian people. You're determination of the results of the rebellion accurately follows conventional wisdom. In the south, without this violence, slavery probably would have been abolished in Virginia, and eventually throughout the South. In the case of homicide bombers, their violence has not only stopped any meaningful peace initiative, it has increased the likelihood of an all out war. In the north, people took a good hard look at slavery, in the South, people saw Yankee interference with their property rights. In the Middle East, m the civilized world looks at rejected peace initiatives, gross misuse of money meant to go to the Palestinian people, and the selling of children to the highest bidder in order to murder other people's children. Other less westernized countries see the murders as revenge, on a democratic westernized nation and its citizens, for all perceived ills of the last 1000 years.
The parallels are this, Nat Turner kept his people in slavery longer than they needed to be, caused a war no one wanted (one whose wounds are still tender) and in the end succeeded in gaining nothing. Mr. Arafat, and the Arab nations who support him in his terrorist activities have done the same.

Dave Tabaska - 7/24/2002

The problem with Professor Boulton's analogy between the 9/11 terrorists and the Turner Rebellion, and, indeed, other attempts to assign blame for the attacks ultimately to the U.S., is that it operates under the assumption that Osama bin Laden, et. al., are members of a poor, opressed population lashing out at those responsible for their plight. However, the exact opposite is true. They were well-educated, financially well-off (or, in bin Laden's case, a multmillionaire), and they seek primarily to propagate a version of Islam that is even more oppressive and misogynistic than what currently exists in the Arab world.

A more correct analogy would be if Nat Turner, instead of being a slave, was a wealthy free black, and recruited a group of middle-class free blacks to murder some whites, with the idea that there was not enough slavery in the U.S.