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

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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.