Nat Turner's Insurrection

Thomas Wentworth HIGGINSON   |   Nat TURNER

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"VIRGINIA WAS NEVER NEARER EMANCIPATION THAN WHEN GENERAL TURNER KINDLED THE FIRES OF RESURRECTION AT SOUTHAMPTON" (FREDERICK DOUGLASS): FIRST PUBLICATION OF THOMAS W. HIGGINSON'S RARE HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF NAT TURNER'S INSURRECTION, 1861

(TURNER, Nat) (HIGGINSON, Thomas Wentworth) . Nat Turner's Insurrection. IN: The Atlantic Monthly. August, 1861. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, August. 1861. Octavo, original printed wrappers; pp, 173-187.

First appearance in print of white abolitionist Higginson's pivotal, extensively researched work on Nat Turner's 1831 insurrection, issued anonymously only four months after the outbreak of the Civil War, the first major work on Turner after the virtually unobtainable Confessions, here denouncing the South's response to Turner as a "Reign of Terror," especially rare in original wrappers.

The "Black slave revolution… [is] the primary point of historical reference and the African American literature of resistance the primary point of departure." Both Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner "wove elements of African belief and African culture into their seizure of American rights" (Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 28-31). For his part, Douglass early addressed that in his 1857 West India Emancipation speech, where he declared, "Virginia was never nearer emancipation than when General Turner kindled the fires of resurrection at Southampton." On August 22, 1831, "60 to 80 slaves and free Blacks rose up to join Nat Turner. For two days they ravaged Southampton, killing some 55 adults and children of slave-holding classes… for more than two months Nat avoided capture, but eventually he surrendered. The trials of his confederates… had begun in September before he was caught, and ended with his own on November 5" (Robinson, Black Movements, 38). As he awaited death Turner was questioned by Thomas Gray, an attorney with no official trial role, for the 1831 work, Confessions of Nat Turner. After his execution, his body was reportedly given to medical students for dissection, to be "beheaded and skinned… one bystander apparently had a 'money purse made of his hide'" (Berry, Price for Their Pound of Flesh, 101).

The pending Civil War had prompted Higginson to consider what another Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner "posed to the Confederacy and the doctrine of white supremacy." One of John Brown's "secret six" behind Harpers Ferry, Higginson followed his article on Vesey in the June 1861 Atlantic Monthly with Nat Turner's Insurrection in the August 1861 issue. Here he emphasized "the courage of the slaves… [and] placed the 'memory' of Turner's insurrection within a stream of historical consciousness"—viewing slaves fleeing to Union lines as "the spiritual—if not the lineal—descendants of Turner" (French, Rebellious Slave, 118-19). Deemed the first verifiable historical account, Higginson researched through "dusty files of newspapers" for the work and drew from a reprint of the 1831 Confessions, noting: "I have never seen a copy of the original pamphlet, it is not to be found in any of our public libraries, and I have heard of but one as still existing."

In documenting response to Turner's insurrection, Higginson states: "It is astonishing to discover, by laborious comparison of newspaper files… [how] white people had commenced the destruction of the negroes… the truth is, it was a Reign of Terror," in which hundreds of Blacks were massacred. While acknowledging the human cost, esteemed Black historian John Cromwell later observed: "in its necessary relation to slavery and as contributory to making it a national issue… that finally led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, the insurrection was a moral success and Nat Turner deserved to be ranked with the greatest reformers of his day" (Aftermath of Nat Turner's Insurrection). Also containing "Reminiscences of Stephen A. Douglas,"' E.R.. Hoar's "Where Will the Rebellion Leave Us?" and much more: all appearing anonymously. Front wrapper printed: "Number 46… The Atlantic Monthly… August, 1861" Advertising leaf between front wrapper and first text leaf. Not in Blockson. Front wrapper with faint owner signature, number "1861" and "August" in unidentified hand; "Contents" page with tiny bit of marginalia, annotation.

Text fresh with lightest scattered foxing, fragile original wrappers with minimal soiling, early reinforcement to spine head not affecting printing. An exceptional near-fine copy.

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