In 1831 Virginia, Nat Turner led a band of Southampton County slaves in a rebellion that killed fifty-five whites, mostly women and children. After more than two months in hiding, Turner was captured, and quickly convicted and executed. In the Matter of Nat Turner penetrates the historical caricature of Turner as befuddled mystic and self-styled Baptist preacher to recover the haunting persona of this legendary American slave rebel, telling of his self-discovery and the dawning of his Christian faith, of an impossible task given to him by God, and of redemptive violence and profane retribution.
Much about Turner remains unknown. His extraordinary account of his life and rebellion, given in chains as he awaited trial in jail, was written down by an opportunistic white attorney and sold as a pamphlet to cash in on Turner’s notoriety. But the enigmatic rebel leader had an immediate and broad impact on the American South, and his rebellion remains one of the most momentous episodes in American history. Christopher Tomlins provides a luminous account of Turner’s intellectual development, religious cosmology, and motivations, and offers an original and incisive analysis of the Turner Rebellion itself and its impact on Virginia politics. Tomlins also undertakes a deeply critical examination of William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, which restored Turner to the American consciousness in the era of civil rights, black power, and urban riots.
A speculative history that recovers Turner from the few shards of evidence we have about his life, In the Matter of Nat Turner is also a unique speculation about the meaning and uses of history itself.
Awards and Recognition
- Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, Society of American Historians
- Winner of the Richard Slatten Award for Excellence in Virginia Biography, Virginia Museum of History & Culture (Virginia Historical Society)
Christopher Tomlins is the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and an affiliated research professor at the American Bar Foundation, Chicago. His many books include Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580–1865 and Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic. He lives in Berkeley.
"Intelligent, important, and timely."—Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
"Tomlins has applied the research rigor, creative methods, and astute analysis required to discern the broad import of Nat Turner's rebellion and the particular linkage of religion and politics. The result is a lucid and compelling account that unleashes for readers the historical and theoretical significance of Turner for the contemporary study of American religion, race, and social power."—Sylvester A. Johnson, author of African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom
"A fascinating and original work of historical interrogation, In the Matter of Nat Turner is a mélange of philosophy, literary analysis, theology, forensics, and speculative imagination that opens up new vistas of space and time existing beyond the pale of Western law and logic. By penetrating and dismantling the narratives that have made the most consequential antebellum slave rebellion 'legible,' Christopher Tomlins brings fresh insights into Turner's rebellion, reveals what our standard heroic stories obscure, and challenges historians everywhere to plumb depths to which few scholars have dared to go."—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
"The sharpest and most insightful interpretation of Nat Turner's rebellion in the scholarly literature. Tomlins's wonderful and important book makes a fundamental contribution to our understanding of one of the canonical events in American and African American history."—James Sidbury, author of Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic
"With skill and erudition, Christopher Tomlins takes apart Nat Turner's image as a bugbear of popular white imagination and renders an elegiac historical meditation on the enslaved prophet and his crusade. This brilliant book unpacks the legal, political, philosophical, religious, and historical significance of Turner's rebellion like no other."—Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition