"To Die in the Cause of Human Liberty"
to the State | Gabriel's
Conspiracy | Nat
Brown's Raid |
Death or Liberty Documents
to these three events contributed to the growing debate about
slavery and its role in American society. White Virginia authors
used both Gabriel's proposed and Nat Turner's successful
rebellions as background events in novels such as The Old Dominion, Judith, and Their
Shadows Before to perpetuate their belief that slavery was
ultimately benign, that slaves were loyal, and that literacy,
uncontrolled religion, and outside influences all threatened the
stability of Virginia society.
In contrast, black Virginians immortalized the story of
Gabriel in song and tale, occasionally blending Gabriel with
other revolutionaries, such as Denmark Vesey of South Carolina
and Nat Turner, and black writers such as Martin Delany (Blake,
1858) and Arna Bontemps (Black
Thunder, 1936) used the stories of these slave
revolutionaries to emphasize themes of struggle and liberation.
main actors in these powerful events remain shrouded in
controversy, as does their larger meaning. The debate over their
true legacy continues today. Even the words we use to describe these actions and the
men who led them are loaded with contradictory meanings.
Were Gabriel, Turner, and Brown freedom fighters or
ruthless terrorists? Were
they inspired by a deep Christian faith or were they religious
zealots and fanatics? And
what of those who crushed these movements and executed their
leaders? The many songs, novels, monuments, and historical
markers inspired by these conflicts-
some erected in just the
last few years-
tell of the enduring need for Americans to find
meaning in these events.