The Library of Virginia

Remembering Revolt

"To Die in the Cause of Human Liberty"

Resistance to the State | Gabriel's Conspiracy | Nat Turner's Rebellion
John Brown's RaidAll Death or Liberty Documents

Reactions 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.

The 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.