John G Bell
Fall '03 – Gomez & Unsel
Market Revolution and the Question of Labor: The Institution of Slavery.
The period leading up to the Civil War was characterized by increased political and social conflict over the issue of slavery. In some ways this issue was a deep divide on moral grounds, but in others it was an excuse for implementing policies of economic and political advantage. This period of social friction was matched by a change in the character of the Supreme Court. The Court of John Marshall was dismantled by a steady stream of political appointees, each weakening the judicial strength and impact of the Court, and by a transition of leadership. Under John Marshall, the Court was deeply divided over the issue of slavery, but a new Chief Justice, Roger Brooke Tanney, polarized judicial opinion toward acceptance of slavery and of state's rights. Both society and the Supreme Court were picking sides of an issue that in our historical narrative is the pivotal point leading to the Civil War.
In reading the Confessions of Nat Turner, I was curious about the reason for the lengthy treatment of Nat Turner's religious “enthusiasm.” In the prefacing material, there is evidence given that Thomas R. Gray, the interviewer and author of the Confessions, manipulated and invented some of the material. So, why the author choose to portray Nat Turner as an exceptionally bright, religious fanatic? I started to wonder if the religious content were invented whole cloth except the later attestations in the newspaper articles seem to corroborate that aspect of the tale. Whether this material is a true reflection of Nat Turner's confessions or not, Gray included the material as editor or author and chose to spend considerable time covering it. Gray was hostile to Nat Turner, as suggested in the prefacing material and in Gray's own introduction. So, the religious characterization of Turner could only have been so lavish if it was meant to reflect poorly on Nat Turner.
However, this literary treatment of Nat Turner in the Confessions seemed to result in two very different reactions. The newspaper articles from the area that appeared after the rebellion are an example of what I imagine Gray intended. The articles make clear to hold Turner as dissembling his status as a preacher. However, Nat Turner also becomes a heroic figure, a fighter for freedom and ideals to the following generations, as demonstrated by the strong critical responses to William Styron's novelization of the Confessions.
The portrayal of religion in this material is deeply conflicted. On the one hand, religion is used to demonstrate a kind of insanity, as in Nat Turner, but on the other it's fit compensation for injustice, as in the denouement of the Amistad incident. Religion is both a civilizing influence and something that incites rebellion, as in the missionaries' affect. Religion is exclusive, as in how African American preachers were suppressed, and also universal, as it assumed for the time a kind of universal language of morality and ethics in the materials.
Some of this ambiguity and contrariness is without much doubt a symptom of the overall conflict over religion and its place in society, but this conflict is also an essential character of this crisis. Religion was used to condemn and condone slavery, to civilize and demonstrate insanity, to heal injustice and to justify inequality. Religion was seen as the highest product of civilization but also seen as a grain of sand irritating the status quo. Religion was a tool to civilize, both as a method of control and also to ennoble. It was used to both minister and mobilize.
Religion seems to be initially a tool used by the elite for control but then becomes a seed for the dismantling of that control, itself getting out of control.
Does each crisis have it's Joan of Arc? Is the exceptional commoner as religious messenger an omen, a cause, a symptom or a construct of hindsight?