“The Nat Turner Trials” locates the trials of slaves in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion in the context of common and statutory law and extra-legal responses to slavery in Virginia and North Carolina during the early 1830s. The Article shows how trials were part of the whole system of slavery, held together by norms of white supremacy promulgated in the press, the pulpit, and on plantations. Decisions from local courts to appellate courts gave broad power to slaveowners to control enslaved people. There was little done in defense of slaves, though in some ways the states’ criminal procedure statutes and the actions of some slaveowners and defense lawyers may have helped to limit the number of convictions.
This Article is framed by two cases in North Carolina—one in 1830 of a white man who attacked a slave in his custody and was freed from punishment and another in 1834 of a slave who killed his overseer and was found guilty of manslaughter rather than premeditated murder. Sandwiched between those two cases was the Nat Turner rebellion in neighboring Virginia during August of 1831. The trials of those accused of rebellion and conspiracy, along with the vigilante violence that accompanied the rebellion, further illustrate the ways the legal system functioned to support slavery and order.
The Article highlights how trials of slaves in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion worked to re-establish order and to mete out punishment. It also reveals how lawyers for the slaves labored—largely unsuccessfully—to free those most obviously not guilty. Those lawyers were committed to the re-establishment of order; all of the key lawyers had participated in the militia response to the rebellion. Yet the defense lawyers still tried to limit convictions, and they succeeded to some extent.
The trials worked in conjunction with—and sometimes in opposition to—the extra-legal violence that accompanied the suppression of the rebellion. The trials reveal, as did the two Supreme Court of North Carolina cases that bookend this Article, the conflicts within the community, as some emphasized the power of slaveowners to treat slaves as they wished, while others emphasized the subjection of everyone, including owners of slaves, to the rule of law. The court struggled in part with trying to keep the community from taking vigilante action. It also acted to punish the rebels and stop further rebellion.
The trials tell compact, linear stories about why someone is being punished (or not). The trials are obscure, but collectively they tell a powerful story about the role of law in American history as a vehicle for establishing order.