In early November 1831, Thomas Ruffin Gray was searching for a publisher.
He had been one of those whites who had travelled from his home in Richmond to Southampton County, Virginia, to put down the most effective revolt of enslaved persons in the state’s history. Gray later returned to Southampton to serve as defense lawyer for the alleged revolutionaries. From November 1 – 3, he interviewed Nat Turner, leader of the revolt, and supplemented that material with interviews of other participants and survivors.
Following these interviews, Gray had quickly written the remarkable story; but in the end he had to ride all the way to Baltimore to get it printed. It sold 50,000 copies.
In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History is in part Christopher Tomlins’ meditation on how Turner’s story has been told by generations of whites, most notably by Gray and by novelist William Styron. It is also Tomlins’ meditation on the meaning and uses of history, and of the craft of historians.
Most important, it is a deeply thoughtful reconstruction of what Nat Turner believed, and how he made sense of the world around him. As Tomlins writes, after years of wanting to write about Nat Turner, “I soon found myself writing about God.”
Christopher Tomlins is the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent book was Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865.