The Work of Death: Massacre and Retribution in Southampton County, Virginia, August 1831

54 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2015

See all articles by Christopher Tomlins

Christopher Tomlins

University of California, Berkeley - Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program

Date Written: August 4, 2015

Abstract

What does it mean, particularly to a slave, to describe dealing death as “work?” This essay employs G.W.F. Hegel’s famous lordship/bondage dialectic (from The Phenomenology of Mind) to explore the massacre of 55 members of white slaveholding families that took place on Monday August 22nd 1831 in St. Luke’s Parish, Southampton County, Virginia, now known as “The Turner Rebellion.” I argue that certain specificities of the Hegelian dialectic, notably the centrality of work to the bondsman’s “direct apprehension” of its self as independent, are key components of the massacre. Likewise, I argue that the dialectic helps us understand the specifically juridical form of retributive killing that followed the massacre, in which 18 slaves, variously accused of “feloniously counselling, advising and conspiring with each other and divers other slaves to rebel and make insurrection and making insurrection and taking the lives of divers free white persons of the Commonwealth” were executed. The essay also explores the sociology and social anthropology of the killing that was the focal point of the rebellion. It considers whether this killing was incidental to some other purpose, such as revenge, or revolution, or central and essential to what Nat Turner desired to achieve.

Keywords: Hegel, Semelin, Massacre, Turner Rebellion, Public Execution

Suggested Citation

Tomlins, Christopher, The Work of Death: Massacre and Retribution in Southampton County, Virginia, August 1831 (August 4, 2015). UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2639785. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2639785 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2639785

Christopher Tomlins (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program ( email )

Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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