Patrick Breen is Associate Professor of History at Providence College. This interview is based on his new book, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (Oxford, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood?
PB: Thanks for inviting me to this blog interview. Even before I decided to pursue a career in history, I had been captivated by those southern authors who follow in the wake of William Faulkner, in particular Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Interest in southern literature led to an interest in southern history, which soon enough meant that I had to grapple with slavery. Many great historians have spent their careers wrestling with this demon—it is hard to think of a subject in American history that has led to more fabulous books—and my task was to find a subject that was both narrow enough that I could get my hands around it and important enough that my work might illuminate something important about slavery. Simply because I had gone to William and Mary for school, much of my archival work had focused on slavery in the Old Dominion. What could I write about in Virginia that would allow me to do what I wanted to do? My mind kept coming back to Nat Turner’s revolt. What did this extraordinary moment reveal about the nature of slavery?
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood?
PB: Nat Turner’s revolt was a moment when the consensus that undergird the slaveholders’ power—that slavery needed to be accepted—was transformed from a premise into a question. The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood traces the remarkably varied responses among both blacks and whites to Turner’s revolt and argues that in the aftermath of the revolt the county’s landed gentry were able to get others to accept an account of what happened in ways that successfully restored their hegemony.
JF: Why do we need to read The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood?
PB: Even before we read our first history book, Americans are taught a certain story about slavery—that it was an awful, inhumane system, in Edmund Morgan’s delightful phrase, “America’s original sin.” This meta-narrative is incredibly powerful and has been even more useful, but there are many good reasons to adopt a new approach to slavery.
First, unlike those works that present unlimited oppression as a—or perhaps the—characteristic of slavery, power in Southampton is more fluid and interesting than that. Influenced both by my teacher Eugene D. Genovese and postmodernists, I put hegemony at the center of my story about Nat Turner’s revolt. Unlike many histories that lean on hegemony, the story here is dynamic. Turner challenges the slaveholders’ hegemony, but Turner’s challenge fails and not just militarily. The Land shows how the slaveholders used their power as judges, writers, and even church elders to create an account of the revolt that was compatible with a stable slave society. This reminds readers how important the stories are that we tell ourselves about the past.
Second, my sense is that the standard history of slavery is becoming less powerful politically. The vast majority of historians who have written on slavery have done what they have done with at least one eye on the present. It is no coincidence that so much of the great work on slavery has been a part of the attack on the obnoxious system of legal racial segregation. For someone whose number one goal is to fight against an anomalous and odd system of formal legal segregation that persisted in the South, writing a history of Southern slavery as a dark and exceptional system makes a good deal of sense. I admit that I too wrote The Land with an eye to the present, but the problems I see in society—things like inequality, racism, violence, alienation, and failures in education and democracy—seem less susceptible to an easy analogy with an unusual system. That does not mean that there is nothing to learn from the history of slavery, just that we need a richer history of slavery from which to draw our lessons.
Third, rethinking slavery not as “America’s original sin” but perhaps as one of many terrible, but very human, institutions in American history has important ramifications for our conceptualizations of American history. If the Civil War is the event that redeems America’s original sin, then it is justified, and America’s story fits a weirdly secular salvation narrative, something that appeals to the whiggish sensibility of so many Americans. But if slavery was just one awful system, the success of the Civil War at ending this awful system was counterbalanced by the failure of Reconstruction to create a system that was much better and was, in some ways, worse. (This is nothing but Woodward’s thesis, rewritten in a negative light.) But the problem in getting people to accept this negative Woodwordian thesis is not that historians have failed to document the horrors of the Reconstruction and the age of Jim Crow, but that historians’ sense of slavery as completely different means that we have made it hard for people to see the ways that oppression continues, albeit in a different form, after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. By presenting a human view of slavery, the entire arc of American history changes and not in a way that bends towards justice.
Finally, the old view of slavery makes it almost impossible to access the world of so many slaves. While some slaves led lives of quiet desperation in an awful Manichean world, so many (I want to say most) slaves did not live in such a moral universe. They had to navigate a world filled with good and bad humans—many of whom used their almost unchecked power in obscene ways. As a result, the idea of resistance, which has become so central to our understanding of how people should respond to slavery, was not obvious to the people who lived in slavery. Maybe we know what Django should do (even before we shell out our $10), but there was much less certainty in Southampton, Virginia, even among the slaves, about what Nat Turner should do. The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood recaptures this uncertainty and ambiguity in ways that few works on slavery do.
But I think that this last point might just be another way of saying that we should try to recapture all the craziness, complexity, and contingency of the past. And these stories abound. The Land tells the story of Hubbard, who saved his mistresses’ life, and then could not find her where he had hidden her because she feared that he would change his mind and betray her to the rebels. Her decision—while understandable—almost cost Hubbard his life as he was unable to prove his loyalty to whites who were looking for retribution. It tells the story of the fight between a slave Burwell—who was delivering messages for the whites who were too afraid to travel—and the free black Exum Artist, who tried to cut the white lines of communication. It tells the story of Boson, a convicted slave who escaped from prison and then got a white accomplice who unsuccessfully tried to sell Boson out of Virginia so that he could escape his death sentence. It tells the story of a nearby biracial church that decided to excommunicate whites who wanted to exclude blacks from the church after the revolt, even as it adopted blatantly unchristian forms of segregation as a reform of the communion practice. Most important of all, it tells a new story of Nat Turner, the most prominent, best documented and most compelling slave rebel in the history of the United States. Their stories and many more deserve to be read.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PB: A bit more than twenty years ago, I was sitting in a dorm room at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, NY. During the day, I was working in Kelvin Lynn’s lab where he was doing some really great stuff with positrons, which are a weird form of matter. (They are pretty much just like electrons, but have a positive charge.) The work was interesting, and I could easily see a career trajectory where I did similar studies for another forty years. The only problem with this plan was that every night after finishing at the lab, I would go home and read literature and history. I could not stop thinking about the questions that Eugene Genovese had raised in his history classes. Even though I knew that the job market for physicists was much better than the job market for historians, I thought I would give history a try. I’ve pretty much been trying to do history ever since.
JF: What is your next project?
PB: I have loads of things that have been piling up on my desk. Perhaps the one that is dearest to my heart is a project on Lunsford Lane, whose narrative describing his efforts to buy himself and his family from slavery is an underappreciated work of genius. (I take the epigraph for The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood from his 1842 autobiography.) Frederick Douglass’s polemical views of slavery were and still are incredibly powerful stories, but I do not think that people appreciate how Doulgass’s contemporary Lane anticipates the great insights of W. E. B. DuBois.