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July 31, 2013


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Re: “That invites a further question about how to interpret Turner's motivations. One of my favorite letters that emerged from the rebellion was written by Rachel Lazarus to her relatives in Raleigh. She asked whether the impetus was the desire for freedom or blood lust: ‘I know not whether to ascribe [Turner’s rebellion] to the evil inherent in man, or the powerful influence [of] that noble principle the love of freedom.’ Historians have been asking the same question ever since.”

From the outside looking in as it were, that is, as historians or social scientists, I find this endeavor to search for the true “motives” unavailing, particularly in cases where they’re not fairly transparent (according to scholarly consensus) or difficult to ascertain owing to a paucity of evidence. Consider, for instance, the following from Robert Goodin:

“To my way of thinking, sending food to the starving is good because of its good consequences, quite regardless of our motives in sending it. By the same token, I do not think the evil of killing innocent people is wholly erased simply by saying it was merely a by-product—clearly foreseen, but entirely unintended—of something else we were trying to do. By all means…let us punish even unsuccessful attempts to commit criminally injurious acts against others. But let us do so not on the grounds of the mere malice they manifest. Let us do so, instead, on the grounds that attempted criminality sometimes succeeds, and the best way of deterring attempts destined to succeed is to deter attempted criminality tout court. By all means let us reward people for acting from good motives. But, again, let us do so on the grounds that good motives characteristically carry good consequences, rather than on account of any excellence on the motives, in and of itself [sic].”

This is not about an attempt to definitively settle any of the longstanding debates between deontologists or consequentialists, but arises rather from the belief that most actions “particularly collective ones,” arise from mixed motives as we say, from a multiplicity of motives, none of which we can pronounce with confidence “wholly good” or “wholly evil.” Does doing the right thing for the wrong reason, for instance, undermine the rightness of the action? Goodin illustrates this with several worthy examples, one of which relates to the era under discussion:

“President Lincoln’s abolitionist mandate in the 1860 American election was born partly out of a genuine concern among white voters with the plight of the black but partly, also, out of a selfish concern among whites that there would be less of a market for free labor if the system of slave labor should spread any further.”

The motives, it seems (and we need not assume we’ve exhausted them or presume we know their relative degrees of power), are not that important, after all, the right thing was done regardless of the motives behind the mandate.

Of course a Buddhist, Kantian or Catholic (or a virtue ethicist) is concerned with getting people to act from worthy motives and right intentions, and so too is Goodin in his book, Motivating Political Morality (1992), although his reasons, unlike the Buddhist, Kantian, and Catholic, are “pragmatic rather than principled:”

“I do not subscribe to the view that an act cannot be morally worthy unless motivated by worthy motives. But I do suppose that if we are going to secure morally desirable outcomes, then the best way of doing so—over the long haul anyway—is by encouraging people to act on morally worthy motives.”

Goodin rightly values a prominent role for prompting, persuading or convincing people to act from morally worthy motives, and yet he helps us see, I think, that the backward looking analytical or explanatory attempt in many cases to parse the precise motives in historical cases like ours, that is, their good or considerably less-than-good origins, or their precise mix and relative intensity, is a fruitless exercise. Goodin argues that it does not make sense to expect a conclusive answer to the question, “What motive lay behind the act,” in which case our historians will continue to ask such questions with no reasonable chance of resolution.

Finally, I might note that first-person proclamations of motives are probably not to be trusted as well, owing to such “hot” and “cold” psychological mechanisms of irrationality that account for the ubiquity of self-deception, the ardor for fame, wishful thinking, clouded judgment, and so on.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I expanded a tad on my comment here:

Alfred Brophy

Really interesting observations, Patrick. Thanks for them. Lot to think about here. Here are a couple of quick thoughts.

Modern social science is rightly suspect of single causation theories and I suspect that Turner was motivated by a variety of factors. He and some other rebels likely had hatred for some people in his neighborhood in particular. He may also have had greater ideas of liberation in his mind. The motives are difficult to determine because often people are not fully aware of motives themselves and self-report of motive may not be accurate for that reason or because a person is shaping a statement of motive for another reason. But the motives and not just outcome are important, even if motives are impossible to determine with precision. Motives give us some sense of causation -- did abolitionists' literature have an effect, for instance. They also shape how we think about individual actors. Was Turner a person bent on revenge (even if understandable) or someone fighting a hopeless cause for freedom?

Patrick S. O'Donnell


I realize the importance of motives (in particular, forward-looking in the sense of Goodin's book and the moral psychology having to do with self-examination, etc.). And I understand we will continue to feel the need to ascertain the motives of historical actors, but I suppose I would be happy if we simply acknowledge the highly speculative nature of this enterprise, and the corresponding sundry difficulties it entails such that when it comes to the attribution or endorsement of motives we should keep in mind the proviso that it is virtually impossible to do so with anything approaching certainty or even the confidence warranted by a true social scientific explanation. In the instant case, I'm inclined (indeed, want) to imagine Turner as "someone fighting a hopeless cause for freedom," but I well realize I could be wrong and I strongly suspect that the motives in this case are rather mixed and probably conflicting.

Patrick S. O'Donnell


A college colleague in the School of Media Arts, Michael Colin, kindly wrote to inform me that he worked on this PBS documentary: Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property—America’s Spartakus. If you and others have not seen it, I think you'd enjoy it, as it is both informative and provocative!

A Legal Historian


This is a terrific article. Great archival work, great work on the trials, and everything else.

Two questions. First, you don't do much with religious thought. Why? Second, you suggest that the lawyers were interested in helping the accused slaves. That is controversial. Potentially very controversial. How strong is your evidence here? Doesn't this require you to know about the culpability of defendants? How do you determine that other than by looking at the verdicts, which are likely biased against the slaves? How do you respond to the possibility that the efforts to free the defendants was because owners wanted to protect their investments, or the court didn't want to pay for yet more people who were executed?

Alfred Brophy

Thanks for the kind words. There's been some fabulous work recently on religious thought and practices in the Southampton community. A lot of it appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic back in 2007:

Religious thought is central to a lot of the questions about what impelled Turner and his followers -- and also the response -- and that the work on the social history of churches around Southampton tell us a lot about the rebellion and its aftermath. Yet my focus in that piece was really on the legal aspects (especially the trials) and I tried to cite that work on religion and acknowledge its importance without getting drawn into questions that weren't central to my purposes.

As to your second set of questions -- I've spent a lot of time wondering how to interpret the lawyers' behavior. One lawyer, James Strange French, seems to have a different attitude towards enslaved people than the usual members of the slave-owning class in Virginia in the 1830s. I talk some about French's post-trial career as a novelist (and drawing on Scott French's excellent work) on his attempts to save a slave who was sentenced to death in Sussex, then escaped from jail and eluded capture for a few years. The brothers Brodnax invite speculation about how they might have been interested in bringing some sense of rationality to the proceedings. I'm not as sure about the commitments of the other two key lawyers -- William C. Parker and Thomas Ruffin Gray -- but I'm looking forward to investigating them more.

As you point out, it's hard to make assessments of the fairness of the trials now. I was surprised to see so many people acquitted (and I break down the conviction rates for people accused of the more serious and less serious offenses and also in some further research that didn't make it into this article I look at the race and status of witnesses and the types of testimony against slaves). It's entirely possible that the court was trying to limit convictions of slaves because it didn't want the state to be liable for even more payments to owners. (Sharon Ewell Foster's new novel speculates some on this as well -- she suggests that owners seeking generous compensation from the state participated in the convictions.) This may have been a place where the interest of the state and the interests of the slaves converged some -- though there was also a lot of desire for vengeance in the white community. And one of the things I'm really interested in are the divisions within the white community -- some pushing for brutal treatment and others trying to limit punishment. I hope that pretty soon I've have the full set of data and then can begin to speculate in depth about the possibilities. There are a lot of them, pointing in many different directions.

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