2021 Christopher Tomlins, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History (Princeton University Press)
Christopher Tomlins ingeniously reconstructs an event and a man we thought we knew: the tragic 1831 slave insurrection in Virginia and its near-mythic leader, Nat Turner. The significance of this book extends well beyond the new story it tells. The author takes us on his journey of discovery, offering penetrating new readings of the existing evidence, subtly deciphering Turner’s extensive use of religious language, and forging new connections between the event and the larger context of the legal power, violence, and political forces arrayed against any opponent of slavery.
The book is also a master class in the craft of history. By sharing his reflections and speculations throughout the book, Tomlins allows the reader to appreciate every facet of his interrogation of the actions taken by Turner and other key figures in the story. In addition, Tomlins offers a profound new interpretation of The Confessions of Nat Turner (the original version, based on the interview by Thomas Ruffin Gray shortly after the insurrection). It is the one document that gives us clues to Turner’s motives. Through his exegesis, Tomlins recovers Turner’s agency, treats him on his own terms as an intellectual, shows that his religious beliefs sprang from a deep knowledge of the Bible, and reveals him as a keenly perceptive student of the Virginia slaveholding society in which he lives. And as Turner acts on his apocalyptic and messianic desires, the author forces us into a productively unsettling confrontation with what Turner called the “work of death” and its consequences.
Christopher Tomlins has given us a deep, original reckoning with the historical record, one that is bound to influence future investigations of Nat Turner, his moment, and its continuing reverberations.
Tomlins, the author of three other books, is the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.