In The Confessions of Nat Turner, Thomas R. Gray attempted to provide the public with a better understanding of “the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influences its diabolical actors” (Gray, 3). Gray hoped to replace “a thousand idle, exaggerated and mischievous reports” with a single, authoritative account of the event. To do so, he had to establish that the confession was voluntary, that the transcript was accurate, and that Turner was telling the truth.
As for the sincerity and truthfulness of the prisoner, Gray said he cross-examined Turner and found his statement corroborated by the confessions of other prisoners and other circumstances.
While he claims that these confessions were recorded “with little or no variation”, Gray’s verbose introduction addressed to the public was intended to frame Turner and as a psychotic villain that was rightfully punished for his unlawful acts against society.
In an effort to make Turner appear more sinister, Gray described Turner as being “a gloomy fanatic revolving in the recesses of his own dark, bewildered, and overwrought mind, schemes of indiscriminate massacre to the whites” (Gray, 3).
Though he may not have been as vicious as Gray portrayed him to be, the description was meant to “to bring its object into a field of vision, to make that object ‘speak’ for itself convincingly and to give it form, character, and tone” (Browne, 319).
This horrific image of Turner was intended to shape the minds of the public in such a way that their minds would be made up before even reaching turners actual confessions. Browne points out that “by assuring the reader of the text’s veracity… and by designating the monstrous motives that drove him to such deeds, Gray prefigures not only the narrative to follow but establishes the readers’ preferred stance toward it”, which given the events is a negative one (Browne, 319). The authenticity of this document is something to be contested.
As a lawyer working on Turner’s case and a supporter of slavery, Gray probably did not feel compelled to present Turner’s motives and description of the insurrection. Gray appears to portray Turner in a way intended both to ease the insurrection’s impact and to aid in the conviction of turner for his actions. He argues that the revolt was an isolated event solely fueled by Turner’s religious extremism and not retaliation against the institution of slavery. Even though Turners situation was a unique one, slave owners at the time had to recognize the potentiality for violence iven “the peculiar mix of social, psychological, and racial tensions shaping life on the antebellum plantation thus required a certain logic with which threats to that way of life might be explained” (Browne, 316).
In an effort to make the pamphlet even more persuasive, Gray makes another very interesting move. He claims that, “without being questioned at all, Turner commenced his narrative in the following words” (Gray, 5). By stating this, it is implied that Turner gave his accounts of that night freely and honestly and that Gray transcribed Turner’s story word for word.
The text of the “confession” also suggests that neither of these statements is actually accurate. While nothing about the narrative suggests that Gray forced Turner into telling his story, Gray structures the narrative put an emphasis on Turner’s religious convictions and the revolt’s malicious violence, which portrayed Turner as being violently vengeful. Another interesting thing about the “confessions” is the speaking style Gray claims Turner’s confessed the events of the insurgence in.
Though Turner was an educated slave, the voice portrayed in the text is of someone with a more superior education. The wording and overall structure used to describe the events may very well have been those of Gray, who held a law degree. The first line, supposedly spoken by Turner reads, “Sir you have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it” (Gray, 5). The obvious inconsistency between the voice supposedly speaking and the actual language used in this document lessens its authenticity.
Even though the accounts in this confession may not be completely accurate, Gray’s transcriptions represent Turner as being firmly religious. Rather than simply describing the events of the insurrection as they happened, the narrative delved deeper into Turner’s character. The confessions begin with a description of events from Turner’s childhood that, according to Gray, led him to believe that he destined to fulfill a prophecy. Turner described himself as “uncommonly intelligent for a child” (Gray, 6).
He claims to have learned to read with no assistance, and he says that religion “principally occupied my thoughts” (Gray, 5). He also says that he had a natural talent for planning and leadership, so that, even when he was a child, the other black children expected him to plan their “roguery” because of his “superior judgment” (Gray, 5). A series of divine occurrences in Turner’s childhood confirmed his belief that he was “intended for some great purpose” and that he would “surely be a prophet” (Gray, 5).
He was influenced by those closest to him, including his father and mother “strengthened him” in the belief of his divine gift, along with his grandmother, “who was very religious” (Gray, 5). Turner was instructed to await the appearance of a sign in the heavens before communicating his “great work” to any others. According to Gray, an “eclipse of the sun in February” inspired Turner to confide in four fellow slaves: Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. “It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th July last” (Gray, 7).
Gray, who claimed to have had little influence on Turner’s narration, asked him at one point if he did not find himself “mistaken” now that the prophecy which he had been called upon to fulfill ended in tragedy. Turner reportedly answered, “Was not Christ crucified? ” These “confessions” were intended to create a powerful, yet vicious, image of Turner and his reasons for initiating such a devastating. Gray’s description of his own apprehensions while transcribing Turners confession was intended to demonstrate the insurrection’s effect on slave owners at the time.
Gray vividly describes Turner’s unrelenting nature as, “The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins” (Gray, 11).
Gray’s chilling reaction to Turner’s confession suggests the type of panic this document created amongst white’s slaveholders throughout various parts of the United States. Given the evidence, Gray’s representation of Turner is far from accurate. Gray used Turner’s voice to serve his own agenda, which was to ease the impact if the insurrections and to reaffirm slave owners as to why slavery is justifiable.