Biography of John Floyed and the Nat Turner Revolt


[i] The following are extracts from the Diary and Correspondence of Governor John Floyd of Virginia found in Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material including the full text of the “Confessions” of Nat Turner. The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971. Tragle’s compilation of documents on Nat Turner is the most complete, so the website is only putting up documents on the site that are not available in his seminal work.John Floyd (April 24, 1783 – August 17, 1837) was a Virginia politician and soldier. He represented Virginia in the United States House of Representatives and later served as the 25th Governor of Virginia.  During his career in the House of Representatives, Floyd was an advocate of settling the Oregon Territory, unsuccessfully arguing on its behalf from 1820 until he left Congress in 1829; the area did not become a territory of the United States until 1848.In 1832, Floyd received votes for the Presidency of the United States, running in the Nullifier Party. He carried South Carolina and its 11 electoral votes. While governor of Virginia, the Nat Turner slave rebellion occurred and Floyd initially supported emancipation of slavery, but eventually went with the majority. His term as governor saw economic prosperity for the state.


Floyd was born at Floyds Station, Virginia, near what is now Louisville, Kentucky.[2] His parents were pioneer John Floyd, who was killed by Native Americans twelve days before his son's birth,[3] and Jane Buchanan. His first cousin was Charles Floyd, the only member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to die.

Floyd was educated at home and at a nearby log schoolhouse before enrolling in Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania at the age of thirteen. He became a member of the Union Philosophical Society in 1797. Although he matriculated with the class of 1798, he had to withdraw due to financial troubles. His guardian had failed in his payments and family accounts relate Floyd was so poor that "he was obliged to borrow a pair of pantaloons from a boatman" to return to his home in Kentucky.[4]

When his step-father, Alexander Breckinridge, died in 1801, he was able to return, but had to withdraw again due to a lung illness. He moved to Philadelphia and was placed under the care of Dr. Benjamin Rush, an experience that influenced his decision to pursue a medical career. After an apprenticeship in Louisville, Kentucky, Floyd enrolled in the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1804 and became an honorary member of the Philadelphia Medical Society and a member of the Philadelphia Medical Lyceum. Floyd was graduated in 1806 and his graduating dissertation was entitled An Enquiry into the Medical Properties of the Magnolia Tripetala and Magnolia Acuminata. He moved to Lexington, Virginia and then to the town of Christiansburg, Virginia. Floyd also served as a Justice of the Peace in 1807.

In 1804 Floyd married Letitia Preston, who came from a prominent southwest Virginian family. She was the daughter of William Preston and Susannah Smith, and sister of Francis Preston, of Abingdon, Washington County Virginia. They had 12 children, including: John Buchanan Floyd, (1806–1863), Governor of Virginia, and Secretary of War under President Buchanan. Nicketti Buchanan Floyd, married United States Senator John Warfield Johnston. George Rogers Clark Floyd, Secretary of Wisconsin    Territory and later a member of the West Virginia Legislature Eliza Lavalette Floyd, married professor George Frederick Holmes.[5]

Floyd was a surgeon with the rank of major in the Virginia State Militia from 1807 to 1812. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Floyd moved his family to a new home near present-day Virginia Tech to be near friends and entered the regular army. On July 13, 1813, he was appointed surgeon of Lt. Col. James McDowell's Flying Camp in the Virginia militia. When he returned from a leave of absence, he discovered someone else had been appointed to replace him, and so his service in this role ended on November 16, 1813. Floyd was then commissioned as major of the militia on April 20, 1814 and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general of the 17th Brigade of Virginia militia. He served until he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1814. During this time, he moved his family again, this time to Thorn Spring, a large plantation in Montgomery County, Virginia. Thornspring (Pulaski) (Thornspring Golf Course) was inherited by Letitia Preston Floyd from her father William Preston and was located near her older brother, Virginia Treasurer, Gen John Preston, and his Horseshoe Bottoms Plantation (Radford Army Ammunition Plant). They both were near the Preston’s Smithfield home (Virginia Tech) that their father had completed in Montgomery County for their mother, Susannah Smith Preston, before he died. John Floyd used to keep Bears chained to the tree on the lawns of the Thornspring Plantation (Pulaski, VA).

Floyd practiced medicine in Montgomery County, Virginia, where he also served as a Justice of Peace and as a Major in the Militia.  In the early months of the War of 1812, he served as military surgeon, but during the course of that year was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.  Following the war he was appointed a Brigadier-General of Militia and in 1817 entered national politics when he was elected to the House of Representative.  His influence as a Congressman was considerable, and he was primarily responsible for legislation which led to the occupation and settlement of the Oregon Territory.  Strongly opposed to John Quincy Adams, he aided in the election of Jackson in 1828, but eventually deserted him o the tariff issue.

He left the Congress in 1829, and became Virginia’s 18th Governor the same year: the first to serve under the new State Constitution of 1829.  During his tenure as Governor, he roundly condemned President Jackson’s handling of the nullification crisis, but was himself not a supporter of the doctrine of nullification.

At the expiration of his term as Governor in 1834, he returned to his home in Montgomery County where he suffered a stroke and died on August 15, 1834.  The most significant even of his years of public service was certainly the Southampton Slave Revolt, which he, in his capacity as Governor, was called upon in late August of 1831 to deal with.  The entries from his personal diary, and the 14 letters here reproduced show Floyd’s own evaluation of the scope and causes of the revolt, as well as the actions he told to meet the emergency.

Floyd’s biographer,  Charles H. Ambler[6], demonstrates clearly that his major concern, as politician and as Governor, was with the development of Virginia’s internal resources, so as to insure “the future greatness of the Commonwealth.”  His attitude towards slavery was entirely conditioned by his hopes and plans for the economic expansion of the State.  This meant, in 1831, that he saw slavery as an inherited evil: evil not because of humanitarian consideration, but because, to him, it represented a barrier to the kind of development that he sought.

He was not insincere when he wrote in his diary, “Before I leave this Government will have contrived to have a law passed gradually abolishing slavery in this State…”He seems to have genuine desired emancipation, but his diary entries do not show, as his correspondence does, that the emancipation which he favored carried with it a commitment to absolute banishment from the State of all black persons—slave, free, and mulatto.  Then, having expressed himself, both in his diary and in correspondence, as favoring emancipation, just sixteen days later, he let an opportunity to proposed such a plan to the Legislature slip from his fingers.  History is full of missed opportunities.

Ambler also informs us that “Floyd decided, in November 1831, to recommend to the General Assembly that enactment of a law providing for the gradual abolition of slavery.”  In a letter to James Hamilton, Governor of South Carolina, written on November 19, he outlined a scheme for gradual emancipation and expressed his desire to learn the attitudes of South Carolina and Georgia on the subject.

We do not know what Hamilton’s reply was, nor do we know what else may have transpired to change Floyd’s mind, but his Annual Message to the Legislature, delivered on December the 6th, contained no reference to emancipation.  Instead, he devoted a major portion to an account of what had happened, an analysis of the causes, and legislative proposals designed to overhaul the State’s means of control over all black person.

The net impression one gains from a reading of the material here reprinted is that, while Floyd undoubtedly regarded himself as a man of strict principles, he was in reality weak and opportunistic.  The great debate slavery which took place during the Legislative session of 1831-1832 has been called the last free and uninhibited  debate of the issue  ever to take place in any Southern legislature.  For nearly half a century the subject had been shunned, both by the press and in political discussion.  Now, the revolt in Southampton County a fresh memory, the poetical atmosphere was favorable to such a discussion, and Floyd’s message served to set it in progress. But, during its course, the Governor seemed to function purely as an observer, and when it was over, he quickly set his course  accordance with the sentiments which had prevailed.  Ambler explains Floyd’s change of heart with the following words:

The uncertain condition of federal regulations at this time was doubtless a factor             in defeating the anti-slavery party in Virginia.  Absorbed as he was in national          affairs, Floyd was perfectly willing to turn the whole subject of the state’s proper policy regarding Negro slavery over to the solution of a master who was at hand        in the person of Thomas R. Drew of William and Mary College, a man in whom all Virginia reposed the greatest confidence.  In April, 1832 Floyd wrote him inviting his attention to the subjects of slavery and abolition as set forth in the debates of the Assembly of 1831-1832.  The able defence and justification of the institution of Negro slavery which followed was accepted by Floyd and most   other Virginias of whatever section as final.  Under the changed conditions the anti-slavery sentiments of 1832 were largely lost sight of in a struggle to maintain the state sovereignty theory of government.[7]

Herbert Aptheker in American Negro Slave Revolts, argued that it was the Nat Turner revolt which changed Floyd’s position on the abolition of slavery in Virginia because of the climate of fear as a result of 60 Whites being killed.  One of the irony of history is that Nat Turner inspired John Brown, and John B. Floyd, his son  played an important, although undistinguished, role in the case of John Brown, twenty-eight years later. The younger Floyd, having already served a term as Virginia’s Governor, was the Secretary of War in 1859.  Late in August of that year he received an anonymous letter subsequently found to have been sent by one of Brown’s lieutenants, warning of the impending raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Floyd dismissed the letter because, as he later explained, “I was satisfied in my own mind that a scheme of such shocking wickedness and outrage could not be entertained by any citizens of the United States.[8]

Of the fourteen letters which follow, Numbers 1 through 13 were taken from the Letter Book, Executive Papers of Governor John Floyd, Virginia State Library, Archives Branch.  The fourteenth letter, John Floyd to James Hamilton, Richmond, November 19, 1831, is from the John Floyd Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.


Extracts from the Diary and Correspondence of Governor John Floyd of


Twenty-second day: I had no Council to-day.  Had conversation with the Board of Public Works on the Northwest Turnpike Road Company.  The business of the Board was dispatched and we adjourned.

Twenty-third day:  This will be a very noted day in Virginia.  At daylight this morning the Major of the City put into my hands a notice to the public, written by James Trezvant [sic] of Southampton County, stating that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down.

Upon the receipt of this information, I began to consider how to prepare for the crisis.  To call out the militia and equip military force for that service.  But according to the forms of this wretched and abominable Constitution, I must first require advice of Council, and then disregard it, if I please.  On this occasion there was not one councilor in the city.  I went on, made all the arrangements for suppressing the insurrection, having all my orders ready for men, arms, ammunition, etc., when by this time one of the council came to town, and that vain and foolish ceremony was gone through.  In a few hours that troops marched, Captain Randolph with light artillery, both from this city and two companies of Infantry from Norfolk and Portsmouth.  The light Artillery had under their care one thousand stands of arms for Southampton and Sussex, with a good supply of ammunition.  All these things were dispatched in a few hours.

Twenty-fourth day:  This day was spent in distribution arms below this [sic] where it was supposed it would be wanted.

Twenty-fifth day: I received dispatches from Brigadier Richard Eppes,  stating with local militia those I  sent  him were more than enough to suppress the insurrection.

Twenty-sixth day: Constant application for arms are made.  I received letters from W. O. Goode of Mecklenburg and James H. Gholson for arms.  They were sent.  General Epps disbanded the Artillery and Infantry who returned home.

Twenty-seven day: I received dispatches from Brigadier-General Broadnax a letter giving and account of his having assumed command of Brunswick and of the insurrection at Hick’s Ford in Greensville.

Twenty-eighth day: General Broadnax disbanded those troops and returned home.  He reports several families killed the same day dispatches were received from General Eppes stating the names of many who were killed.  From the two accounts, I find that there have been murdered by the Negro insurgents sixty-one persons! The accounts received from the seat of war informs me that the operation of the troops is now confined to the capturing of the insurgents as they make no further resistance and are endeavoring to escape.

Twenty-ninth day: The news heretofore from below, Surry and Nansemond, is in expectation of an insurrection.  The Commandants of those regiments ask for arms.  They are sent them. A few days ago the mayor of Fredericksburg

Thirtieth day:  the news as heretofore, General Thomas captured most of the insurgents.  The principal leaders yet untaken.  Nat, alias Nat Turner, by the negroes called General, heretofore a preacher and a slave, Artis and some others are yet sought.

Thirty-first day:  I learn that many negroes have been taken up in the county of Nansemond, abut forty, some of whom inform us of its being intended as a general rising of the negroes.


First day: General Epps informed me that they had captured about forty of the insurgents, that they have been confined in the Southampton jail and have been turned over to the courts of that County to be dealt with according to law.

Second day: The same information as yesterday.

Third day: General Epps informs me by the return of Captain Harrison of the Cavalry, whose troops returned today, that a Court of Oyer and Terminer[9] for Southampton County was convened on the thirty-first of August and continued the first of September and had convicted some of the prisoners of conspiracy and murder.

A few hours after this he sent an express with the record of the court, containing the trial and condemnation of four of the prisoners.  Moses and Daniel, Andrew and Jack.  The last two the court recommended their punishment to be commuted for transportation, to which I will agree.  Moses and David will be hanged on Monday, the fifth.  Through out this affair the most appalling accounts have been given of the conduct of the negroes, the most inhuman butcheries the mind can conceive of, men, women, and infants, their heads chopped off, their bowels ripped out, ears, noses, hands, and legs cut off, no instance of mercy shown. The white people shot them in self defense whenever they appeared.

But amidst these scenes there were slaves found to defend their masters and to give information of the approach of the hostile party.  These insurgents progressed twenty miles before they were checked, yet all this horrid work was accomplished in two days.

Fourth day:  I have written General Eppes to retain at Southampton a sufficient guard and to disband the rest of his forces.

Fifth day:  I have received to-day by express a record of the trial of the other slaves, eight of them, concerned in the massacre of Southampton.  They are all condemned to be executed on Friday and next Monday.  I will not in these cases interfere with the operations of the law.

Sixth day:  this day I have attended to the Executive business, James River Company, Board of Public Works and North-western turnpike Company, all of which are ex officio duties.  It has been a laborious day.  I am not well to-day.  I am feverish and thirsty with a bad taste in my mouth.

Seventh day:  I am this day informed by a letter from Colonel Wm. A. Christian, Commandant of the twenty-seventh Regiment in Northampton, that the negroes in that county are in a state of insubordination and intend to create an insurrection in that county.  Guns have been found among them and some they were compelled to take from them by force.  That county and Accomack are well armed, I have sent them a good supply of ammunition by this day’s boat.  I fear much this insurrection in Southampton is to lead to much more disastrous consequences than it at this time apprehended by anybody.

Eighth day:  Had a meeting of the ex officio Boards.

Ninth day:  No news from Southampton though even Prince William County has its emissaries in it from among the free negroes of the district of Columbia.  He is a Preacher.  The whole of that massacre in Southampton is the work of these Preachers as daily intelligence informs me.  I am still unwell.

Tenth day:  I received by express to-day the record of the trial of nine others of the slaves concerned in the insurrection of Southampton.  Five of these slaves the court recommended to transportation which the law calls commuting this punishment.  I am so unwell this afternoon that I have to go to bed.

Eleventh day:  I hear nothing this morning from below.  I do not feel so badly as yesterday.  I had more appetite to-day and no so bad a taste in my mouth.

Twelfth day:  I have transacted some official business, but have heard nothing from below.  Major Gibbons has received a letter from citizens of New York inviting donations from the Poles.  There may be a town meeting.

Fourteenth day:  Attended various Boards ex officio.  This day the record of the trial of Misek, a negro in Greensville, for Conspiracy was brought.  The evidence was too feeble and therefore I have reprieved him for sale and transportation.

Sixteenth day:  I had a Council of State, transacted business and received the record of nine slaves condemned to be hanged by the Court of Sussex.  One I have reprieved.  No news from any other part of the State.

Seventeenth day:  Had a Council.  Received an express from Amelia to-day, asking arms as families have been murdered in Dinwiddie near the Nottoway line.  Colonel Davidson of the thirty-ninth Regiment Petersburgh, states the same by report.  I do not exactly believe the report

Nineteenth day:  News from the Colonel of the thirty-ninth says the whole is false as it relates to the massacre of Mrs. Cousins and family in Dinwiddie.  The slaves are quiet and evince no disposition to rebel.

Twentieth day:  did little business except to receive and dispatch public letters.  The alarm of the country is great in the counties between this and the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I am daily sending them a portion of arms though I know there is no danger as the slaves were never more humble and subdued.

Twenty-first day:  I went to the council chamber to-day to transact business which required a Council.  There are no councillors in town but Daniel.  After waiting until I was tired I left the Capitol.  Mr. Daniel did not come at half after ten.

Twenty-second day:  This day was spent in giving orders for arms to be distributed to various counties and regiments.

Twenty-third day:  I received the record of the trial of Lucy and Joe of Southampton.  They were of the insurgents.  What can be done, I yet know not, as I am obliged by the Constitution first to require the advice of the Council, then I do as I please.  This endangers the lives of these negroes, though I am disposed to reprieve for transportation I cannot do it until I first require advice of the Council and there are no councillors now in Richmond, nor will there be unless Daniel comes to town in time enough.

Twenty-sixty day:  I have received a record of the trial of three slaves, for treason in Southampton.  Am recommended to mercy, which I would grant but the forms of our infamous Constitution makes it necessary before the Governor does any act involving discretionary power, first to require advice of Council, and in this case I cannot do so, because there is not the poor wretch must lose his life by their absence from their official duty.

I have received this day another number of the “Liberator,” a newspaper printed in Boston, with the express intention of inciting the slaves and free negroes in this and the other States to rebellion and to murder the men, women and children of those states.  Yet we are gravely told there is no law to punish such an offence.  The amount of it then is this, a man in our States may plot treason in one state against another without fear of punishment, whilst the suffering state has no right to resist by the provisions of the Federal Constitution.  If this is not checked it must lead to a separation of these states.  If families butchered before their eyes by their slaves and not seek by force to punish those who plan and encourage them to perpetrate these deeds.  I shall notice this in my next message to the General Assembly of this State.  Something must be done and with decision.

[1] The following are extracts from the Diary and Correspondence of Governor John Floyd of Virginia found in Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material including the full text of the “Confessions” of Nat Turner. The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971. Tragle’s compilation of documents on Nat Turner is the most complete, so the website is only putting up documents on the site that are not available in his seminal work.

[2] Floyd, John. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Sept. 6, 2005.

[3] John Floyd (1783-1837) Dickinson College.

[4] Ambler, Charles, H. Life and Diary of John Floyd Governor of Virginia, an Apostle of Secession, and the Father of the Oregon Country, Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Press, 1918, 31-32.

[5] Memoirs of Letitia Preston Floyd written Feb. 1843.

[6] Charles H. Ambler, The Life and Diary of John Floyd.  Richmond, 1918, p. 87.

[7] Ambler, op. cit., p. 92.

[8] Oswald Garison Villard, John Brown—A Biography Fifty Years After. Boston, 1910, p. 92.

[9] This is the court which dealt with issues regarding to African Americans and slavery.