WELL, there goes another firm fact of life. We have here both an object lesson and a dramatic exposure of an outrageous professional scandal. Michael P. Johnson has a long record of devoted adherence to previously neglected evidentiary material, notably in his creative use of the mortality tables of the United States census. Here he is on more difficult ground–nearly quicksand, given the subject in question–but I think very largely persuasive.
Unless, of course, he is guilty of the “unrelenting carelessness” (p. 926) he so gently charges Edward A. Pearson with. I very much doubt that he is. Yet I need to reiterate the disclaimer in my review of Designs against Charleston. I do not have ready access to the two key manuscript records concerning the Vesey conspiracy nor indeed to an original edition of the related book published by the court.
Mention of this handicap helps a little to delineate the dimensions of the professional scandal. Ordinarily, scholars expect to and are able to rely implicitly on the accuracy of quoted material. Especially is this the case with the printing of lengthy manuscripts. Professional exchange among historians would be rendered impossible if they had always to check whether some historian has quoted, say, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson correctly, since the internal logic of such an inquiry would require ascertaining whether Julian Boyd got the matter right in the first place. We simply cannot run around constantly checking such materials.
Of course mistakes happen. Especially is this the case when different versions exist of purportedly the same document. These brief comments are based on a typescript of Johnson’s remarks (the second version sent me by the William and Mary Quarterly), labeled “final proofread version,” that itself has a half-dozen typographical errors. In a very minor way, this progression has an eerie resemblance that I trust will have disappeared in the final printing. Even through the finest screens of care, errors can creep in, so we are thrown back on trust.
Professor Johnson’s essay is difficult to evaluate for another reason. While it is persuasive in its predominantly destructive mode, its latter portion seems a bit fragmentary. Though his concluding discussion of developments in the state legislature and articles in the Charleston press is very suggestive and interesting, the whole is scarcely a complete discussion of the Vesey Plot and its ramifications. His own bipartite bibliographical list suggests that much more is forthcoming, especially concerning rumor, literacy, and reading. Some of the references on these matters seem a bit of a stretch for present purposes, but perhaps they will not be so in his projected “Conjuring Insurrection” that is finally promised in footnote 135.
There is a very brief discussion of two pertinent aspects of the Vesey affair–religion and rumors about taking white women–in a work not cited in Johnson’s bibliography: Tumult and Silence at Second Creek. This present commentary is not the venue for me to undertake a defense of the conclusion in that work that there very probably was an actual slave conspiracy in Adams County, Mississippi, in 1861. The nature of the evidence was in that instance radically different from the documents concerning the Vesey Plot. There was no official trial record. Nothing was in the newspapers. The proposed sexual plans concerning white women were spelled out in such great detail as totally to dwarf comparable assertions made during or about any other slavery conspiracy in this nation’s history. I use the term “very probably” with care, since it is indeed possible that Adams County slaves were merely telling their examiners what they thought was wanted. But “confessions” obtained with torture and the promise of imminent death are not universal statements: they are framed in specific cultural contexts, and generalizations about them across space and time are, in my opinion, highly problematic.
Whether or not they are conscious of doing so, historians very commonly resort to the concept of probability, most usually without offering specific mathematical figures because the latter suggest greater precision than is intended. Especially is this true when some of the evidence is ambiguous and when the subject is heavily freighted with emotional baggage. Thus there is nothing unusual nor reprehensible about Johnson’s parade of probabilities: in addition to repeated “probably”s, we have “improbable,” “presumably,” “most likely,” “may have,” “could help explain,” “seems almost certain,” “seems likely,” “seems quite plausible,” “perhaps,” “might have,” “may have prompted,” “could help explain,” “may well have been,” and “it appears.” Indeed on such a matter a voice of uncertainty is wholly appropriate, as is the barrage of repeated rhetorical questions accompanying it. We are today so thoroughly accustomed to this mode of thinking that we ordinarily are not conscious that it is itself an artifact of modern culture, having arisen in Western thought only about five centuries ago.
Some sense of chronology about the question of slave rebelliousness is also needed. Chattel/racial slavery existed in North America for three centuries, but the views of white slaveholders, abolitionists, and historians about organized resistance to slavery have had a shorter history of their own. Through the Revolutionary generation, both experience and natural rights theory told the founders that slaves could and would be dangerous individually and in concert. After about 1830 there was a remarkably sudden reversal: a congeries of developments emerged that transformed the predominant image of blacks in the minds of most white Americans both North and South. They included such well- known phenomena as publication of David Walker’s Appeal (1829), the first issues of Garrison’s The Liberator, the Nullification Crisis, Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the publication of his Confessions (1831), the debates over slavery in the Virginia legislature, Thomas Dew’s Review of the Debates (1832), the Indian Removal Act, the beginning of blackface minstrelsy, and John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1832). A new atmosphere crystallized very rapidly, in which slaves (especially male) were thought and said to be fully contented Sambos–a portrait that would have astounded the Founding Fathers but one that became deeply ingrained in American culture. Yet, after a full century of elaboration and brutal extensions of corollaries such as lynching, the contented slave suddenly came close to virtual disappearance. Academically, the new mood first appeared in Harvey Wish’s “American Slave Insurrections before 1861” and more famously Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts. Not very long after World War II, publication of Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution seemed totally to shift the ground.
African-American scholars joined in what by the 1970s had become an interracial chorus of acclamation. As John Oliver Killens framed the new orthodoxy, “There were many slaves who were not childlike and simpleminded, were not happy with their bondage.”
This ideological itch proved to be powerful and enduring. It appears in Pearson’s book, though at my distant range it is impossible to discern whether it correlates with any of that work’s mistranscriptions. (Johnson’s claims on this latter head are not helpful, since he labels the data in his tables “Selections” without offering any clue as to how they were selected.) With Pearson, the itch was strong enough to override mere facts about the Vesey Plot. After making the correct point that slave women seem not to have participated in the conspiracy, Pearson gratuitously added a caveat that makes plain what stance we all are supposed to assume on such matters. As is common in this didactic lesson, he begins with a convoluted negative: “That Charleston’s enslaved women did not take leading roles in the plot should not be interpreted to mean that slave women failed to resist slavery.” Then Pearson goes on to generalize this received doctrine: “Even though the few slave rebellions that broke out in North America were led and supported by men, female slaves persistently challenged the authority of their owners. Rather than resist collectively as did enslaved men, slave women struggled in other ways, administering poison, feigning illness, stealing, committing arson, and escaping from their owners.”
Clearly we are not yet free from ideological posturing about slave revolts and conspiracies, and also, just as surely, by this time we ought to be. Now we have cause for at least partial good hopes in Johnson’s proposed book, as well as kudos for Richard C. Wade. When aiming for the heart of such matters, we ought to be able to do better than shoot ourselves in the foot. Today, we need to stop requiring slaves to have behaved in ways that we now think would have been heroic.
Winthrop D. Jordan is William F. Winter Professor of History and F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Mississippi.
1 Johnson, “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 58 (2001), 915–76 (references to this article are in parentheses in the text).
2 Winthrop D. Jordan, review of Pearson, Designs against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822 (Chapel Hill, 1999), in American Historical Review, 105 (2000), 546–47.
3 Ed. note: since corrected.
4 Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (Baton Rouge, 1993).
5 Wish, “American Slave Insurrections before 1861,” Journal of Negro History, 22 (1937), 299–320; Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1943); Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York, 1956).
6 Killens, ed., introduction to The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey (Boston, 1970), viii.
7 Pearson, ed., Designs against Charleston, 131.
By Winthrop D. Jordan