The Making of a Slave Conspiracy, part 2

FROM the very moment in spring 1822 that the Charleston (South Carolina) Court of Magistrates and Freeholders launched its prosecution of what has come to be known as the “Vesey Conspiracy,” its actions have been controversial. Prominent members of the local elite criticized its proceedings as a violation of basic justice and challenged accusations against specific slaves. Theirs proved to be a minority voice. Despite the protests, the court kept its course, grimly determined to punish the conspirators, whose violent rebellion had supposedly been stopped by vigilant white authorities. Historians have largely accepted their verdict, with occasional dissents. In the October 2001 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, Michael P. Johnson revisits the case and repeats these doubts in an extensive essay-review of three recent studies of the Vesey affair..[1] Through a painstaking analysis of the manuscript and printed records of the court proceedings, Johnson not only revives the questions raised by contemporary critics but also claims to expose the behind-the-scenes actions of the secret tribunal. In his reading of the archive, the Charleston court created a false impression that it had conducted fair trials in a search for the objective truth. Far from it, Johnson argues. The court extracted the testimony it desired from slaves who were intimidated or induced into talking as the authorities wished. The result of that effort, the Official Report on which historians have since relied for accounts of the Vesey Conspiracy, is indeed evidence of a conspiracy–not of free blacks and slaves led by Denmark Vesey to win their freedom but of implacable magistrates bent on a bloodthirsty mission to uphold white power in a slave society at all costs.

Can such a challenge to conventional historical wisdom be sustained? And if so, what uses can the records of the Vesey affair–and of similar episodes in the long history of slavery in the Americas–hold for the historian? Is it possible ever to determine the truth behind charges of slave plots when the evidence has been gathered by powerful whites who control the circumstances and set the terms by which the enslaved are allowed to speak, at the peril of their lives? If not, what implications does that judgment carry for the history of slavery and, in particular, for the history of resistance and rebellion by Africans and African Americans that has been a prominent theme in scholarship since the 1970s?

To address these questions, the William and Mary Quarterly has invited Douglas R. Egerton, Edward A. Pearson, and David Robertson–the authors of the three books considered in Johnson’s review–to reply to his critique. We have also sought responses from Thomas J. Davis, Philip D. Morgan, James Sidbury, Robert L. Paquette, and Winthrop D. Jordan, historians who have looked closely at alleged slave conspiracies in other times and places, from New York City in 1741 down to Adams County, Mississippi, in 1861, with stops in Virginia and Cuba along the way.[2] As is usual in such forums, Michael Johnson, the author of the original essay, has been allowed the last word. Or more precisely, the latest word. Can we “read texts that were available to slaves through their eyes?” Johnson asks. That challenge bears a moral weight, given that white historians neglected for far too long to consult the testimony of black witnesses regarding the circumstances of slave life, but it extends to all the participants in the Vesey affair. In the rumors they reported, the readings they formed, and the actions they took, they gave rise to a fascinating but refractory body of evidence historians can be expected to discuss and debate for a long time. The case is not yet closed.


1 Johnson, “Denmark Vesey and His Co-conspirators,” WMQ, 3d Ser., 58 (2001), 915–76.

2 Davis, A Rumor of Revolt: The “Great Negro Plot” in Colonial New York (New York, 1985); Daniel Horsmanden, The New York Conspiracy, ed. Davis (Boston, 1971); Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998); Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730–1810 (New York, 1997); Paquette, Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of “La Escalera” and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba (Middletown, Conn., 1988); Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (Baton Rouge, 1993).