Trials and Errors: Denmark Vesey and His Historians

IN 1964, Richard C. Wade ignited a historiographical controversy in the pages of the Journal of Southern History and in his monograph, Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820–1860. Revising the standard interpretation about the plot organized by free black carpenter Denmark Vesey to destroy Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1822, Wade concluded that it was “probably never more than loose talk by aggrieved and embittered men” rather than a full-blown effort to rebel against slavery. Not all historians accepted this new interpretation. A number of students of the antebellum South and its peculiar institution, including, among others, William W. Freehling in Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 and in his “Denmark Vesey’s Antipaternalistic Reality,” Eugene Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, and Sterling Stuckey in Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America regard this episode as a genuine, but unsuccessful, attempt by a group of enslaved people to gain their freedom. Michael P. Johnson, in Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South (co-authored with James L. Roark), never questioned the existence of the plot that Vesey and his associates organized. The recent publication of three books on this dramatic episode has not only rekindled interest in the efforts of Vesey and his associates to liberate themselves but has also inspired Johnson, who once accepted the majority opinion of Freehling et al., or as he now calls it “this heroic interpretation” (p. 915), to write a long and highly critical article on these works serving to reignite a debate that began more than thirty-five years ago. After many years in the interpretive wilderness, Richard Wade has now found an ally in Michael Johnson.[1]

The “unanticipated directions” (p. 915) taken by Johnson’s scholarship as he labored through books that he appears to believe have very little to recommend them has resulted in a piece that effectively demolishes my transcription of the Vesey trial record, swiftly dismisses the conclusions drawn by Douglas R. Egerton, David Robertson, and myself, and seeks to posit an alternative hypothesis for the events that transpired in the courtroom in Charleston in the summer of 1822. In fact, Johnson’s article should not be regarded as a review essay as such–commonly characterized by a balanced discussion of the arguments advanced, the issues illuminated or obscured, the questions answered and raised, along with some comments on the works’ overall merits and failures–as his central premise is that these books are so flawed and their authors’ interpretative and historical skills so limited and naive, that they have very little merit. In Johnson’s eyes, such analytical shortsightedness has caused Egerton, Robertson, and myself (along with many other historians in the aforementioned volumes and those listed in Johnson’s extensive footnotes) to have fallen simple-mindedly for the fraud that the court perpetrated on its unwitting victims more than a century and a half ago and to be in league with their devious machinations.[2]

While I cannot speak for the objectives of either Egerton or Robertson, the purpose of my book, Designs against Charleston, was twofold. It provided readers with a lengthy introductory essay that addressed the events surrounding the conspiracy of 1822 and illuminated the social and cultural worlds in which enslaved and free black Charlestonians lived in the early nineteenth century by discussing a range of topics, including the worlds of the workshop and the grog-shop and the place of religion. This essay also examined broader national and regional political and cultural currents that shaped the lives of black Charlestonians, particularly the debates over Missouri, the development of the abolition movement in the North, the Panic of 1819, and the continuing efforts by southern slaveholders to regulate and control the lives of their slaves. Second, it gave readers a series of primary documents, including a transcription of the trial record along with a miscellaneous selection of related materials such as newspaper accounts, private letters, petitions to the South Carolina Assembly, and grand jury presentments.

In his condemnation of my work, however, Johnson is half right. I plead guilty to his charge that my transcription of the trial record is deeply flawed. He is correct, therefore, to alert the historical community to its unreliability as a source, providing overwhelming evidence about material inadvertently introduced or omitted in my version. Moreover, Johnson’s discussion of the trial record effectively demonstrates the ways in which I inadvertently corrupted the document. Although I openly admit to these mistakes for which I take sole responsibility and for which I unreservedly apologize, I should note that they were made not with malice aforethought, in some misguided and devious effort to load and distort the record in a way that makes my own interpretation of the plot unimpeachable, but through, as Johnson notes, “unrelenting carelessness” (p. 926). Returning to the microfilm and my notes, it appears that I unwittingly combined elements of the testimony recorded in document A with elements of testimony in document B as I prepared the material for publication, creating the series of problems that Johnson has catalogued. Every single piece of testimony from each prisoner and witness had been transcribed, but in a document that unites document A with document B in ways that severely violate the integrity of the original.

Accordingly, should Designs against Charleston be pulped? Johnson’s transcription of the trial document will no doubt replace my incorrect version, adding to the growing library of primary documents about the Vesey conspiracy. Even though my transcription of the trial document is inaccurate, the accompanying analysis based on my reading and consideration of the evidence stands, I believe, as a sound piece of scholarship that contributes not just to our understanding of the plot itself, but also to the historiography on the antebellum South and urban slavery. Even if we accept Johnson’s notion that those men who claimed they were innocent and were subsequently executed on the information of those slaves who either admitted their guilt or to some knowledge of the plot, there is a significant amount of detail embedded in the testimony itself–including, for example, information about shops that sold arms and ammunition, or the efforts to poison the city’s water supply by “Gullah” Jack Pritchard, or the clandestine gatherings at Bulkley’s Farm–to indicate the presence of a conspiracy orchestrated not by the court in its efforts to bolster white supremacy, but by a group of black Charlestonians in an effort to obtain their freedom.

Johnson’s argument turns to a great extent on his particular reading of the trial transcript and his interpretation of events inside the courtroom. Nevertheless, as Johnson would no doubt admit, the court generated this text in the social and cultural context of a nation and a city undergoing considerable economic and cultural stresses and strains during the late 1810s and early 1820s. In Washington, the political waters were growing increasingly turbulent as debates over the fate of Missouri began to dominate the national political agenda while small groups of men and women in towns and cities across the North were gradually organizing themselves to fight for the abolition of slavery. This contributed to a broad, general climate in which dissent and resistance could and did flourish, not just in Charleston but elsewhere in the nation.

Rebellions, however, rarely emerge from some inchoate set of grievances. As Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have written, “People experience deprivation and oppression within a concrete setting . . . and it is the concrete experience that molds their discontent into specific grievances against specific targets.” In Charleston in 1822, as I discuss at length in my book, there was a confluence of events that prompted Vesey to conspire against slavery and Charleston’s slaveholders.[3] The Panic of 1819 had inflicted severe damage on the region’s economy, resulting in the price of rice and cotton plummeting, throwing planters into debt, and causing the supply of money to contract dramatically. For enslaved South Carolinians, this crisis had profound implications. While planters auctioned off gangs of field hands to meet their financial obligations, urban slaves, particularly those who hired out their labor, found their economic opportunities increasingly constrained as work and money grew ever more scarce. City leaders continued a campaign of harassment against the African Methodist Episcopal Church that brought about several disturbances and the imprisonment of several members. In addition, as Johnson discusses at some length, the assembly was engaged in discussions about the requirements for manumission that ultimately resulted in slaves finding it significantly harder to obtain freedom. All these factors provided the immediate context, a specific set of grievances against which to rebel.[4]

Historical scholarship is an intellectual endeavor that stands on the twin pillars of proof and persuasion. While Johnson has rightly pointed out the serious flaws in my transcription of the court record, he has yet to offer, in my opinion, sufficient proof to persuade me that the analysis presented in my lengthy opening essay is wrong. Although Johnson has ingeniously reconstructed the ways in which Lionel Kennedy, Thomas Parker, and other members of the court went about their business, he never explicitly states why these men should have devoted such time, energy, and subterfuge to this particularly ugly task. It may well be that Vesey was, as Johnson suggests, “the victim of a conspiracy of collusion between the white court and its cooperative black witnesses” as they sought “for their own reasons to pay homage to the enduring power of white supremacy” (p. 971), but he never indicates why this might be the case for the white actors in this sordid drama nor does he offer any decisive evidence to support this claim. Likewise, the reasons behind the division among the state’s political leaders–Governor Thomas Bennett and William Johnson, who openly questioned the existence of a conspiracy, on the one hand, and the court and its supporters on the other–are never fully explained.

It may ultimately turn out that Johnson has exchanged one conspiracy for another. Having overturned conventional historiographical wisdom about the existence of a Vesey-led plot to his own satisfaction, Johnson now needs to explain the motives that led “the conspiratorial court” to condemn more than thirty men to death. Clearly, unless archivists uncover significant new documents, the “unanswered questions” (p. 971) about this particularly dramatic moment in the history of the antebellum South will remain unanswered, although Johnson may perhaps offer some new suggestions and insights in his forthcoming book on the plot. Until the appearance of some other new artifact or paper, historians will never accurately know what actually happened in Denmark Vesey’s house on Bull Street in the summer of 1822 or why Kennedy and his associates chose to hunt down selected members of Charleston’s black community.

Right now, however, Michael Johnson offers one interpretation of events; Douglas Egerton, David Robertson, and I, along with a number of historians who entered this particular fray earlier, provide a competing explanation. Whether historians, including those already involved in this conversation, will be persuaded by Johnson’s analysis of this episode remains to be seen. Scholars may perhaps turn to re-examine the dozens of other conspiracies that litter the historical landscape. Generating new interpretations or breathing new life into old ones forms the backbone of our work. It is worth recalling the comments of escaped Charleston slave Robert Smalls. When asked by a Freedman’s Commission in 1863 whether slaveholders “know anything of the secret life of colored people,” he answered no, elaborating on the ability of enslaved people to dissemble and guard fiercely their own privacy by remarking that “one life they show their masters and another life they don’t show.” Historians, in their efforts to solve the mystery of this plot, to uncover the secrets of the summer of 1822, will continue to produce new interpretations, question old arguments, and seek to throw light on an episode in American history that is as elusive as Vesey himself.[5]

Edward Pearson is a member of the History Department at Franklin and Marshall College.

Notes

1 Wade, “The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Southern History, 30 (1964), 143–61; Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (New York, 1965), 53–61; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974), 593–97; Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York, 1987), 43–53; Johnson and Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South (New York, 1984), 37–42; 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). Johnson’s footnotes and “Further Reading” suggestions provide an exhaustive bibliography of those authors who have written extensively on this incident or have alluded to it as an example of slave resistance.

2 Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey (Madison, 1999); Robertson, Denmark Vesey (New York, 1999); Edward A. Pearson, ed., Designs against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822 (Chapel Hill, 1999).

3 Piven and Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York, 1977), 20.

4 Freehling, Prelude to Civil War, 26–29.

5 Smalls, “American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission Interviews, 1863,” in John Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, 1977), 377.

By Edward A. Pearson