On this date in 1822, white South Carolinians hanged the most terrifying slave insurrectionary who never rose — and breathed a sigh of relief as they clamped the shackles ever tighter upon their groaning servile class.
That’s the size of the slave and free black network Vesey is said to have recruited — ready to undertake a coordinated uprising to seize Charleston, slaughter the white populace, and possibly then to sail for a Haiti whose own slave revolt had recently established it a black-governed republic. The mind boggles at such a scheme’s bravado … but in an age when horseshoes and mizzenmasts could outrun information, Vesey’s plot could have been past any prospect of obstruction before anyone in a position to obstruct it even knew what happened. Had they not flown but defended Charleston, the event would have ignited a conflagration to outshine every other slave uprising.
The weak point, of course, were those 9,000 — or however many — slaves who had to act ruthlessly and in unison, and keep their peace until they struck. It is incredible enough that such a secret kept among so many for up to four years.
The plot finally leaked mere days before it was to have been attempted when a middling player attempted the unnecessary freelance recruitment of a house slave — a class Vesey had intentionally (and rightly, events would prove) excluded for dangerously excessive personal loyalty to their masters’ families.*
A well-educated and well-traveled man on account of his years as the personal property of a slaver — Joseph Vesey, who bequeathed his purchase both a surname and the given name Telemaque, subsequently corrupted into “Denmark” by Charlestonians — the plot’s signature hero/villain had managed to purchase his freedom and establish himself in the anomalous position of free black artisan/entrepreneur in the slaveholding South.
His successful carpentry business (apt choice, for a martyr) had given him the prestige and the werewithal to start an independent African Methodist Episcopal church where he poured out a hatred of chattel slavery undiminished by his own liberty.
For several years before he disclosed his intentions to any one, he appears to have been constantly and assiduously engaged in endeavoring to imbitter [sic] the minds of the colored population against the whites. He rendered himself perfectly familiar with those parts of the Scriptures which he could use to show that slavery was contrary to the laws of God; that slaves were bound to attempt their emancipation, however shocking and bloody might be the consequences … (Source)
His judges were later incredulous that he’d be so hung up about it:
It is difficult to imagine, what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.
An American Spartacus?
Denmark Vesey blurs into myth as he approaches his end, together with lieutenants: among them, Peter Poyas, the organizational maven of the operation who was hanged along with Vesey and four others; and Gullah Jack, an African priest among the 29 more who would die in the weeks ahead.
Most of the principals held their tongues before interrogators; the tribunals were held secretly; their records were censored against the apprehension by other slaves of the potential for such designs as “a bottle with poison to put into my master’s pump & into as many pumps he could about town.”
But there was enough known to shatter forever any illusion of paternal congeniality more liberal masters might have fancied. One planter was incredulous that his agreeable charge might be involved in such nefarious doings until he asked the man directly and was astonished to hear from his trusted coachman’s lips the frank intention “to kill you, rip open your belly and throw your guts in your face.” (Both quotes are from this book review.)
Whites were scared. “I have never heard in my life, of more deep laid plots or plots more likely to succeed,” wrote Anna Haynes Johnson, niece to Gov. Thomas Bennett. (Source) Another concluded that “our NEGROES are truly the Jacobins of the country.” (Source)
But as initial panic (and federal troop deployments) gave way to a more pervasive undertow of security paranoia, the affair was self-consciously downplayed and records intentionally destroyed for fear that too-careful documentation of its particulars could map the way for a revival. An 1861 piece in The Atlantic — an excellent read on the progress of the conspiracy — grapples with what was even then a gaping evidentiary vacuum.
The intense avidity which at first grasped at every incident of the great insurrectionary plot was succeeded by a distaste for the memory of the tale; and the official reports which told what slaves had once planned and dared have now come to be among the rarest of American historical documents. In 1841, a friend of the writer, then visiting South Carolina, heard from her hostess for the first time the events which are recounted here. On asking to see the reports of the trials, she was cautiously told that the only copy in the house, after being carefully kept for years under lock and key, had been burnt at last, lest it should reach the dangerous eyes of the slaves. The same thing had happened, it was added, in many other families. This partially accounts for the great difficulty now to be found in obtaining a single copy of either publication; and this is why, to the readers of American history, Denmark Vesey and Peter Poyas have been heretofore but the shadows of names.
Antebellum September 11
Even as a nonstarter, the insurrection was an antebellum 9/11 that spurred a reactionary crackdown on perceived liberalities in the system — most vividly symbolized by the construction of the fortress that became the still-extant military academy The Citadel, but more systematically impinging blacks’ everyday freedom to assemble and worship, and even requiring (until the Supreme Court overruled the law) free black sailors be detained whenever a northern ship called at port. Pro-slavery southerners blamed open disapprobation for slavery voiced in Congress during the recent Missouri Compromise wrangling, and even similar sentiments expressed in the British parliament, for emboldening the terrorists.
All this yielded a rich political harvest from the fruit of the gallows — like Charleston mayor James “there is nothing they are bad enough to do, that we are not powerful enough to punish” Hamilton, who rode his timely suppression of the plot to Congress later that year.
Such political profiteering, combined with the sketchiness of primary sources, has licensed a revisionist take on the orthodox history — that there was never any conspiracy, but that reactionary white elites concocted the plot from a tissue of loose liberation talk, false confessions, and latent white fear in order to win political power. This contested minority interpretation has been a recent topic of academic dispute, since Michael P. Johnson floated it in 2001 (an account is required to read Johnson’s original essay; here’s a synoptic article that appeared subsequently in The Nation).
Markers of historiography around these competing versions of Vesey, bearing directly on the question current in today’s Charleston of whether and how to memorialize this episode, are ripe with controversial modern-day implications.
Consider: if Vesey is a rebel indeed, the silence of (most of) the plotters is a noble acceptance of torture to protect their confederates; if they’re framed, they’re silent because there’s nothing to confess. Either way, the modern reader’s sympathies are likely to lie with the blacks, but Johnson’s interpretation removes the locus of action from them to white elites. If he’s right, would that derogate an entire narrative of black resistance to slavery, drain the martyrdom from their deaths? Or would it correct an overstated romantic mythology of armed resistance, and color this day’s hanging with a different heroism: refusing to purchase their lives with a false accusation?
* For his timely betrayal, Peter Desverneys received his liberty and a state pension; he later became a slaveholder himself. See Black Slaveowners.