The Denmark Vesey affair has been commonly accepted as the largest slave rebellion plot in American history--one that resulted in the hanging of Vesey, a free black, and 34 slaves in Charleston, S.C., in the summer of 1822, perhaps the largest civilian execution in U.S. history.
Ostensibly planned by Vesey, a carpenter, the conspiracy allegedly called on the slaves and free blacks of Charleston and its surrounding countryside to rise up, seize local munitions stores and slaughter the white population before leaving on ships bound for Haiti.
But Michael Johnson, a professor of history, has concluded not only that Vesey was innocent of organizing a slave rebellion but also that, in fact, no rebellion conspiracy ever existed--except in the frightened minds of white slaveholders, who, Johnson argues, coerced testimony from a handful of slaves and free blacks to convict Vesey and the others.
"My argument is that Denmark Vesey and the men who were hanged were not guilty of launching a slave insurrection, or even planning one," says Johnson, who details his research findings in a forthcoming article in the William and Mary Quarterly. "They were implicated in this by the collaboration between the court, who wants to find them guilty, and a handful of cooperative black witnesses, slaves, who testify and say what the court wants to hear in order to save their own necks, because they know they're going to be hanged if they don't do it."
Ever since the trials and executions of summer 1822, historians have accepted the court's central finding, even if they challenged the notion that a slave revolt was a crime, Johnson says. "Historians have wanted to accept the court's judgment that these guys were ready to start a slave insurrection, but they wanted to reverse the morality," Johnson says. "What the court deplores as horrible, the historians said, 'Yeah! You guys are great.' "
So how could so many have gotten things wrong for 179 years? Johnson said that most historians have relied exclusively on the Charleston court's printed summary of the trials and executions, and few have actually read the court transcripts or read the correspondence and newspapers of the period.
Johnson actually hadn't intended to do research on the Denmark Vesey affair. In 1999, he only was supposed to review three books published that year on Denmark Vesey. One, Designs Against Charleston by Edward Pearson, contained what purported to be a faithful copy of the court transcript. But in reading it, Johnson felt something was amiss. What sealed it for him was reading in the Pearson transcript testimony by someone who, on June 21, 1822, was describing events that didn't happen until July 2, 1822.
"That one piece of the puzzle drove me to the archives," Johnson says. "When I got to the archives, everything tumbled out. Just been sitting there for 180 years."
Johnson argues that what ultimately became the basis for court testimony describing an insurrection plot really developed out of the black rumor mill of the time. It began, he says, with newspaper stories discussed by Vesey and other slaves and free blacks who could read. One example is newspaper accounts of the South Carolina Legislature's December 1821 passage of an "emancipation bill." The bill actually forbade owners from freeing their slaves but was described in newspaper accounts simply as "an emancipation bill ... likely to pass," Johnson says.
"If you're a slave and you hear that [description], and then it doesn't happen, you think it's a conspiracy and it's against you," Johnson says. Talk of freedom probably led to some people boasting or saying "we ought to do something," Johnson continues. But such talk never amounted to an organized conspiracy.
While the court that sentenced Vesey to death branded him the leader of the conspiracy, Johnson argues that Vesey was simply a free black who could read and who was not shy about speaking his mind, often quoting the Bible to prove the injustice of slavery, which made both blacks and whites uncomfortable.
"My own take on this is: I think Denmark Vesey was a heretic at that time," Johnson says. "He is a guy who thinks slavery is wrong, he hates white people, he thinks blacks should be equal to whites, and he won't shut up about it. He's endangering the black people and scaring the pants off the white people. And so he made himself a target."
Asked to review the three books on Vesey, Johnson instead produced a rather long essay with original research that is highly critical of the works he was asked to review. The William and Mary Quarterly in its next issue will have reaction pieces to Johnson's work.
"It's so provocative that they felt they needed to get responses," says Philip D. Morgan, the former editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, who recently joined the Hopkins History Department as a professor. "That's unusual."
Morgan, who also researches early American history, has read the three books Johnson reviewed and Johnson's article. He'll have his own reaction piece to Johnson's in the next issue.
"He's done some incredibly impressive sleuthing here," Morgan says.
In his own piece, Morgan looks at other slave rebellion plots and finds similarities to the Vesey affair. Early in trial proceedings, he says, accused slaves denied the charges and got executed despite protesting their innocence, but as the investigations continued, often in an atmosphere of panic and frenzy, slaves soon learned that the best strategy was to confess, accuse others and be pardoned.
Too often, Morgan believes, historians and others have not examined critically the actual evidence of these slave rebellion plots, and he thinks he knows why. "We want to believe in the revolt," he says. "It points to the heroism of the slaves, that they were willing to lay down their lives to fight injustice."
The real heroes, Johnson and Morgan agree, are the slaves and free blacks, like Denmark Vesey, who refused to cooperate with the court and provide names and testimony. These are the men who ended up being executed.