Denmark Vesey, known as Telemaque while enslaved, (1767 – July 2, 1822) was a free black and former slave in Charleston, South Carolina who is noted for his plan for “the rising,” a major slave revolt in 1822; by some accounts, it would have involved thousands of slaves in the city and others on plantations miles away. A skilled carpenter, Vesey had won a lottery and purchased his freedom at age 32 in 1799. He had a good business and a family, but was not able to buy his wife and children out of slavery. Vesey became active in the Second Presbyterian Church; in 1818 he was among the founders of an AME Church in the city, which later became Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The first independent black denomination in the nation, it had recently been organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The AME Church was supported by white clergy in the city and rapidly attracted 1,848 members, making this the second-largest AME congregation in the nation. City officials twice closed it for violating slave laws related to times and purpose of gatherings.
Vesey and his followers were said to be planning to kill slaveholders in Charleston, liberate the slaves, and sail to the black republic of Haiti for refuge. Word of the plan was leaked, and city officials had a militia arrest the plot’s leaders and many suspected followers in June before the rising could begin. Not one white person was killed or injured. Vesey and five slaves were among the first group of men rapidly judged guilty by the secret proceedings of a city-appointed Court and condemned to death; they were executed by hanging on July 2, 1822. Vesey was about age 55. Later one of his sons was judged guilty of this conspiracy and was among many blacks deported from the United States.
In 1822 the city-appointed Court of Magistrates and Freeholders continued to review cases after Vesey’s execution and some public criticism; twice as many slaves were arrested in July as in June, and nearly 30 more were executed. The Court continued into August. They examined a total of 131 men, convicted 67 of conspiracy, hanged 35 (including Vesey), deported 31 men, reviewed and acquitted 27, and questioned and released 38. In October, the Court issued An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes…, which historians have relied on as the primary record of Vesey’s life and the planned rebellion, as other evidence was scarce.
In reaction, the city and state passed new restrictions on free blacks and slaves, an agenda pushed by Charleston’s mayor James Hamilton, Jr. against what he considered the paternalistic approach by other slaveholders to improve slave treatment. Since the mid-20th century, the Report and Vesey’s life have been subject to differing interpretations. Such historians as Douglas Egerton, David Robertson and Edward Pearson have stressed Vesey’s leadership and agency in planning a broad, complex movement among slaves. Historians have also paid attention to the differing agendas of Hamilton and Governor Thomas Bennett, Jr., a moderate who criticized the work of the Court. Richard Wade, Michael Johnson, and Lacy Ford have suggested that Hamilton and the Court exaggerated the scale of the rebellion to serve their own agenda, and built on the crisis to gain strict new legislation controlling slaves and free blacks.
The city continued to be majority-slave up until the Civil War and majority-black well into the 20th century. Many antislavery activists came to regard Vesey as a hero. During the American Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass used Vesey’s name to recruit African Americans for the United States Colored Troops, especially the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. What became known as the Denmark Vesey House in Charleston was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Three books were published on Vesey and the rebellion in 1999, reviving interest in his life and actions. In 2014 a statue in honor of Vesey was erected in Charleston.
Manuscript transcripts of testimony at the 1822 Court proceedings in Charleston, South Carolina and its Report after the events make up most of what is known of Denmark Vesey’s life. The Court judged Vesey guilty of conspiracy in a slave rebellion and had him executed by hanging.
The court reported that he was born into slavery about 1767 in St. Thomas, at the time a colony of Denmark. He was called Telemaque; historian Douglas Egerton suggested that Vesey could have been of Coromantee (an Akan-speaking people) origin. Biographer David Robertson suggested that Telemaque may have been of Mande origin, but his evidence has not been generally accepted by historians.
Telemaque was purchased at about age 14 by Joseph Vesey, a Bermudian sea captain and slave merchant. After a time, Vesey sold him to a planter in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). When the youth was found to suffer epileptic fits, Vesey took him back and returned his purchase price to the former master. Biographer Egerton found no evidence of Vesey having epilepsy later in life. He suggests that Vesey may have faked the seizures in order to escape the particularly brutal conditions on Saint-Domingue.
Telemaque worked as a personal assistant and interpreter in slave trading to Joseph Vesey, including periods spent in Bermuda, and was known to speak French and Spanish in addition to English. Following the American Revolution, the captain retired from the sea and slave trade, settling in Charleston, South Carolina. Telamaque had learned to read and write by the time he arrived in Charleston, and was already fluent in French and English. Charleston was a continental hub connected to Bermuda’s thriving merchant shipping trade. The center of the Lowcountry’s rice and indigo plantations, the city had a majority-slave population and thriving port. Vesey “hired out” Telemaque as a skilled carpenter, and he joined other artisans in the city, many of them free people of color who had their own community in the city.
On November 9, 1799, Telemaque won $1500 in a city lottery. At the age of 32, he bought his freedom for $600 from Vesey. He took the surname Vesey and the given name of Denmark, after the nation ruling his birthplace of St. Thomas. Denmark Vesey began working as an independent carpenter and built up his own business. By this time he had married an enslaved woman. Their children were born into slavery under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which children of a slave mother took her status. Vesey worked to gain freedom for his family, and tried to buy the freedom of his wife but her master would not sell her. This meant their future children would also be born into slavery.
Along with many other slaves, Vesey had belonged to the Second Presbyterian church, and chafed against its restrictions on black members. In 1818 he co-founded a congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church), organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the first independent black denomination in the United States. The AME Church was supported by leading white clergy in Charleston. In 1818 white authorities briefly ordered the church closed, as under the slave code, black congregations were not supposed to worship after sunset. The church attracted 1848 members, making it the second largest AME church in the nation. City officials always worried about slaves in groups; they closed the church again for a time in 1821; the City Council warned that its classes were becoming a “school for slaves” (under the slave code, slaves were prohibited from being taught to read). Vesey was reported as a leader in the congregation, drawing from the Bible to project hope for freedom.
By 1708, the population of the colony of South Carolina was majority slave, reflecting the numerous African slaves imported to the state as laborers on the rice and indigo plantations. Exports of these commodity crops, and cotton from the sea islands, produced the wealth enjoyed by South Carolina’s planters, who controlled the legislature for decades after the American Revolution. The state, the Lowcountry and city of Charleston continued to be dominated in population by the slaves of African descent. By the late 18th century, slaves were increasingly “country born,” that is, native to the United States. They were generally considered more tractable than newly enslaved Africans. Connections of kinship and personal relations extended between slaves in the city of Charleston and those on plantations in the Lowcountry, just as those connections existed among the planter class, many of whom had homes (and domestic slaves) in both places.
From 1791 to 1803 the Haitian Revolution of slaves and free people of color on Saint-Domingue had embroiled the French colony in violence; blacks gained independence and created the republic of Haiti in 1804. Many whites and free people of color had fled to Charleston as refugees during the uprisings, bringing many of their slaves with them, who were referred to in the city as “French Negroes”. Their accounts of the revolts and its success spread rapidly among Charleston’s slaves.
In the early 1800s, the state had voted to reopen its ports to importing slaves from Africa; this decision was highly controversial and opposed by many planters in the Lowcountry, who feared the influence of Africans on their slaves. It was pushed by planters in Upland areas who were developing new plantations of short-staple cotton, as its profitability had been made possible by the invention of the cotton gin. In the few years before the restrictions of the US ban on the international slave trade went into effect in 1808, some 50,000 African slaves were imported to Charleston. Some of these slaves were sold to the Uplands and other areas, but many of the new Africans were held in Charleston and on nearby Lowcountry plantations.
Even after gaining his freedom, Vesey continued to identify and socialize with many slaves and became increasingly set on helping his new friends break from the bonds of slavery. In 1819, Vesey became inspired by the congressional debates over the status of Missouri since slavery appeared to be under attack.
Vesey developed followers among the mostly enslaved blacks in the Second Presbyterian Church and then the independent AME African Church. Its congregation represented more than 10% of the blacks in the city. They resented the harassment of city officials. Economic conditions in the Charleston area became difficult since an economic decline affected the city. In the year of 1820, Vesey and a few other slaves began to conspire and plan a revolt. In order for the revolt to be successful, Vesey had to recruit others and strengthen his army. Because Denmark Vesey was a preacher, when he had recruited enough followers, he would review the plans of the revolts with the others, at his home during the religious classes. Vesey had found a way to connect the freeing of slaves to the story in the Bible; delivering the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.
In his 50s, Vesey was a well-established carpenter with his own business. He reportedly planned the insurrection to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. This date was notable in association with the French Revolution, which had first abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). News of the plan was said to be spread among thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and for tens of miles through plantations along the Carolina coast. (Both the city and county populations were majority black; Charleston in 1820 had a population of 14,127 blacks and 10,653 whites.) Within the black population was a growing upper class of free people of color or mulattos, some of whom were slaveholders. Vesey generally aligned with slaves.
Vesey held numerous secret meetings and eventually gained the support of both slaves and free blacks throughout the city and countryside that were willing to fight for his cause. He managed to organize thousands of slaves who pledged to participate in his conspiracy. By using intimate family ties between those in the countryside and the city, Vesey created an extensive network of supporters
His plan was to form a coordinated attack from multiple sides on the Charleston Meeting Street Arsenal first. Then once they secured their weapons, the conspirators planned to commandeer ships from the harbor to immediately sail to Haiti, possibly with Haitian help. Vesey and his followers also planned to kill white slaveholders throughout the city, as had been done in Haiti, and liberate the slaves. According to records of the French Consulate in Charleston, his group was reported to have numerous members who were “French Negroes,” slaves brought from Saint-Domingue by refugee masters during the Haitian Revolution two decades before.
Due to the vast number of slaves who knew about the planned uprising, Vesey feared that word of the plot would get out. Vesey reportedly advanced the date of the insurrection to June 16. Beginning in May, two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme, George Wilson and Joe LaRoche, gave the first specific testimony about a coming uprising to the Charleston officials, saying that there was a planned uprising to take place on July 14. George Wilson was a mixed race slave who was deeply loyal to his master. The testimonies of these two men confirmed an earlier report coming from another slave named Peter Prioleau. Though officials didn’t believe the less specific testimony of Prioleau, they did believe Wilson and LaRoche due to their unimpeachable reputation with their masters. These testimonies launched the city’s search for the conspirators in earnest.
Joe LaRoche had originally planned to support the uprising and brought the slave Rolla Bennett to discuss the conspiracy with LaRoche’s close friend, George Wilson. Wilson was faced with a decision to either join the conspiracy that Bennett had just informed him of, or tell his master that there was a plot in the making. Wilson refused to join the conspiracy and urged both of these men to end their involvement in the affair. Wilson convinced LaRoche that they must tell his master to prevent this conspiracy.
The Mayor James Hamilton was told, and he organized a citizens’ militia, putting the city on alert. White militias and groups of armed men patrolled the streets daily for weeks until many suspects were arrested by the end of June, including a 55 year old Denmark Vesey. As suspects were arrested, they were held in the Charleston Workhouse until the newly appointed Court of Magistrates and Freeholders heard evidence against them. The Workhouse was also the place where punishment was applied to slaves for their masters, and likely where Plot suspects were abused or threatened with abuse or death before giving testimony to the Court. The suspects were allowed visits by ministers; Dr. Benjamin Palmer had visited Vesey when he was sentenced to death. Vesey told the minister that he would die for a “glorious cause”.
Court of Magistrates and Freeholders
As leading suspects were rounded up by the militia ordered by Intendant/Mayor James Hamilton, the Charleston City Council voted to authorize a Court of Magistrates and Freeholders to evaluate suspects and determine crimes. While tensions in the city were still at a height, some residents had doubts about the widespread fears and quick rush to judgment. Soon after the Court began its sessions, in secret and promising secrecy to all witnesses, Supreme Court Justice William Johnson published an article in the local paper recounting an incident of a feared insurrection of 1811. He noted that a slave was mistakenly executed in the case, hoping to suggest caution in the Vesey affair. He was well respected, having been appointed as Justice by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804. But his article appeared to produce a defensive reaction, with white residents defending the Court and the militancy of city forces.
From June 17, the day after the purported insurrection was to begin, to June 28, the day after the court adjourned, officials arrested 31 suspects, in greater number as the month went on. The Court took secret testimony about suspects in custody and accepted evidence against men not yet charged. Historians acknowledge that some witnesses testified under threat of death or torture, but Robertson believes that their affirming accounts appeared to detail a plan for rebellion.
Newspapers were nearly silent while the Court conducted its proceedings. While bickering with Johnson, the Court first published its judgment on Denmark Vesey and five black slaves, and announced its sentencing them to death. The six men were executed by hanging on July 2; none of the six had confessed and all proclaimed their innocence to the end. Their deaths quieted some of the city residents’ fears, and the tumult in Charleston about the planned revolt began to die down. Officials made no arrests in the next three days, as if wrapping up their business.
Learning that the proceedings were conducted in secret, with defendants unable to confront their accusers or hear testimony against them, Governor Thomas Bennett, Jr. had concerns about the legality of the Court, as did his brother-in-law Justice Johnson. Bennett had served almost continuously in the state legislature since 1804, including four years as Speaker of the House. He did not take any action at first, because four of his household slaves were among those accused in the first group with Vesey, and three were executed with the leader on July 2.
Bennett consulted in writing with Robert Y. Hayne, Attorney General for the state, expressing his concerns about the conduct of the Court and the inability of defendants to confront accusers, yet be subject to execution. Hayne responded that slaves were not protected by the rights available to freemen of habeas corpus and the Magna Carta, under the state’s constitution.
On July 1, an editorial in the Courier expressed defense of the work of the Court. After that, in July the cycle of arrests and judgments sped up, and the suspect pool was greatly expanded. As noted by historian Michael P. Johnson, most blacks were arrested and charged after the first group of hangings on July 2; this was after the actions of the Court had come under criticism by both Justice William Johnson and Governor Bennett. The Court recorded that they divided the suspects into groups: those who “exhibited energy and activity”; if convicted, these were executed. Other men who seemed simply to “yield their acquiescence” to participating were deported. Over the course of five weeks, the Court ultimately ordered the arrest of 131 black men, charging them with conspiracy.
In July the pace of arrests and charges more than doubled, as if to prove there had been a large insurrection that needed controlling. But, the court “found it difficult to get conclusive evidence.” It noted in its report covering the second round of court proceedings, that three men sentenced to death implicated “scores of others” when they were promised leniency in punishment. In total, the courts convicted 67 men of conspiracy and hanged 35, including Vesey, in July 1822. A total of 31 men were transported, 27 reviewed and acquitted, and 38 questioned and released.
The remainder of Vesey’s family was also affected by the crisis and Court proceedings. His enslaved son Sandy Vesey was arrested, judged to have been part of the conspiracy, and included among those deported from the country, probably to Cuba. Vesey’s wife Susan later emigrated to Liberia, which the American Colonization Society had established as a colony for freed American slaves. Another son, Robert Vesey, survived past the end of the American Civil War to be emancipated. He helped rebuild Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865, and also attended the transfer of power when US officials took control again at Fort Sumter.
On October 7, 1822, Judge Elihu Bay also convicted four white men for a misdemeanor in inciting slaves to insurrection during the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy. These four white men were William Allen, John Igneshias, Andrew S. Rhodes, and Jacob Danders and they suffered varied fines and reasonably short jail time. The current information that historians have access to suggests that none of these four men were known abolitionists and never even had contact with each other or the plotters of the rebellion. William Allen received twelve months in prison and a $1,000 fine, which was the harshest punishment that any of these four men received. When tried in court, Allen fully admitted to trying to help the slave conspiracy, but said that he did so because he was promised a large sum of money for the services he was to render. Allen may have thought that saying greed was his motive would get him off with an easier sentence, and reports from the judge prove that the court believed that his motives were based on greed rather than sympathy for the slaves.
The other conspirators punishments were far more lenient than that of William Allen. The second white defendant, John Igneshias was given a one hundred dollar fine and three months in prison, which was the same sentence as the third white defendant, Jacob Danders. Igneshias was found guilty of inciting slaves to insurrection, but Danders was charged for merely saying that he “disliked everything in Charleston, but the Negroes and the sailors.” Danders made this public exclamation after the plot had been revealed which seemed suspicious to the city officials who found out about this remark. Danders was eventually found guilty because he showed sympathy to the slaves who had been caught trying to support the conspiracy. The final white defendant, Andrew S. Rhodes, received a sentence of six months and a five hundred dollar fine even though there was less evidence to convict him than any of the other defendants.
The act of these four white men brought up a big concern among the people of Charleston, that there could be more whites that wished to help blacks fight against slavery. Charleston whites were already concerned about the growing abolitionist movement in the North that was being spread through their mail and further spread by antislavery mariners who came ashore, both white and black, even before these four white men and their crimes were exposed. Judge Bay used his sentencing on these four white men as a warning to any other whites who might think of supporting slave rebels, as well as a way to push lawmakers to strengthen laws against both mariners and free blacks in South Carolina in general and anyone supporting slave rebellions in particular. The decision to reinforce laws against anyone supporting a slave rebellion was mainly based on Judge Bay’s idea that these four white men were only spared from hanging because of a “statutory oversight.” The convictions of these men also allowed the white men of the pro-slavery establishment to continue their belief that their slaves were incapable of staging rebellions without the manipulation of “alien agitators or local free people of color.”
In August both Governor Bennett and Mayor Hamilton published accounts of the insurrection and Court proceedings; Bennett downplayed the danger posed by the alleged crisis and argued that the Court’s executions and lack of due process damaged the state’s reputation. But Hamilton captured the public with his 46-page account, which became the “received version” of a narrowly avoided bloodbath and citizens saved by the city’s and Court’s heroic actions. Hamilton attributed the insurrection to black Christianity and the AME African Church, an increase in slave literacy, and misguided paternalism by masters toward slaves. In October the Court issued its Report, shaped by Hamilton. Lacy K. Ford notes that:
“the most important fact about the Report was (and remains) that it tells the story that Hamilton and the Court wanted told. It shaped the public perception of events, and it was certainly intended to do just that. As such, it makes important points about the Vesey Court’s agenda, regardless of the larger historical truth of the document’s claims about the alleged insurrection and accused insurrectionists.”
Ford noted that Hamilton and the Court left a major gap in their conclusions about the reasons for the slave revolt; the addition of thousands of African slaves to the city and region by the early 1800s imports was completely missing, although fears of slave revolt had been one of the major reasons expressed for opposition to the imports. He suggests this was omitted because its political battle was in the past; Hamilton identified reasons for the rising that could be prevented or controlled by legislation which he proposed.
Governor Bennett’s criticism continued and he made a separate report to the legislature in the fall of 1822 (he was in his last year in office). He accused the Charleston City Council of usurping its authority by setting up the Court, which he said violated law by holding secret proceedings, with no protections for the defendants. The court took testimony under “pledges of inviolable secrecy” and “convicted [the accused] and “sentenced [them] to death without their seeing the persons, or hearing the voices of those, who testified to their guilt.” Open sessions could have allowed the potential for the court to distinguish among varying accounts.
Believing that “black religion” contributed to the uprising, and knowing that several AME Church officials had participated in the plot for insurrection, Charleston officials ordered the large congregation to be dispersed and the building destroyed. Rev. Morris Brown of the church was forced out of the state; he later became a bishop of the AME Church. But no independent black church was established in the city again until after the Civil War. Today the Morris Brown AME Church, with a congregation of more than 3,000, carries on his legacy.
The state legislature in 1820 had already restricted manumissions, by requiring that each act of manumission be approved by both houses of the legislature. This made it almost impossible for slaves to gain freedom, even in cases where an individual or family member could pay a purchase price. But after the Vesey Plot, the legislature further restricted the movement of free blacks and free people of color; if one left the state for any reason, that person could not return. In addition, it required each free black to have documented white “guardians” to vouch for their character.
The legislature also passed the Seaman’s Act of 1822, requiring free black sailors on ships that docked in Charleston to be imprisoned in the city jail for the period that their ships were in port, in order to keep them away from contact with and influencing slaves in the city. This act was ruled unconstitutional in Federal court, as it violated international treaties between the US and Britain. The state’s right to imprison free black sailors became one of the issues in the confrontation between South Carolina and the Federal government over states’ rights.
The minority-white population always feared a slave insurrection in a city in which they were outnumbered. Following passage of the Seaman’s Act, they organized the South Carolina Association, essentially to take over enforcement of control of slaves and free blacks in the city. As part of this, in late 1822 the City petitioned the General Assembly “to establish a competent force to act as a municipal guard for the protection of the City of Charleston and its vicinity.” The General Assembly agreed and appropriated funds to erect “suitable buildings for an Arsenal, for the deposit of the arms of the State, and a Guard House, and for the use of the municipal guard” or militia. The South Carolina State Arsenal, what became known as the Citadel, was completed in 1829; by then white fears of insurrection had subsided for a time. Rather than establish the municipal guard authorized in the act, the State and city entered into an agreement with the US War Department for a detail of United States troops to garrison the Citadel, from those soldiers stationed at Fort Moultrie.
The Court published its report in 1822 as An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes … This was the first full account, as newspaper coverage had been very restricted during the secret proceedings. In particular, the Court collected all the information available on Vesey in the last two weeks of his life and eight weeks following his hanging. Their Report has been the basis of historians’ interpretations of Vesey’s life and the rebellion. Since the mid-20th century, most historians have evaluated the conspiracy in terms of black resistance to slavery, with some focusing on the plot, others on the character of Vesey and his senior leaders, and others on the black unity displayed. Despite the threats of whites, few blacks confessed and few provided testimony against the leaders or each other. Morgan notes that by keeping silent, these slaves resisted the whites and were true heroes of the crisis.
In 1964, historian Richard Wade examined the report in comparison to manuscript transcripts of the court proceedings, of which two versions exist. Based on numerous discrepancies he found and the lack of material evidence at the time of the “trials,” he suggested that the Vesey Conspiracy was mostly “angry talk,” and that the plot was not well founded for action. He noted how little evidence was found for such a plot: no arms caches were discovered, no firm date appeared to have been set, and no well-organized underground apparatus was found, but both blacks and whites widely believed there was a well-developed insurrection in the works. Claiming, erroneously, that both Justice William Johnson and his brother-in-law Governor Thomas Bennett Jr. had strong doubts about the existence of a conspiracy, Wade concluded that among black and white Charleston residents, there were “strong grievances on one side and deep fears on the other,” creating a basis for belief in a broad rebellion. Wade’s conclusion that the conspiracy was not well formed, was criticized by William Freehling and other historians who followed him, particularly as he was found to have overlooked some material.
In 2001, Michael P. Johnson criticized three histories of Vesey and the conspiracy published in 1999, based on his study of the primary documents. He suggested that historians had over-interpreted the available evidence, gathered at the end of Vesey’s life from the testimony of witnesses under great pressure in court. He said historians too wholeheartedly accepted such witness testimony as fact, and notes specific “interpretive improvisations.” for instance, these include statements about Vesey’s physical appearance, which was not documented at all in the court record.
In a response to Johnson’s work, Philip D. Morgan notes that in the 19th century, Vesey was once described as a mulatto or free person of color by William Gilmore Simms. Trial records, however, identified him as a free black man. Some historians from 1849 to the 1990s described him as a mulatto, but lacking documentation for that theory, since the later 20th century, he has been described as black. Morgan suggests this transformation in ancestry represents modern sensibilities more than any evidence.
Johnson found that the two versions of the manuscript transcripts disagreed with each other, and contained material not found in the official report of the court. He concluded that the report was an attempt by the Court to suggest that formal trials had been held, when the proceedings did not follow accepted procedures for trials and due process. Their proceedings had been held in secret and defendants could not confront their accusers. After Vesey and the first five conspirators were executed, the Court had another 82 suspects arrested in July, more than twice as many as had been arrested in June. Johnson suggested that, after public criticism, the Court was motivated to prove there was a conspiracy.
Morgan notes that two prominent men indicated concerns about the Court. In addition, he notes that Bertram Wyatt-Brown in his Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (p. 402) said that prosecutions of slave revolts were typically so arbitrary that they should be considered a “communal rite” and “celebration of white solidarity”, “a religious more than a normal criminal process.” Morgan thinks that historians have too often ignored that warning and supports Johnson’s close examination of the variations among the Vesey Court records.
Wade and Johnson suggest that Mayor James Hamilton, Jr. of Charleston may have exaggerated rumors of the conspiracy to use as a “political wedge issue” against moderate Governor Thomas Bennett Jr. in their own rivalry and efforts to attract the support of whites. Hamilton knew that four of Bennett’s household slaves had been arrested as suspects; three were executed on July 2 together with Vesey. Mayor Hamilton supported a militant approach to controlling slaves and believed that the rise of a paternalistic approach based in improving treatment of slaves, as promoted by moderate slaveholders such as Bennett, was a mistake. He used the crisis to appeal to the legislature for laws which he had already supported, that would enable more control of slaves and free blacks.
Hamilton’s article and the Court Report examine a variety of reasons for the planned revolt. Extremely dependent on slavery, many Charleston residents had been alarmed about the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that restricted slavery from expansion to the western territories, feeling it threatened the future of slavery. Some suggested that slaves had learned about the compromise and thought they were to be emancipated. They blamed the AME Church, they blamed rising slave literacy, and the slaves brought from Haiti during the Revolution. In 1822, beleaguered whites in Charleston uniformly believed that blacks had planned a large insurrection; such a scenario represented their worst fears.
Wade noted the lack of material evidence: no arms caches or documents related to the rebellion; other sources said Vesey destroyed papers. Johnson’s article provoked considerable controversy among historians. The William and Mary Quarterly invited contributions to a “Forum” on the issue, which was published in January 2002. Egerton noted that free black carpenter Thomas Brown and other blacks familiar with Vesey or the Reverend Morris Brown, the leader of the AME Church, continued to speak or write about Vesey’s plot in later years, supporting conclusions that it did exist. In 2004, historian Robert Tinkler, a biographer of Mayor Hamilton, reported that he found no evidence to support Johnson’s theory that Hamilton conjured the plot for political gain. Hamilton ruthlessly pursued the prosecution, Tinkler concluded, because he “believed there was indeed a Vesey plot.” Ford noted that Hamilton presented those aspects of and reasons for the insurrection that enabled him to gain controls on slavery which he had wanted before the crisis.
In a 2011 article, James O’Neil Spady said that by Johnson’s own criteria, the statements of witnesses George Wilson and Joe LaRoche ought to be considered credible and as evidence of a developed plot for the rising. Neither slave was coerced nor imprisoned when he testified. Each volunteered his testimony early in the investigation, and LaRoche risked making statements that the court could have construed as self-incriminating. Spady concluded that a group had in fact been about to launch the rising (as they called it) when their plans were revealed. Perhaps it was of a smaller scale than retold in some accounts, but he believed men were ready to take action.
In 2012 Lacy K. Ford gave the keynote address to the South Carolina Historical Association; his subject was interpretation of the Vesey Plot. He said, “the balance of the evidence clearly points to the exaggeration of the plot and the misappropriation of its lessons by Hamilton, the Court, and their allies for their own political advantage.” Ford compares the reaction of Charleston officials to a crisis in which not one white person had been killed or injured, to the approach in Virginia after the 1831 Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, in which tens of whites were killed. Charleston officials described a broad, complex and sophisticated conspiracy led by the “brilliant” Vesey, while Virginia officials donwplayed Turner’s revolt, stressing that he and his few followers acted alone. Ford concludes,
“Enlarging the threat posed by Vesey allowed the Lowcountry elite to disband the thriving AME church in Charleston and launch a full-fledged, if ultimately unsuccessful, counter-attack against the paternalist insurgency. And the local elite’s interpretation of the Vesey scare prepared the state for a politics centered on the defense of slavery, a politics that reinforced tendencies toward consensus latent in the Palmetto state’s body politic, tendencies easily mobilized for radicalism by perceived threats against slavery.”
Legacy and honors
- In 1990s, African-American activists in Charleston proposed erecting a memorial to Denmark Vesey, to honor his effort to overturn slavery in the city. The proposal caused much controversy, as some people did not want to memorialize him; others believed a memorial to him not only marked his leadership but would demonstrate that slaves were not happy with their lot. In 2014, a statue representing him as a carpenter was finally erected in Hampton Park, at some distance from the main tourist areas.