He Shall Go out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey

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He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. By Douglas R. Egerton. American Profiles. (Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1999. Pp. xxiv, 248. $34.95, ISBN 0-945612-67-2.)

A generation ago there was a fair amount of historical interest in Denmark Vesey and his 1822 conspiracy to revolt in Charleston, South Carolina. Of late, there has been a renewal of that interest. In the last year or so, three books have been published on Vesey: Edward Pearson's edited collection of documents, Designs Against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), David Robertson's Denmark Vesey (New York: Knopf, 1999), and now Douglas Egerton's He Shall Go Out Free. Egerton has tried to write a biography of the man, rather than just a history of the event. The problem, as Egerton readily admits, is that information on the early Vesey is extremely hard to come by. Vesey left behind no records of his own, and we do not know where he was born, or when, or who his parents were. As a consequence, secondary sources are at least as important in the early chapters as primary ones, because of the relative lack of specific information on Vesey.

The early chapters of the book are really a combination of history, biography, and very imaginative speculation. Words such as "perhaps" and "presumably" are common in the early going. Egerton bases his speculations on what was generally true about the slave experience. He believes, for example, that Vesey was probably born on the island of St. Thomas rather than in Africa, not because he has any evidence one way or the other, but because relatively few children were transported from Africa to America. Still, the conjectures make sense and are as sound as conjectures can be, and, as Egerton gets to the heart of the story, they tend to disappear. Vesey was in Charleston by 1783, a sixteen-year-old lad brought there by his owner, Joseph Vesey. By late 1799 he had bought his freedom, courtesy of monies received when he won the lottery. …