Of Facts and Fables: New Light on the Denmark Vesey Affair

Article excerpt

A WOODCUTTER RETURNS HOME ON A COLD, WINTRY DAY. Along the way he spies a serpent frozen nearly to death in the ice. He picks up the serpent, puts it under his coat, and takes it home to his family. Warming up before an open fire, the serpent stirs. One of the woodcutter's playful children reaches down to stroke it, but the serpent draws back ready to sink its fangs into the child's flesh. In a flash the woodcutter seizes his ax and preempts the strike by cleaving the serpent in two. The moral of the story: Do not expect gratitude from the wicked.

During the summer of 1822, a court of magistrates and freeholders in Charleston referenced Aesop and his fable of the frozen serpent in sentencing to death ten slaves convicted of involvement in an extensive plot to raise an insurrection. After an official investigation that lasted more than two months, two courts, each comprised of two white magistrates and five white freeholders, decided the fate of more than 100 jailed persons of color, most of them slaves. Witnesses testified that the conspiracy centered in Charleston's growing population of skilled, literate, and privileged slaves. They had not only committed "treason," the judges determined, but had demonstrated to their masters "the vilest ingratitude" and "grossest impiety."1 A number of alleged ringleaders belonged to the Charleston branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, an independent black church that had surfaced in the city little more than four years before. The first court, sitting for about six weeks, handled the lion's share of the cases. It convicted Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter, of masterminding a "diabolical plot" to "trample on all laws, human and divine; to riot in blood, outrage, rapine, and conflagration, and to introduce anarchy and confusion in their most horrid forms."2 He and thirty-four slaves ended their lives swinging from the gallows.

The second court conducted a mopping-up session that lasted less than a week in early August, and despite the public boast shortly thereafter of Charleston's intendant, James Hamilton, Jr., that "there is nothing they [the slaves] are bad enough to do, that we are not powerful enough to punish," chastened lowcountry whites reclaimed their pews to thank a providential god for sparing them from a fiendish bloodletting.3 City officials could not be precise about the total number of rebels-probably hundreds, perhaps thousands-nor about their geographic reach outside of Charleston, but the judicial proceedings placed Vesey squarely in the front of a revolutionary movement that appeared to rank as the largest act of collective slave resistance in the history of the United States.

Both the presiding magistrates of the first court (Lionel H. Kennedy and Thomas Parker) and Intendant Hamilton published detailed reports on the Vesey affair. Although modern historians have delved into these sources with moral sentiments sharply divergent from those of Vesey's executioners, the resulting scholarship has sounded almost unanimous in endorsing the official judgment that a major slave revolt impended in Charleston in 1822 and that the "author and original instigator" was Denmark Vesey.4 Indeed, the publication in close succession at the end of the twentieth century of three scholarly books on the affair, each portraying Vesey as a gifted and courageous insurgent who had suffered a martyr's death in the epochmaking struggle against slavery, would seem to have firmly secured his star in the firmament of antislavery activists.5

In 2001, however, a lengthy review of these three books by historian Michael Johnson for the William and Mary Quarterly impeached the prevailing wisdom. After turning from the published official reports to manuscript court transcripts housed in the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Johnson not only backtracked from his own previously published assessment of Vesey as a "black Moses," "revolutionary assassin," and "beyond question" a man who "believed that many whites must die if blacks were tobe free," but also denied the very existence of an insurrectionary plot. …