Denmark Vesey: A New Verdict
The larger political context, and the political culture in which the court proceedings took place, are crucial to the new view. Four of the first black men to be arrested and charged with plotting rebellion were the most trusted household slaves of Governor Bennett. He had been active in state politics for almost twenty years and drew on his considerable authority to protest the verdicts. In a report to the legislature, the Governor criticized the court for "an usurpation of authority, and a violation of Law." He objected to the secrecy of the trial and in particular to the conviction of defendants on the basis of secret testimony and a refusal to allow the accused to face their accusers. He suggested that the testimony was "the offspring of treachery or revenge, and the hope of immunity."
A second key figure in the slaveholding elite challenged the fairness of the proceedings against Vesey: a US Supreme Court Justice appointed by Thomas Jefferson named William Johnson Jr., the Governor's brother-in-law. He published a story in the Charleston Courier about a wave a hysteria over a nonexistent slave rebellion a decade earlier that had resulted in the hanging of an innocent slave. The members of the Vesey court were outraged by the jurist's implicit criticism and demanded that he retract the suggestions that they were "capable of committing perjury and murder."
Thus, as Michael Johnson sums up in his William and Mary Quarterly article, within a few weeks of the end of the court proceedings that resulted in Vesey's execution, "the members of the court had been criticized in public by a justice of the United States Supreme Court for committing legalized murder and in private by the governor of South Carolina for sending black men to the gallows in proceedings that could not withstand public scrutiny."
The court responded to this criticism of its methods and its sentences by arresting an additional eighty-two suspects, taking more testimony about a planned slave rebellion, and then ordering the execution of twenty-nine more slaves, bringing the total of executions to thirty-five. The message was clear: The court was defending white Charleston against a massive and terrifying conspiracy.
James Hamilton Jr.'s claim to have saved white Charleston from a murderous slave conspiracy was, Johnson says, "his path to power." After the executions he was elected to Congress; he served in the House for seven years, then ran for governor and was elected in 1830 as the leader of the "nullification" forces, those who argued that states had the right to declare null and void any federal law they considered unconstitutional. Nullification helped launch South Carolina on the path to secession thirty years later. (Hamilton was killed in a steamboat accident in 1857, four years before South Carolina led the South to war.)
The future of slavery was a hot political issue in Charleston in 1822. The trial and executions deepened a growing sense of crisis for the slaveholding elite of the city and state. The elite were already dividing between a more paternalistic group, of which the Governor was a prime example, and others seeking a more militant defense of the system from its enemies in the North. In Washington, Congress had passed the Missouri Compromise two years earlier, establishing its right to prohibit slavery in federal territory. The Missouri crisis worried slaveowners about the growing power of antislavery sentiment in the North. In South Carolina the legislature had recently made it illegal for masters to free their slaves, and the legislature was faced with a number of petitions and bills sponsored by particular slaveholders seeking freedom for particular slaves. Governor Bennett worried that slaveowner hysteria was heading toward secession as early as 1823, after Vesey and the others were hanged, when he wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, "I fear nothing so much as the Effects of the persecuting Spirit that is abroad in this Place [Charleston]. Should it spread thro' the State & produce a systematic Policy founded on the ridiculous but prevalent Notion--that it is a struggle for Life or Death, [then] there are no Excesses that we may not look for--whatever be their Effect upon the Union."
The new view of Denmark Vesey raises a larger question about slavery. The Vesey rebellion conspiracy has been seen as one of a handful of examples of militant, coordinated, large-scale resistance in a country where slaves almost never rebelled. Vesey's boldness and bravery have been honored for decades. But if Vesey was simply an innocent victim, must we conclude that South Carolina slaves in 1822 failed to resist slavery?