Denmark Vesey: A New Verdict
Johnson suggests that the true story contains a different kind of heroism: the heroism of Vesey and the other forty-four men who pleaded not guilty and refused to testify falsely against fellow slaves--who made the terrible choice to face execution for telling the truth rather than send others to the gallows on the basis of a lie. Indeed, 83 percent of the men arrested refused to testify falsely; despite extensive torture, 90 percent of the incriminating testimony in the deadliest phase of the trials came from only six slaves. Johnson concludes: "It is time to pay attention to the not guilty pleas of almost all the men who went to the gallows," to honor them for "their refusal to name names in order to save themselves."
There were also some heroes in white Charleston: Eventually twenty-seven white Charlestonians testified in court in support of fifteen black defendants. Their message was that whites should resist hysteria.
Johnson's new interpretation is not accepted by all the experts. In the most recent issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, three authors who have celebrated Vesey as a rebel hero argue that the court's use of beatings and death threats does not mean the testimony they obtained was necessarily false. The three are Douglas Egerton of Le Moyne College, author of a 1999 book on Vesey; David Robertson, a novelist, poet and librarian in Cincinnati who also wrote a Vesey biography that year; and Edward Pearson of Franklin & Marshall College. (Pearson edited a volume of Vesey documents that Johnson shows is disastrously flawed and unreliable. In response to Johnson's criticisms, the University of North Carolina Press has taken the book out of print.) The three Vesey biographers are joined by Robert Paquette, of Hamilton College, a historian of slave conspiracy in the Caribbean. The four argue in different ways that witnesses for the prosecution told the truth to save their own skins. None of the four convincingly explain the "not guilty" pleas of the others, or the criticism from whites of the methods and conclusions of the court.
Four other historians of slavery write in the Quarterly that Johnson has convinced them to change their minds about the Vesey conspiracy. Winthrop Jordan, Distinguished Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Mississippi and author of several prizewinning histories of slavery, including the now-classic White Over Black, comments, "Well, there goes another firm fact of life." He suggests that "we need to stop requiring slaves to have behaved in ways that we now think would have been heroic."
Philip Morgan, another prizewinning historian of slavery, former editor of the William and Mary Quarterly and professor at Johns Hopkins, writes, "The truly daunting aspect of Michael P. Johnson's extraordinary tour de force...is the complicity of historians in accepting the corrupt verdict of a kangaroo court." What should we conclude from this? Historians, Morgan writes, have "a natural tendency to highlight 'freedom fighters,' as if entitlement to human dignity depended on a readiness to engage in violent struggle. The assumption is that only through a willingness to sacrifice life could slaves prove their worthiness for emancipation."
Several other prominent historians commented on the controversy, including Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University: "I have problems with finding heroism as the purpose of history," she said. "I've always written about people so far from being heroes. I'm interested in the complexity of people's lives, so the loss of a rebel hero doesn't bother me."
The new view of Denmark Vesey undermines what had been seen as a rich source of insight into slave consciousness and culture--the testimony of the witnesses who confessed. Slaves left few written records, and the lengthy statements in the Official Report attributed to dozens of slaves have often been quoted and cited by historians of black culture. In his comment on Johnson in the William and Mary Quarterly, James Sidbury writes that now we should see that "the seemingly rich window that the trial records open on enslaved Americans' desire for freedom is actually a mirror reflecting white paranoia."
Other historians argue that Johnson has not disproved the story of Vesey as a rebel. Peter Wood, award-winning historian of slavery at Duke, said, "You can have both sides of this story. Just because you have white paranoia doesn't mean you don't also have black people with a strong will to resist. What has happened in the last thirty years is we've tended to give more attention to the will to resist and less than we should have to the machinations of the white power structure."
Meanwhile, Charleston continues to debate the significance of Denmark Vesey's trial and execution. At the conference last November Johnson was asked whether he thought the city should construct a monument. He said it should, not because Vesey was an insurrectionist but because "he evidently believed that slavery was wrong and that blacks should be equal to whites," and because he was the victim of a "vicious legalized murder." And since the City of Charleston was the official body that organized the court that tried and executed the black men, Johnson said, the city should sponsor the monument. UPI reports that "the Memorial is now planned for Hampton Park and is in the fund-raising stage.