Denmark Vesey: A New Verdict

Denmark Vesey: A New Verdict

A historian questions whether he led a slave revolt, but his heroism still stands.


After a long fight, black activists in Charleston, South Carolina, succeeded in persuading the city to approve a monument honoring Denmark Vesey for planning a slave rebellion in 1822. Originally, opposition to the monument came mainly from a group of local whites, who protested that Vesey had planned “genocide” for the city’s white people. Then a new voice intruded from a more scholarly quarter–Michael Johnson, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.

At a conference on Denmark Vesey in Charleston in March 2001, Johnson presented new evidence demonstrating that Vesey did not organize a rebellion of Charleston’s slaves back in 1822. Far from instigating a plot to kill white people, Vesey was more likely one of scores of black victims of a conspiracy engineered by the white power structure.

Now a leading academic quarterly has devoted two issues to Johnson’s argument, and historians are asking a question that Charleston will have to answer: If there was no plan to revolt, is there anything left to honor with a monument?

Denmark Vesey was a free black carpenter in Charleston who was executed in 1822 for organizing South Carolina slaves to rise up. The plot included setting fire to the city of Charleston, killing all the white people, seizing ships in the harbor and sailing to Haiti (at the time, the only free black republic in the world). It would have been the biggest slave rebellion in our history, historians say, but Vesey and his comrades were betrayed by an informer.

In a stunning piece of historical detective work, which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, the most prestigious journal of early American history, Johnson concludes that the politically ambitious mayor of Charleston, James Hamilton Jr., used the alleged plot to discredit his political rival, Governor Thomas Bennett Jr., and advance his own career.

The new evidence for Johnson’s revisionist account comes from records of court proceedings in Charleston, in which 131 black men were charged. Eventually, thirty-five were executed. Court documents include testimony by thirty-three slaves, who explained the bold and bloodthirsty plan that has gone down in history as the Vesey conspiracy. But Johnson argues that all the testimony was coerced by beatings and the threat of execution, and thus none of it should be taken at face value. The choice faced by Vesey and the accused slaves was a terrible one: Testify falsely against the other accused men and live, or refuse to testify falsely and die.


Virtually all historians before Johnson have relied on the Official Report of the trial, published after the court proceedings. The Official Report names Vesey “the head of this conspiracy.” Johnson instead used the court transcript itself, which exists in manuscript in the South Carolina state archives. The court proceedings were held in secret; the public and the press were barred from attendance, so the transcript is the only authoritative contemporary source. Johnson shows that the court transcript is different in crucial respects from the Official Report, which describes dramatic scenes where Vesey confronts and questions his accusers and makes statements in his own defense. But the court transcript does not contain a single word of testimony from Vesey. There is nothing suggesting Vesey was even present during the proceedings. Most astonishing, the court transcript does not even refer to a trial of Denmark Vesey. The transcript indicates that the court (consisting of seven men) questioned witnesses about a conspiracy and then decided that Vesey and five slaves were guilty. There was no consensus among the witnesses that Vesey was the head of the plot; at least six named people other than Vesey as the leader.

Michael Johnson’s article makes a convincing case that the conspiracy in Charleston in 1822 was not a plan by blacks to kill whites but rather a conspiracy by whites to kill blacks, which resulted in the largest number of executions ever carried out by a civilian court in the United States.

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?

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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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