The Denmark Vesey affair has been commonly accepted as the largest slave rebellion plot in American history--one that resulted in the hanging of Vesey, a free black, and 34 slaves in Charleston, S.C., in the summer of 1822, perhaps the largest civilian execution in U.S. history.
Ostensibly planned by Vesey, a free black and carpenter, the conspiracy allegedly called on the slaves and free blacks of Charleston and its surrounding countryside to rise up, seize local munitions stores and slaughter the white population before leaving on ships bound for Haiti.
But Michael Johnson (pictured at right), a professor of history at The Johns Hopkins University, has concluded not only that Vesey was innocent of organizing a slave rebellion, but also that, in fact, no rebellion conspiracy ever existed--except in the frightened minds of white slaveholders, who, Johnson argues, coerced testimony from a handful of slaves and free blacks to convict Vesey and the others.
"My argument is that Denmark Vesey and the men who were hanged were not guilty of launching a slave insurrection, or even planning one," said Johnson, who details his research findings in a forthcoming article in the William and Mary Quarterly. "They were implicated in this by the collaboration between the court, who wants to find them guilty, and a handful of cooperative black witnesses, slaves, who testify and say what the court wants to hear in order to save their own necks, because they know they're going to be hanged if they don't do it."
Ever since the trials and executions of the summer of 1822, historians have accepted the court's central finding, even if they challenged the notion that a slave revolt was a crime, Johnson said. "Historians have wanted to accept the court's judgment that these guys were ready to start a slave insurrection, but they wanted to reverse the morality," Johnson said. "What the court deplores as horrible, the historians said, 'Yeah! You guys are great.'"
So how could so many have gotten things wrong for 179 years? Johnson said that most historians have relied exclusively on the Charleston court's printed summary of the trials and executions and few have actually read the court transcripts or read the correspondence and newspapers of the period.
Johnson actually hadn't intended on researching the Denmark Vesey affair. He was only supposed to review three books on Denmark Vesey that were published in 1999. One, Designs Against Charleston by Edward Pearson, contained what purported to be a faithful copy of the court transcript. But in reading it, Johnson felt something was amiss. What sealed it for him was reading testimony in the Pearson transcript by someone who, on June 21, 1822, was reportedly describing events that didn't happen until July 2, 1822.
"That one piece of the puzzle drove me to the archives," Johnson said. "When I got to the archives, everything tumbled out. Just been sitting there for 180 years."
Johnson argues that what ultimately became the basis for court testimony describing an insurrection plot really developed out of the black rumor mill of the time. It began, he says, with newspaper stories discussed by Vesey and other slaves and free blacks who could read. One example is newspaper accounts of the South Carolina legislature's December 1821 passage of an "emancipation bill." The bill actually forbade owners from freeing their slaves, but was described in newspaper accounts simply as "an emancipation bill ... likely to pass," Johnson said.
"If you're a slave and you hear that [description] and then it doesn't happen, you think it's a conspiracy and it's against you," said Johnson. Talk of freedom probably led to some people boasting or saying, "We ought to do something," Johnson continued. But such talk never amounted to an organized conspiracy.
While the court that sentenced him to death branded him the leader of the conspiracy, Vesey really wasn't a leader, but simply a free black who could read and who was not shy about speaking his mind, Johnson said. He would routinely point to the Bible for evidence of the injustice of slavery, and he made both blacks and whites uncomfortable at the time, Johnson said.
To arrange an interview with Johnson, please contact Glenn Small at 410-516-6094 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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