Hopkins scholar questions slave rebellion of 1822

Denmark Vesey's plot in Charleston led to execution of 35 blacks

February 28, 2002|By Dinitia Smith | Dinitia Smith,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Among African-Americans, Denmark Vesey's plot to lead a slave rebellion in Charleston, S.C., in 1822 has always been a symbol of black resistance to oppression, proof that slaves did not docilely accept their fate.

Along with slave rebellions like the Nat Turner uprising in 1831, the Vesey conspiracy has been held up as proof that the spirits of blacks were not broken by captivity. Had Vesey's plot succeeded, it would have been the largest slave rebellion in American history.

But the conspiracy was thwarted by informers - or so historians have thought. Thirty-four slaves and Vesey, the one free black, were hanged as a result of the charges, making it probably the biggest execution ever in an American civilian judicial proceeding.

But in an article in a recent issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, a leading journal of early American history, Michael P. Johnson, a professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University, questioned whether a conspiracy took place. The paper has ignited a debate among scholars over what happened and how to interpret historical records.

Denmark Vesey was a prosperous carpenter who won his freedom in a lottery. He was accused of organizing blacks to set fire to Charleston and to kill white citizens. They were said to have planned to escape to Haiti, the only free black republic at the time, in ships commandeered in Charleston harbor.

Corrupted accounts?

But in the essay, which was first reported in a recent edition of Nation magazine by Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, Johnson contends that historians have relied on corrupted accounts of a conspiracy in the court's official report of legal proceedings against the blacks.

Johnson argues that the original transcripts of the proceedings show that the African-Americans confessed to a conspiracy only after being beaten and tortured. He also points out that the official report tells of Vesey's being confronted by his accusers and making statements in his defense. The original transcript, however, has no testimony from Vesey and does not even indicate that he was present.

In the paper, Johnson writes that the coerced confessions in the case mirrored newspaper accounts and rumors in Charleston about the rebellion in Haiti in 1791, which had eventually led to the abolition of slavery there. At the time, the conflict over slavery was growing, as evidenced by the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state but outlawed slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri's southern border.

The government's willingness to outlaw slavery in new states also encouraged fresh hope among the blacks. Johnson says the accusations were brought by the mayor of Charleston, James Hamilton Jr., in an effort to discredit his political rival, Gov. Thomas Bennett Jr., four of whose slaves were said to be involved.

Johnson's article also demonstrates many errors in a book about the case, Designs Against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822, edited by Edward A. Pearson, a history professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Johnson pointed out mistakes Pearson had made in copying the transcript, including rearranging testimony. As a result of Johnson's paper, the University of North Carolina Press has decided to stop publishing the book.

Pearson admits he made the mistakes and said he regretted them. But in an interview he said his essay accompanying the transcript was "still a valid piece of historical material."

"I think in fact Vesey and his associates put together a plan to destroy Charleston and kill as many white Southerners as they could," Pearson said.

Little known of Vesey

Little is known about Vesey, except that he grew up as a slave on the Danish island of St. Thomas. He was said to be a charismatic figure, a leader in the African Methodist Church who chastised other blacks for stepping aside to allow whites to pass in the street.

He was also literate and invoked the Bible and the Declaration of Independence in saying that slavery was immoral. According to a forthcoming book by Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, Vesey made such pronouncements as "all men had equal rights, blacks as well as whites."

Johnson is not the first historian to question whether there was a conspiracy. In 1964 Richard C. Wade ignited a battle among scholars when, in an article in The Journal of Southern History and a book, Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860, he suggested that no conspiracy had taken place. But Wade's allegations were generally rejected by historians.

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