Monday, July 2, 2012

This Day in Southern History (Vesey Executed for Charleston Slave Revolt)

July 2, 1822—In the state where slavery was most thoroughly entrenched, Denmark Vesey, a prosperous free black carpenter, was executed, along with five followers, for instigating what might well have been the largest American slave insurrection launched to that time, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Both before and after the Civil War, apologists for slavery argued that the “darkies” in the system were more or less like those in Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind: incapable of anything related to the intellect, taking religious instruction from masters and mistresses, happy to sing as they performed chores, perfectly content until urged on by Northern agitators. The Vesey conspiracy exposed this as a myth on virtually every level.

One question lingers over this whole conspiracy: How much, if anything of it, was true? In the 21st century, it seems, the legality of many prisoner interrogations, whether in a criminal-justice or war setting, is constantly questioned. If that is the case in a free society, what about in a slave-based one?

For nearly a century and a half after the event, few, if any, people doubted that the events alleged about the Vesey conspiracy took place. On the one hand, slaveowners used this case as the basis for denying the smallest smidgin of rights to African-Americans, lest they take advantage of owners’ leniency. On the other side, Frederick Douglass, upon the outbreak of the Civil War, listed Vesey, along with Nat Turner and Shields Green (of the John Brown conspiracy case), as among those who “fell as glorious martyrs for the cause of the slave.”

But in 1964, historian Richard Wade questioned whether the Vesey conspiracy even occurred. Not only had the major primary document in the case, the court’s Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, been accepted at face value, but it had not been checked against another set of contemporary documents, the manuscript transcripts in the Records of the General Assembly.

Another reason why we know so little about the case—and even those details are disputed—is because the central figure chose to remain silent. Perhaps it was because so many other slaves had chosen to inform, and silence would have represented his last conceivable mode of defiance.

For a long time, Wade was virtually alone in questioning the accepted version of the conspiracy. Then, in 2001, at a Charleston conference on Vesey, Johns Hopkins history professor Michael Johnson made a strong revisionist case that Vesey and many others died as a result of coerced testimony and hysteria. 

In other words, it wasn't a case of African-Americans rising up at last against their oppressors, or even the onetime White-accepted version: that Vesey and others were intent on committing genocide against all white men. No, it was more like the Salem Witchcraft trials or the Sacco-Vanzetti Case of the Twenties: 

The Vesey case had enormous implications for the political scene in South Carolina:
**  It furthered the careers of three men who investigated the rumored insurrection (James Hamilton, intendant of Charleston, and jurors Nathaniel Heyward and William Drayton) and another who defended the outcome (state attorney-general Robert Hayne).
(   *It derailed the career of Gov. Thomas Bennett, four of whose slaves were among the accused. Once Bennett denounced the proceedings as a travesty of justice, he was destined to become a one-term governor.
* b   It united whites of two different parties—fragments of the old Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—into a new faction more solidly than ever behind the institution of slavery.

      But leave aside, if you can (a big “if”), the issue of forced confessions. What might have led so many contemporaries to believe it credible that Vesey did plan an insurrection?

     To start with, there was his craftiness. As a youth, he had been transported from St. Thomas to Cape Francais by slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey. But it wasn’t long before Captain Vesey was forced to reclaim the slave, who had  dropped to the ground in what appeared to be an epileptic seizure, forcing his new owner to give him up as “unfit goods,” particularly when it came to field work.

     Denmark Vesey never had another fit.

     Other factors made Denmark Vesey not only a natural leader in the African-American community, but a potential leader of a revolt:

*    *Drive. Somehow, even within the closed society of slavery, Vesey pulled together enough money to purchase one of the prized lottery tickets of his day. He used $600 of the $1,500 prize money to purchase his freedom, then built his profitable carpentry business.

*    *A network of contacts. That came not only from his business, but from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church that he helped found in 1817.

*   *Communication skills.  Fluent in several languages, Vesey knew how to reach slaves coming from multiple backgrounds. In addition, like an earlier (Gabriel Prosser) and later (Nat Turner) figure linked to insurrections, his understanding of the Book of Exodus as a story of liberation directly applicable to the experience of African-American slaves furnished him with convincing answers for slaves who accepted their master’s view of Judeo-Christian condoning of their condition.
      Though these factors answer why many people felt instinctively that Vesey might have led the abortive rebellion, they don’t reveal why so many people accepted with alacrity the notion that the conspiracy was widespread. (More than 300 people were arrested in connection with the plot.) These factors are, in their way, just as fascinating as those related to Vesey:

**White Carolinians felt encircled. They had good reason to feel that way: The appetite for slaves turned out to be a two-edged sword, as 58% of Charleston was African-American. If the latter could be persuaded to unite against their oppressors, matters could become very dangerous very quickly.

**White Carolinians feared slaves’ exposure to outside influences in the city. Plantations, far removed from neighbors, bred isolation and depression. Cities offered slaves the chance to bond with each other. And slaveowners were positively paranoid about the possibility that white abolitionists could infect slaves with their pamphlets.

** White Carolinians feared loss of wealth and power. In South Carolina, property was the signifier of wealth, and number of slaves signified property. Although all adult males could vote, property restrictions made slaveowners the majority in the legislature. And the higher the position in the state government, the steeper those property requirements.

   The result was an oligarchy, absolutely terrified of the loss of their privileges. The question of whether Vesey either led or even participated in the rumored rebellion may never be answered. But given the number of tools of punishment available to the slaveowner, it’s almost a certainty that at least some of the slaves accused in the matter were innocent.  They had been railroaded by a squirearchy sure that they would lose their properties and their lives.

The image I selected for this post turned out to be unexpectedly symbolic of the issues involved. In a quick visual search of Google, I could find no contemporary images of Vesey, so I chose this image of the Denmark Vesey House in Charleston.

Or, at least, that is what it purported to be when it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Since then, however, no documentary evidence has demonstrated either that Vesey ever lived here or that it was even in existence in 1822.

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