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Denmark Vesey Age Of Revolution History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Nearly 200 years after the alleged slave rebellion in Charleston took place, the heroic legacy of Denmark Vesey was challenged. For many, Denmark Vesey and his infamous slave rebellion, have stood as cultural symbols of American liberty and slavery abolition, but this understanding has been tested by the research and theories of historical writer and professor of history at John Hopkins University, Michael Johnson. In March of 2001, coming just weeks before the unveiling of a new statue in downtown Charleston commemorating Denmark Vesey, Johnson published an article in the historically geared William and Mary Quarterly, claiming that Vesey never actually planned the rebellion, rather he was falsely accused by city officials. As Johnson explained at a conference regarding the induction of the statue, “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.” [1] In reaction to these new theories, many other historians have come forward either in support or in opposition of this newly proposed revisionist history.

Over the course of American history, there were roughly 250 alleged slave uprisings, the largest of which was the one allegedly lead by Denmark Vesey. If Johnson’s allegations are true, it could mean a massive blow to the cultural identities of African Americans who have upheld Vesey as a prominent African American figure in the abolition movement. Similarly, Vesey has been used as an example of the collective spirit of African slaves in America. As historian Walter C. Rucker notes, “black scholars such as W.E.B. Dubois and Carter G. Woodson have argued that Africans never accepted their collective conditions under slavery and that this sentiment was occasionally expressed in the form of insurrection and other types of resistance.” [2] Likewise, previous historians have all but accepted the Vesey conspiracy as fact. This controversy has called into question the validity of information regarding the case and has polarized the scholarly circles of 19th century American historians.

Those who have come to defend the traditional view of Vesey as a revolutionary leader, include Vesey biographers Douglas R. Egerton and David Robertson, as well as Vesey trial proceeding compiler Edward Pearson. [3] Philip Morgan, a prizewinning historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University, supports Johnson’s findings and claims that rebuttals from critics only highlight the fact that history tends to falsely glorify freedom fighters. [4] However, other scholars believe that both sides may have valid points regarding the state of 19th century Charleston society. Peter Wood, award-winning historian of slavery at Duke University, said of the controversy, “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.” [5] When examining the life of Denmark Vessey, his rebellion, and the Age of Revolution in general, one must decide whether or not to adopt a revisionist perspective. For the purposes of this paper, both historical prospective will be addressed, in an attempt to determine how the Age of Revolution, and in particular the Haitian Revolution, affected the mindset of the American people and influenced the alleged Denmark Vesey slave rebellion.

The life of Denmark Vesey coincided conveniently with the span of the Age of Revolution, lasting several decades over the turn of the 19th century. The Age of Revolution marked a significant ideological shift in the political mindset of the world. As the philosophies of democracy and civil rights spread the globe, so too did revolution. Citizens no longer wished to be ruled by imperialistic monarchies, and were beginning to enforce political and social reform. The first major revolution during the era, was that of the American Revolution which gave colonists independence from British governance and saw the creation of the United States. Immediately following the American Revolution came the French Revolution of the 1780’s, which saw the French government shift from a monarchy to a republic. As France was in control of Haiti at the time, this shift in ideologies greatly contributed to the Haitian Revolution of the 1790’s. [6] For Denmark Vesey and many other American slaves, the Haitian Revolution was of particular importance, as it produced the successful uprising of a slave population to overthrow their masters, and establish the first predominantly African republic in North America.

In the wake of the French Revolution, the leaders of the French Republic granted civil rights to all free people of color living in Haiti, however this action would prompt the decade long Haitian Revolution. Following this declaration, in August of 1791, the slave rebellion began as Haitian slaves wished to free themselves and gain the civil rights held by other Haitian minorities. Over the next decade, the rebellion would instigate civil and international wars, as several nations became entangled in the conflict. To quell the rebellion, France sent troops to Haiti, however in the midst of a war with Great Brittan, they were met by British troops, as well as Spanish troops who desired governance over the other half of Hispaniola. [7] Over several years, Spain conquers the capitol of Saint Dominigue, and many Haitian slaves begin to fight along side the Spanish. Seeing their eminent defeat, the French government abolishes slavery and grants civil rights to all slaves, in an attempt to gain their favor and persuade them to fight for the French. Upon the abolition of slavery, Haitian slaves help the French expel British and Spanish forces from the Island. However, they are soon deceived by the newly crowned emperor Napoleon, who attempts to reinstate slavery. Haitian slaves once again rise up against the French presence in Haiti and eventually gain their independence in 1803. [8] The Haitian Revolution produced the only predominantly black republic in the world, which would eventually entice Denmark Vesey and ultimately become part of his alleged rebellion.

Denmark Vesey was born in 1767 to Akan-speaking parents on the Gold Coast of Africa. Like many young slaves, the history of Vesey’s youth in Africa is largely unknown. In 1781, at the age of Fourteen, Vessey reemerges in history on the Danish Caribbean Island of St. Thomas, where he is one of 390 other African slaves transported from St. Thomas to Saint Dominigue. [9] His transporter was Captain Joseph Thomas Vesey, who gave Denmark his name. [10] In Haiti, Denmark was found to be unfit for work, due to supposed epileptic seizures, so Captain Vesey was forced to bring Denmark home with him to Charleston, South Carolina. Having lived in the Caribbean in the years leading up to the Haitian Revolution, Vesey had witnessed oppression and experienced revolutionary ideologies, however he had left Haiti for the United States well before the Revolution began. [11] In 1800, at the age of thirty-three, Denmark purchased his freedom from Captain Vesey, after winning a lottery prize of $1,500. After he is freed, Vesey uses the rest of his winnings to open a successful carpentry shop in downtown Charleston. [12] It is in the following years that Vesey supposedly begins to plan and implement his own slave rebellion.

According to a 1790 census, Charleston had by far the largest slave ratio per capita than any other U.S. city. [13] Many historians believed that this was in part why a slave rebellion was entirely feasible within the city. Vesey no doubt saw the potential for a slave uprising in Charleston. Drawing on inspiration from the bible, American political theory, and congressional debates on slavery, particularly those arising from the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Vesey began to preach his political ideals to fellow African American in Charleston, both freed and enslaved. Denmark Vesey became a prominent figure within the African American community of Charleston and he was well known for publicly confronting and embarrassing African American’s whom he would see taking insults from white men. [14] Vesey was highly religious and began preaching both his religious and political ideology at the Negroes’ African Church, which was erected in 1821 in Charleston. Vesey’s church was deeply connected with Philadelphia’s African Methodist Society, who had very much inspired Vesey through ideology and example. A particularly favorite analogy was one that Vesey drew between the Children of Israel featured in the bible, and the African American community in the United States. In support of his alleged rebellion, is Vesey’s favorite biblical passage, that of Joshua, chapter 4, verse 21, which reads, “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” [15] This militant approach is consistent with the Vesey conspiracy, which had allegedly intended to murder all white citizens within the city of Charleston.

To help orchestrate a rebellion, Vesey allegedly enlisted help from five lieutenants, who would help lead forces during the initial attack. These so-called lieutenants included fellow carpenters Monday Gell and Peter Poyas, blacksmith Tom Russel, and tradesman Mingo Harth. Vesey’s lieutenants and many of his other higher-ranking rebel leaders were African, not American born, and were former slaves who had been freed. [16] Vesey’s fifth lieutenant was a former slave by the name of Gullah Jack. Gullah Jack had been born in Angola and brought to the United States as part of a larger commission of nearly 40,000 slaves, which South Carolina had ordered at the beginning of the 19th century. Gullah Jack was a well-known witch doctor and it’s been documented that many slaves were frightened by Jack into supporting in the rebellion. [17] 

In fact, fear seems to have played a large role in the creation of and recruiting for the rebellion. Vesey was also well dreaded as, “conspirators claimed to fear him more than their masters, sometimes more than their God.” [18] Vesey and his lieutenants supposedly had recruited roughly 8,000 slaves for their rebellion, who were to be divided into units, which would then attack different areas of Charleston at given times. The Vesey plan intended to overthrow the armories and guard houses first, afterwards setting the town on fire and establishing militant authority. [19] The conclusion of the Rebellion would occur upon the successful evacuation of all Charleston area slaves to the free republic of Haiti.

In 1820, Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer, who was still helping his nation recover from the devastation of the decade-long Haitian Revolution, began advertising for skilled settlers in U.S. newspapers. Boyer had promised free land and political opportunity to any African American who would contribute to Haitian society. Vesey saw this as a way to freedom for he and his fellow Africans, although, as biographer Douglas Egerton notes, “Given Boyer’s possible reluctance to open his ports to hundreds of men and women that the Euro-American community would regard as murderers and thieves, Vesey had to prepare Haiti for the eventuality of his arrival fully as much as he had to prepare his own captains.” [20] To prepare Haiti for the arrival of American refugees, Vesey began writing letters to President Boyer and smuggling them out of Charleston through a wharf worker. However, Boyer never wrote Vesey back, or more likely, Boyer never received Vesey’s letters. Even if Boyer had received word of the impending rebellion, he certainly would not have alerted the United States, as they had enacted a trade embargo on Haiti in 1806. It is more likely, however, that Vesey’s letters were never received, as at the time of Vesey’s contact attempts, Boyer was trying to lead his nation in the midst of a civil war. [21] 

By 1822, rumors of a slave uprising were rampant among the African American community of Charleston. Vesey and his lieutenants had been spreading lies to recruit members to their cause. Vesey claimed that Congress had freed all slaves during the Missouri Compromise and that all the slaves had to do was overthrow their masters to be freed. Vesey and his colleagues also preached that the nation of Haiti was sending reinforcements to South Carolina in hopes of another successful rebellion. If these lies did not persuade potential members, then Vesey and his lieutenants would threaten to kill anyone who did not join the rebellion. [22] Vesey recruiters were careful not to spread the details of their plan to just any slave. They were specifically instructed not to include slaves who were too dependent or frightened of their masters, as these slaves were considered the most likely to betray the rebellion. Slaves who had kind owners and who “lived in a twilight zone between bondage and freedom” were the most receptive, as they did not fear retribution from their masters. However these recruits were also the most likely to dissuade any unnecessary violence against their white masters. In this sense, as historian William Freehling explains, “an indulged slave was both the most likely to revolt and the most likely to betray the revolution; this was the flaw in the most carefully planned ante bellum Negro conspiracy.” [23] In addition to choosing trustworthy members, Vesey organizers had difficulty communicating with the plantation slaves on the outskirts of Charleston. Within the compact city, information spread rapidly, however the lines of communication seemed to end with city lines. Despite attempting to include plantation slaves by scheduling the attack for a Sunday evening, when many plantation slaves would be in town, communication began to breakdown, and plantation slave were ultimately left out of revolutionary plans. [24] 

White citizen of Charleston went largely unaware of any discussion of a slave rebellion. In fact, it could be argued that slave owners in Charleston simply ignored the chances of a slave revolt, given the recent revolution in Haiti. [25] The future of slavery was a heated political issue in Charleston at the time, as it was throughout the United States. In the South, two major divisions had emerged between white slave owners, those that looked upon their slaves with a paternal attitude and those that viewed slavery in terms of economics and were willing to defend its existence forcefully from the North. This division had occurred largely in response to the Missouri Compromise, which Congress had past two years prior in 1820, which granted the federal government the right to ban slavery in Federal territories. [26] Interestingly, it is this later group in Charleston with which revisionist historian Michael Johnson attempts to prove wrongfully accused and tried Vesey. Johnson believes that it is the misinformation spread by the opponents of the Missouri Compromise, which ultimately lead to the dissent among the African American community in Charleston, and not the preaching of Denmark Vesey and his colleagues. [27] 

On May 25, 1822, a house servant who had allegedly overheard one of Vesey’s lieutenants discussing the plot, revealed the plan to his master, setting in motion a brief ending to the Vesey conspiracy. Three men, William Paul, and Vesey’s lieutenants Mino Harth and Peter Poyas, were subsequently arrested on May 31st by civil authorities. After questioning all three men, Harth and Poyas were released, while William Paul remained in custody after he admitted to knowledge of the plot, while the other two men had successfully denied it. Despite the admitted plot, city officials did not act until further evidence was presented by the leader of the Charleston Militia, Major John Wilson on June 14th, which implicated more Charleston slaves. [28] 

Upon learning of the impending rebellion, Governor Thomas Bennett, sent state troops and guardsmen to protect and patrol the city. In light of the intensified guard, Vessey and his lieutenants decided to delay the rebellion, however it was officially put to rest and abandoned, on June 18 when a number of rebellion participants were arrested. [29] On the following day, trials began for the fifty men officially implicated in the rebellion plot. Shortly thereafter, on June 22nd, Vesey himself was detained and court hearings began to center on Vesey and his five main conspirators. [30] 

Historian Michael Johnson argues in his revisionist article that although testimony and court proceedings existed, they were blown out of proportion to suggest the existence of a conspiracy. [31] Johnson also argues that all the testimonies given during the trial was coerced by beatings and the threat of execution. He goes onto maintain that the accused were given a choice to testify against Vesey and his lieutenants, or be convicted and executed themselves. [32] Johnson claims that because 83 percent of the men arrested refused to falsely testify against each other, is evidence of their innocence. In fact, only six witnesses, besides Monday Gell , who had quickly implicated co-conspirators, came forward and turned states evidence. [33] The six men are listed in the court documents as Pompey, Edwin, Frank, Pharo, Patrick, and “Y.” Johnson also makes the claim that Vesey and his colleagues were innocent, by offering the fact that twenty-seven white Charlestonians testified in court in support of fifteen of the African America defendants. [34] He argues that no African American accused of murder in Charleston would have had white defenders, had they been capable of it. Johnson also questions the validity of the court proceedings, claiming that they were largely unofficial. According to Johnson, court documents do not even mention the presence of Vesey during the trial. This would have been an unlikely action taken by the court, as the accused had the right to face their accusers. In addition, the court transcripts do not offer definitive evidence of the guilt of Denmark Vesey. The transcript of the court proceedings feature seven men questioning the aforementioned witnesses about a conspiracy. Although Vesey is mentioned frequently in all testimonies, six other men are named as the leaders of the conspiracy as well, including several of Vesey’s alleged lieutenants. 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. [35] 

Despite the theories and evidence presented by Johnson, many documents exist which point to the existence of a slave conspiracy in Charleston. Similarly, there are documents which seem to provide evidence that the court proceedings were official and fair. In a letter, which points to the existence of a conspiracy, a prominent Charleston banker wrote, “You cannot think how cunningly devised the scheme was. Had the execution been as well supported, many of us this day would not have been left to tell the tale.” [36] The seriousness with which the author writes, also alludes to the fact that the rebellion could have been successful. In another letter, written by respected and influential jurist Henry William DeSaussure, the system of the trial court is defended. As DeSaussure writes, “The Court was wisely selected from among the best informed, most reasonable & firm of the Community; men neither to be misled by violent popular rumors, nor deterred from the performance of painful duties, by a false humanity . . . . I am sorry to See Judge Wm.J. [William Johnson] has been drawn into an un- pleasant controversy, on the subject of your distressing events.” [37] Many historians have argued that DeSaussure would not have upheld the courts decision, had the trial proceeding been unfairly conducted. Similarly, in court documentation it was noted that William Crafts, Jr. and E. P. Simons, both prominent Charleston lawyers, defended the character of several of the defendants, however neither man denied that a conspiracy existed. [38] Also, although many of the accused would not reveal the conspirator Gullah Jack because they were scared of his witchery, one slave named Henry Haig did tell police that Gullah Jack “was going to give me a bottle with poison to put in my Master’s pump and into as many pumps as he could around town.” [39] All of these documents, outside of the court’s transcripts, seem to confirm the existence of the Vesey rebellion and refute claims made by Johnson about the integrity of the court.

It is documents, such as the letter provided by Martha Proctor Richardson from 1822, which seem to support both a traditional historical perspective and the revisionist theory offered by Johnson. Richardson, a wealthy Charleston widow who witnessed the arrest and testimony of John Horry, a slave of Elias Horry, the wealthiest man in South Carolina. In a letter, Richardson claimed that when the authorities came for John, Elias refused to believe that one of his most trusted servants was involved in the conspiracy. However, upon testimony and the direct questioning of his master, the slave revealed that his intentions were “to kill you, rip open your belly, and throw your guts in your face.” This evidence from Richardson, seems to support the notion of a bloody slave uprising being planned by the slaves of Charleston, however in the same letter, Richardson admits that “It is impossible for me to give a correct account of the proceedings in Charleston” due to her failing memory. [40] The widow’s failing memory seems to suggest that her recounting of events cannot be considered factual, and like Michael Johnson’s historical research, calls into question the validity of other evidence of the time.

Seeing as the court proceedings were held entirely in secret, no other documentation of the trial remains other than the official transcript. Without other public or press witnesses, the transcripts are the only source of truthful primary information, despite the claims made by Johnson regarding court coercion of the accused. [41] When examining the court transcripts, it becomes obvious that a plot or rebellion occurred, according to the witnesses. Whether or not those witnesses were coerced into giving false statements remains and will probably forever remain undetermined. In the transcript of the trial, the slave, listed only as “Y” and belonging to Colonel George W. Cross, reported:

“Peter Poyas first spoke to me and asked me to join. I asked him to join what, the Church-he said no, have you not heard that the blacks are going to try to take the Country from the Whites-I asked him if he thought he had force enough to do it-he said yes aplenty.” [42] 

In this reported conversation, “Y” implicates one of Vesey’s primary lieutenants Peter Poyas.

This testimony also implies that, at least in Poyas’ mind, the rebellion had a very good chance of success. In another testimony given by a slave named Pompey, belonging to a Mr. Bryants, the slave explains his desires to avoid Vesey:

Denmark Vesey has often spoken to me about the insurrection and endeavoured [sic] to persuade me to join them, he enquired of me if my master had not arms in his house and tried to persuade me to get them from him-the blacks stood in great fear of him and [illegible] so much so, that I always endeavoured [sic] to avoid him. [43] 

Here, Pompey’s testimony implicates Denmark Vesey as a leader of the movement and maintains that the use of militant tactics for recruitment were used by the leaders of the conspiracy.

In the longest, and most telling testimony, a slave named Frank, belonging to Mr. Ferguson describes his encounters with Vesey and several of his alleged lieutenants.

“The first time I spoke with Monday Gell ’twas one night a Vesey’s house, where I heard Vesey tell Monday, he must send some one round into the country to [illegible] the people down. Monday replied he had directed Jack to go up, and told him to tell the people to come down and join in the fight against the Whites, and to ascertain and inform him how many people he could get to agree-A few days after I met Vesey, Monday, and Jack in the street under Mr. Duncans trees at night, where Jack stated, that he had been in the country round by Goose Creek and Dorchester and that he had spoken to 6,600 persons who had agreed to join. At Vesey’s the first time I spoke to Monday, he was going away early and Vesey asked him to stay: when Monday said he expected that night a meeting at this house to fix upon and mature the plan and he could not stay. I afterwards conversed with Monday in his shop where he asked me if I had heard that Bennett’s and Poyas’ people were taken up, that ’twas a great pity-he said he had joined in the business-I told him to take care that he was not taken up. Whenever I talked with Vesey, he always spoke of Monday being his principal and active man in this business-I heard Jack say, he would pay no more wages, he was too busy in seeing about this insurrection, besides what would the Whites want with wages-they would soon be no more. Monday Gell said to Vesey, that if Jack had so many men, they had better wait no longer, but begin the business at once and others would join.” [44] 

The slave Frank’s testimony not only implicates Vesey, but it also implicates three of Vesey’s five main conspirators, Monday Gell, Gullah Jack, and Peter Poyas. Frank’s testimony also incriminates the first slaves arrested in relation to the rebellion, those owned by the Governor of South Carolina, Thomas Bennett. In addition, historians have gathered the total number of slave rebels, from testimony such as Frank’s. As a result of the trial, and the damaging testimony from the six state witnesses, Vesey and 34 other conspirators were sentenced to death. [45] The trials resulted in the largest number of executions ever carried out by a United States civilian court. [46] 

South Carolina politicians used the Vesey conspiracy trials to their political advantage in the years following the court case. These political undertakings are what historian Michael Johnson bases a majority of his revisionist theory. According to history, and Johnson, a rivalry occurred between the then Mayor of Charleston, James Hamilton Jr., and the Governor of South Carolina Thomas Bennett Jr, and Bennett’s brother-in-law Associate Supreme Court Justice William Johnson. Hamilton claimed that as the Mayor of Charleston, he had saved the city from the slave uprising, while Bennett and Johnson maintained that the court proceedings had falsely identified Vesey and his associates. [Cite This Work

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