The third-best-known slave revolt in American history (after Nat Turner’s and John Brown’s, if Brown’s can be counted as a slave revolt) didn’t actually happen. It was planned and widely organized, but it was disclosed to authorities before it could be set into motion. Its author, and many another with him, was executed, and none of the prospective victims were harmed. Nonetheless, it was exactly what the white population had been fearing, chronically and acutely, in the twenty years or so since the French had lost Haiti to a slave rebellion. The consequences of Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy were widespread, and unfortunate.
The facts in a nutshell:
Denmark Vesey was born, possibly in Africa, possibly on the island of St. Thomas, in about 1767, and was sold in 1781 to a Bermuda sea captain named Joseph Vesey, who sold him to a planter in Saint-Domingue. But Denmark was subject to epileptic fits, and the planter required Vesey to cancel the sale. So Vesey reclaimed the slave and kept him as his personal servant.
First stroke of fate: Denmark Vesey became acquainted with Saint-Domingue more than 20 years before it became Haiti, and then epilepsy rescued him from life there.
Young Denmark assumed his master’s surname and traveled with him until 1783, when Joseph Vesey retired and settled in Charleston, South Carolina.
Second stroke of fate: On November 9, 1799, in his early thirties, Denmark Vesey won $1,500 in a city lottery, and purchased his freedom.
He lived in the city as a freedman for nearly another quarter of a century, working as a carpenter, and was one of the co-founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. We don’t know anything much about his life in these long years. What we do know is that at some point he began planning and organizing an uprising, to begin on Bastille Day (July 14), 1822.
Like everyone else, he was familiar with the story of the Haitian slave revolt. His plan apparently envisioned blacks from Charleston and from nearby plantation attacking guardhouses and arsenals in order to seize arms, then to kill the whites, burn the city, and sail to Haiti.
Of course, any such plot requires involving large numbers of people. As many as 9,000 blacks, in Charleston and along the Carolina coast, are said to have been involved, though who knows. The point is that any secret shared among so many people becomes its own undoing. That’s what happened here. On the eve of the scheduled insurrection, one of those in the plot betrayed it, and it never came off.
During the ensuing two months, some 130 blacks were arrested, 67 being convicted of attempted insurrection. Vesey and 34 others were hanged, and 32 more were exiled, which presumably means sold into overseas slavery.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The fact that a plot actually existed, and was foiled only at the last minute, verified long-held fears, and of course led to massive over-reaction which in the highly charged emotional climate of the time undoubtedly seemed justified. The state restricted owners’ right to free their slaves, restricted the movement of free blacks in and out of the state, and required free blacks to find a white guardian to vouch for their character. In order to provide more effective control of the black population, the South Carolina Association was formed. And, not least, the legislature mandated that black sailors visiting Charleston be imprisoned until their ship left, an act that was later ruled unconstitutional.
Fear is rarely overcome by logic. It has a logic of its own. Denmark Vesey’s plot, although it didn’t get off the ground, seemed to show North and South alike that the South was sitting on a powder keg. Much later, Abraham Lincoln would argue that the history of slave revolts showed that although the powder was everywhere, the powder trains necessary for a simultaneous explosion were everywhere lacking and could not be provided. But white southerners found this cold comfort, nor could they quite believe it. After all, Haiti showed that a successful slave revolt could happen. Denmark Vesey showed that it could happen here. Nat Turner showed that it was a real, and not merely a theoretical, danger. And, finally, John Brown seemed to show that substantial forces in the North were determined to bring servile war to the South.
It all added to the mix. Fear of slave rebellion was a continual, and continually growing, background presence in the South for 250 years. “We have the wolf by the ears,” Thomas Jefferson said, “and dare not let him go.”