Between June 19 and August 6, 1822, the Charleston, SC, Court of Magistrates and Freeholders interrogated, tortured, and tried in closed sessions over 100 African Americans as co-conspirators in a planned slave rebellion. Almost all were slaves. The court sent 35 of them to the gallows, two died in custody, and nearly 40 were transported out of the United States.
The court's Official Report, published later that same year, identified a local free black, Denmark Vesey, as "the author, and original instigator of this diabolical plot…to trample on all laws, human and divine; to riot in blood, outrage, rapine…and conflagration, and to introduce anarchy and confusion in their most horrid forms" (see Primary Source Official Report ).
Abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, writing in the Atlantic Monthly nearly 40 years later, accepted the court’s assertions in terming the Vesey rebellion plot "the most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves…In boldness of conception and thoroughness of organization there has been nothing to compare it with."
Higginson, however, would remember Vesey in a more positive light as an example of heroic African American agency in attempting to strike a blow for freedom: "that a conspiracy on so large a scale should have existed…and yet have been so well managed…shows extraordinary ability in the leaders, and a talent for concerted action on the part of slaves generally with which they have hardly been credited."
Since that time, historians have largely accepted the account of the planned insurrection laid out in the court's Official Report and have as well largely framed their analysis in the heroic terms presented earlier by Higginson.
In 1964, however, Richard Wade questioned that view and instead suggested that the Official Report did not represent a document that historians could trust. He further suggested that "no conspiracy in fact existed." Scholars at the time rejected Wade's conclusions—he long stood as a lone dissenting voice concerning the Vesey plot. In particular, recent works by Douglas R. Egerton, David Robertson, and Edward R. Pearson disagree with Wade and cast Vesey once again as a doomed but heroic rebel who attempted to organize a massive rebellion.
Starting in 2001, however, The William and Mary Quarterly published a review forum centered on those three books. Michael P. Johnson's review and evidentiary examination raised serious questions about both the primary source materials those books were based on and the way the historians interpreted the extant evidence. Almost all scholars have privileged the "Official Report," that document produced by the court after the trials and executions, without carefully considering another very similar set of documents—the manuscript transcripts in the Records of the General Assembly.
This scholarly debate has also highlighted the ways in which white Americans could use the public hysteria surrounding slave conspiracy scares to shore up political power and strengthen slavery. Thus, the trial records surrounding the Denmark Vesey saga could in fact tell us as much about slavery's effect on regional political, social, and cultural development as they do about black American agency.
Nonetheless, Johnson's work has also rekindled an older debate about African American agency and resistance in slave society: Does the relative absence in the U.S. of large-scale coordinated rebellions against enslavement tell us that American slaves generally failed to resist, or do we need to rethink our understanding of what heroism and resistance to slavery might look like?
For Johnson, although the Vesey rebellion was a figment of the white imagination, the African Americans who pled not guilty and additionally refused to provide false testimony against other blacks—including Denmark Vesey himself—represent the truly heroic resisters of slave society.
Textbooks, if they discuss Denmark Vesey at all (only four of 14 textbooks examined included even a mention of Vesey and/or the 1822 plot), usually ignore those debates and instead portray Vesey briefly as a heroic rebel who met a tragic end.
Typical relevant state standards of learning expect eighth graders to be able to:
- draw conclusions about how sectionalism arose from . . . circumstances of racial tension . . . including the Denmark Vesey Plot" (SC);
- Trace the development of slavery and its effect on black Americans . . . through historical documents on Denmark Vesey (DC); or
- identify the strategies that were tried to both overturn and preserve [slavery] (CA)
Judged by these student expectations, essential skills, and performance standards, all of the textbooks under consideration fall short of those goals as far as Vesey is concerned.
For instance, The American Pageant says he "led another ill-fated rebellion in Charleston." Prentice Hall's contribution, although one of the most detailed, uncritically repeats a series of detailed assertions about the alleged plot, including that Vesey "was inspired by the successful slave rebellion" that had taken place in Haiti decades earlier and that he was "prompted into action" when authorities shut down his church.
Holt's American Anthem, though consigning Vesey to the evidence section, acknowledges that there is a scholarly debate about whether the conspiracy was real or not. It also includes an excerpt from the narrative section of the "Official Report," the document produced by the court after the trials and executions. Unfortunately, the text makes no mention of where the source came from, nor does it present any additional or conflicting information.
The controversy surrounding Denmark Vesey and his planned 1822 rebellion represents an intriguing case study for students in the classroom as it raises fascinating questions about how historians (and students) should interpret an incomplete evidentiary record, and about how to define and understand resistance to slavery and domination, and creates an opportunity to complicate the students' understanding of slave and free black life in the slave South.
Ultimately, the question about whether or not Vesey planned a rebellion may represent a distraction. For students, the true value in reading excerpts from the Official Report, the original manuscript court transcripts, or even letters and newspaper reporting from 1822, may lie in what those documents reveal about daily life in antebellum Charleston, interactions between whites, blacks, slaves, and free people of color, and how literacy, reading, and information spread in a largely non-literate society (see Primary Source Anna Hayes Johnson Letter  and Primary Source Letter to Charleston Courier ).