July 2, 1822: Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators were hanged at Blake’s Landing, Charleston, South Carolina.
Denmark Vesey, originally Telemaque, was an African-Caribbean who was most famous for planning a slave rebellion in the United States in 1822. He was enslaved in the Caribbean before being brought to the United States and was probably of Coromantee background. After purchasing his freedom, he planned what would have been one of the largest slave rebellions in the United States. Word of the plans was leaked, and at Charleston, South Carolina, authorities arrested the plot’s leaders before the uprising could begin.
Vesey and others were convicted and executed. Although it was almost certainly not his home, the Denmark Vesey House at Charleston was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Many antislavery activists came to regard Vesey as a hero. During the American Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass used Vesey’s name as a battle cry to rally African-American regiments, especially the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to execute their enslavers and temporarily liberate the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation.
Two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey. Sandy Vesey, one of Denmark’s sons, was transported, probably to Cuba.
Vesey’s last wife Susan later emigrated to Liberia. Another son, Robert Vesey, survived to rebuild Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865.
•Recent scholarship in 2001 by historian Michael Johnson gave a new twist to historian Richard Wade’s 1964 theory that the Vesey Conspiracy was nothing more than “angry talk.” According to Johnson, Mayor James Hamilton Jr. concocted a false conspiracy to use as a “political wedge issue” against Governor Thomas Bennett Jr., who owned four of the accused slaves. Somewhat in reaction to the Missouri Compromise, which restricted slavery in the western territories, Mayor Hamilton came to support a militant approach to protecting slavery. He called for draconian measures, while the governor clung to a paternalistic view. Including 1822, white Carolinians uniformly believed in the existence of a conspiracy. Governor Bennett, while believing that the plot was not as widespread as Hamilton thought, nonetheless called Vesey’s plan “a ferocious, diabolical design.”
Johnson also asserted that aside from questionable court records, no other material evidence existed of Vesey’s plans to lead the revolt. Specialists, however, observe that a number of blacks familiar with Vesey or the Reverend Morris Brown, especially free black carpenter Thomas Brown, spoke or wrote about the plot in later years.
•In 2004, historian Robert Tinkler, a biographer of Mayor Hamilton, reported that he uncovered no documentation to support Johnson’s theory. James Hamilton, he concluded, “believed there was indeed a Vesey plot.”
•In the April 2011 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, historian James O’Neil Spady showed that under Johnson’s own criteria, the statements of some of the earliest witnesses, George Wilson and Joe LaRoache, ought to be considered credible. Neither man was coerced nor imprisoned. Both volunteered their testimony, and LaRoache even risked statements that the court could have construed as self-incriminating. Spady concluded that a real, but perhaps smaller, conspiracy had been about to launch when the plans were revealed.
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