Vesey’s Almost Rebellion

Denmark Vesey.

During the controversy surrounding the Missouri Compromise, those who advocated for restricting slavery had been interpreted by southerners as encouraging insurrection. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 161.

Blacks had been paying close attention to the Missouri Compromise, packing the galleries of Congress to listen to debates. Glover Moore, The Missouri Controversy (Lexington, Ky., 1953), 91. Denmark Vesey, a religious, black man, was one who listened carefully to the debates. He would soon be recruiting men to create an insurrection.

He had lieutenants recruit those on plantations, and he would later claim that he had as many as 9,000 men ready to participate in an uprising. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 161. Vesey was quietly planning for the insurgency to take an arsenal of weapons, form a cavalry unit, and kill as many whites as possible. See id. at 161-62.

However, on May 25, 1822, “a slave informed his master that a conspirator had attempted to recruit him,” prompting authorities to begin investigating the plot. Id. at 162. A special tribunal was formed, which would ultimately arrest “135 persons, of whom 35 were executed, 43 transported and sold . . . , 15 tried and acquitted, and 38 questioned and not charged.” Id. Most of the key organizers maintained silence. In fact, one conspirator, Peter Poyas, said as his last words, “Die silent, as you see me do.” Robert S. Starobin, ed., Denmark Vesey (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), 60.

While Vesey’s plan never came to fruition, it led to “tighter security measures” and “stricter limitations on black religious gatherings and on the ability of free Negroes to communicate out of state.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 163. South Carolina “decided to keep any free black sailor locked up until” the ship prepared to weigh anchor, fearing “subversives from outside.” Id. citing W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 192-214.

Denmark Vesey represented a new kind of concern for southern Americans. There had always been concerns about insurrections, particularly with Haiti’s revolution in 1803, as further explained in The Justifications for Slavery. However, this was the first time when insurrections sparked from within the United States had become a legitimate concern. To a large extent, those in the South felt that the continued discussion and debate of slavery only served to encourage blacks like Denmark Vesey to incite rebellions.

Even though Vesey’s rebellion had fallen short, and perhaps was not as widespread as investigators claimed, the damage was done. Despite the noble aspiration of Vesey, southerners were given ammunition to spread fear and hatred with the threat that anarchy could erupt at any moment.

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