The plot organized by Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822 was perhaps the largest slave conspiracy in North American history. Although brought into the city in 1783 as a slave of Captain Joseph Vesey, Telemaque, as he was then known, purchased his freedom in December 1799 with lottery winnings. For the next twenty-two years, Vesey earned his living as a craftsman. According to white authorities, he was "distinguished for [his] great strength and activity"; the black community "always looked up to [him] with awe and respect." His last (and probably third) wife, Susan Vesey, was born a slave but became free prior to his death. His first wife, Beck, remained a slave, as did Vesey's sons, Polydore, Robert, and Sandy, the last of whom was the only one of his children to be implicated in his 1822 conspiracy.
Around 1818 Vesey joined the city's new African Methodist Episcopal congregation. The African Church, as both whites and blacks called it, quickly became the center of Charleston's enslaved community. Sandy Vesey also joined, as did four of Vesey's closest friends, Peter Poyas, a literate and highly skilled ship carpenter; Monday Gell, an African-born Ibo who labored as a harness maker; Rolla Bennett, the manservant of Governor Thomas Bennett; and "Gullah" Jack Pritchard, an East African priest purchased in Zinguebar in 1806. The temporary closure of the church by city authorities in June 1818, and the arrest of 140 congregants, one of them presumably Vesey himself, only reinforced the determination of black Carolinians to maintain a place of independent worship and established the motivation for his conspiracy.
At the age of fifty-one, Vesey resolved to orchestrate a rebellion followed by a mass exodus from Charleston to Haiti. President Jean-Pierre Boyer had recently encouraged black Americans to bring their skills and capital to his beleaguered republic. Vesey did not intend to tarry in Charleston long enough for white military power to present an effective counterassault. "As soon as they could get the money from the Banks, and the goods from the stores," Rolla Bennett insisted, "they should hoist sail for Saint Doming[ue]" and live as free men. For all of his acculturation into Euro-American society, Vesey, as a native of St. Thomas, remained a man of the black Atlantic.
Vesey planned the escape for nearly four years. Although there are no reliable figures for the number of recruits, Charleston alone was home to 12,652 slaves. Pritchard, probably with some exaggeration, boasted that he had 6,600 recruits on the plantations across the Cooper and Ashley Rivers. The plan called for Vesey's followers to rise at midnight on Sunday, 14 July—Bastille Day—slay their masters, and sail for Haiti and freedom. As one southern editor later conceded, "the plot seems to have been well devised, and its operation was extensive."
Those recruited into the plot during the winter of 1822 were directed to arm themselves from their masters' closets. Vesey was also aware that the Charleston Neck militia company stored their three hundred muskets and bayonets in the back room of Benjamin Hammet's King Street store, and that Hammet's slave Bacchus had a key. But as few slaves had any experience with guns, Vesey encouraged his followers to arm themselves with swords or long daggers, which in any case would make for quieter work as the city bells tolled midnight. Vesey also employed several enslaved blacksmiths to forge "pike heads and bayonets with sockets, to be fixed at the end of long poles."
Considerably easier than stockpiling weapons was the recruitment of willing young men. In addition to their fellow craftsmen, Vesey and his lieutenants recruited out of the African Church. Vesey knew each of the church members well—he knew whom to trust and whom to avoid. As former Charleston slave Archibald Grimké later wrote, Vesey's nightly classes provided him "with a singularly safe medium for conducting his underground agitation."
The plot unraveled in June 1822 when two slaves revealed the plan to their owners. Mayor James Hamilton called up the city militia and convened a special court to try the captured insurgents. Vesey was captured at the home of his first wife on June 21 and hanged on the morning of 2 July, together with Rolla, Poyas, and three other rebels. According to Hamilton, the six men collectively "met their fate with the heroic fortitude of Martyrs." In all, thirty-five slaves were executed. Forty-two others, including Sandy Vesey, were sold outside the United States; some, if not all, became slaves in Spanish Cuba. Robert Vesey lived to rebuild the African Church in the fall of 1865.
In the aftermath of the conspiracy, Charleston authorities demolished the African Church. The state assembly subsequently passed laws prohibiting the entry of free blacks into the state, and city officials enforced ordinances against teaching African Americans to read. The City Council also voted to create a permanent force of 150 guardsmen to patrol the streets around the clock at an annual cost of $24,000. To deal with the problem of black mariners bringing information about events around the Atlantic into the state's ports, in December 1822 the legislature passed the Negro Seamen Act, which placed a quarantine on any vessel from another "state or foreign port, having on board any free negroes or persons of color." Although U.S. Circuit Court Judge William Johnson struck the law down as unconstitutional, a defiant assembly renewed the act in late 1823. Many of those who nullified federal law in 1832—including Governor James Hamilton, who resigned his office in 1833 to command troops in defense of his state's right to resist national tariffs—were veterans of the tribunals that had tried Vesey and his men a decade before.
Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1999.
Lofton, John. Insurrection in South Carolina: The Turbulent World of Denmark Vesey. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1964.
Paquette, Robert L. "Jacobins of the Lowcountry: The Vesey Plot on Trial." William and Mary Quarterly 59 (January 2002): 185–192.
Douglas R. Egerton