On May 31, 1822, three slaves were arrested by authorities in Charleston, South Carolina, accused of colluding to overthrow the city's government and free its slaves. Two of the arrested slaves were released that same day, but William Paul remained in solitary confinement for over a week more until, fearing that he faced certain execution, he revealed new details of the conspiracy. Although Paul warned of an indiscriminate massacre of the whites, no new action was taken until further corroboration was received on June 14, when it was revealed by another slave that the conspirators planned to begin their uprising two days later. Word of the impending rebellion was immediately sent to South Carolina's governor, who dispatched the state militia to Charleston that same day. The increased level of troops in the area forced the postponement of the rebellion and additional intelligence soon led to the arrest of the conspiracy's core members, including its leader, Denmark Vesey (1767–1822).
Most likely born in the West Indies, Vesey was purchased in 1781 by Captain Joseph Vesey, an active participant in the Atlantic slave trade, and was resold to a French planter shortly thereafter. Vesey spent a short time living on Saint-Domingue but was returned to Captain Vesey after he began to display symptoms of epilepsy, symptoms that soon disappeared after he left the plantation. Vesey's sharp intelligence and ability to learn new languages identified him as a valuable asset and he remained in Captain Vesey's service until 1799 when he won $1,500 in South Carolina's lottery. Vesey subsequently purchased his freedom and established himself as a carpenter, a profession at which he excelled. Although there were well over 3,000 free African Americans living in Charleston in 1820, Vesey was one of the most successful, reportedly owning property worth as much as $8,000. In 1816 Vesey helped to found a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, which soon had more than 3,000 members. But white authorities, fearful of allowing such large gatherings of free and enslaved African Americans, forced the temporary closure of his church in 1818. This event, coupled with his knowledge of the slave rebellion in his former home of Saint-Domingue, caused Vesey to agitate for the violent overthrow of Charleston's government. Between 1820 and 1822, thousands of freedmen and slaves were enlisted to Vesey's cause, drawn from both his own congregation and the broader black community of Charleston.
A REBELLIOUS PLOT
On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free black in Charleston, South Carolina, was hanged for plotting a large-scale insurrection that involved hundreds of slaves and free blacks throughout the Charleston area. Had Vesey and his co-conspirators been allowed to hatch their revolt, the bloodshed in both the black and white communities would have been horrific. Vesey was purported to be a highly skilled carpenter who owned his own shop in Charleston. He was a very influential leader in his community and was highly respected by blacks and even by many whites for his intellect and leadership skills. Rather than continue to live out the rest of his life as a free man, Vesey began to organize a large-scale slave revolt that was scheduled to take place on Sunday, July 14, 1822. Like so many planned slave revolts, Vesey's was betrayed from within, and as feared by Vesey, he was betrayed by a house slave. South Carolina and the rest of the South reacted with horror when the speedy trial that followed the discovery of Vesey's plot revealed the extent of the planned rebellion. Southern whites learned that even slaves they thought of as loyal had planned to kill their masters' families.
Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: the Lives of Denmark Vesey. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Robertson, David. Denmark Vesey. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Vesey's plan called for an army of slaves to storm Charleston, concentrating their efforts on controlling access into the city, taking possession of its armaments, and preventing the white population from mounting an effective counterattack; indeed, any whites encountered by the revolutionaries, regardless of gender or age, were to be killed without hesitation. Although nothing definite was planned, it seems likely that, once the city was secured, many of the insurrectionists would have abandoned Charleston by boat and taken refuge in Haiti. What makes the Vesey conspiracy especially noteworthy is that it had every chance of success, especially if contemporary estimates of between 6,600 and 9,000 slaves being privy to the plot were accurate. As Douglas Egerton (2004) has noted, a majority of Charleston's population was African American and, if the rebellion had been successful in attracting new recruits after the fighting began, it is feasible that the city could have been held long enough to make an escape to sea possible. But none of this was to come to pass. The plot was betrayed in late May after William Paul attempted to recruit a house slave by the name of Peter Prioleau to the rebels' cause. Prioleau instead informed his master of this advance and the information was passed on to Charleston's mayor, putting in motion the chain of events that led to the conspiracy's unraveling.
South Carolina's legislators subsequently passed several laws designed to control the state's African American population: large gatherings were not allowed unless supervised by a white man; black ownership of boats was prohibited and any free black seamen entering the state would be arrested and held until their ship was ready to depart; and all freed African Americans over the age of fifteen were required to have a white sponsor or they would be sold back into slavery. As with other attempted slave uprisings, the Vesey conspiracy ended in failure—thirty-five of its leaders were executed and over thirty more were expelled from South Carolina—but the state's response reveals that many white Southerners feared a successful slave rebellion.
Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Hamilton, James. Negro Plot. An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection among a Portion of the Blacks of the City of Charleston, South Carolina. Boston: J. W. Ingraham, 1822.
Lofton, John. Denmark Vesey's Revolt: The Slave Plot That Lit a Fuse to Fort Sumter. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1983.
Pearson, Edward A. Designs against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Robertson, David. Denmark Vesey. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1999.
Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.
Simon J. Appleford