Denmark Vesey

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Denmark Vesey (1767-1822) was a free black in South Carolina accused of plotting a major race war in 1822. His original name was Telemaque, shortened to Denmark. Whether the plot was real or imagined is much debated, but the whites of Charleston, South Carolina at the time considered it a real threat, using evidence extracted from slaves through torture (the torture stopped when the slave "confessed" there was a conspiracy.)

Supposedly the plot was to kill all the whites in Charleston. The leader of the conspiracy was Denmark Vesey, who had been brought to Charleston in 1783 as a slave from the Danish West Indies. In 1800 he won $1,500 in the East Bay Street lottery in Charleston and with $600 purchased his freedom. The fact that his children, born of a slave mother, were the property of her master aroused Vesey's resentment. Sometime around Christmas 1821 the rebellion plot took concrete form. The participants, said by some accounts to include 2,000-3,000 slaves, planned to seize the arms and ammunition stored in the city and massacre the white population. The date for the attack was originally July 14, 1822, but was subsequently advanced to June 16. The plot was betrayed to the authorities before anything happened. and Vesey and 34 other blacks were arrested, tried, and executed.

Conspiracy or exaggerated fears?

In 1964, historian Richard C. Wade in Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820–1860 concluded that it was "probably never more than loose talk by aggrieved and embittered men" rather than a full-blown effort to rebel against slavery.[1]

Johnson (2001) uses the original manuscript transcript of the hearings and trials to argue that there probably was no conspiracy, only a white fear. Johnson says the Vesey case was more likely a "conspiracy of collusion" among court officials and witnesses. He tries to explain how and why a hostile court ignored the rights of the accused, coerced false testimony from innocent blacks through implied threats of execution, and covered up its own illegal activity by falsifying the record of testimony and other evidence. Johnson's conclusions remain controversial; for example Egerton (2004) insists there was a conspiracy, as do most black activists who are baffled why there were so few actual slave revolts in the ante-bellum South.

Further reading

  • Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey (2004)
  • Johnson, Michael P. "Denmark Vesey and his Co-Conspirators." William and Mary Quarterly 2001 58(4): 915-976. in JSTOR; another online copy
  • Paquette, Robert L. "From Rebellion to Revisionism: The Continuing Debate About the Denmark Vesey Affair," Journal of the Historical Society, 4 (Fall 2004), 291-334.
  • Pearson, Edward A. "Trials and Errors: Denmark Vesey and His Historians," William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 137–142 in JSTOR; also online
  • Wade, Richard C. "The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 30, No. 2 (May, 1964), pp. 143–161 in JSTOR

Primary sources

  • Pearson, Edward A., ed. Designs against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822. (1999). 387 pp., us considered even by its editor to be unreliable.


  1. Richard C. Wade, "The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration," Journal of Southern History, 30 (1964), pp 148–61; and Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820–1860 (1964), 228–41