Charleston Insurrection Conspiracy as Interpreted by M. Johnson, E. Pearson, D. Egerton, and D. Robertson
In its October 2001 issue, the history journal William and Mary Quarterly featured a review essay in its Forum section entitled, "The Making of a Slave Conspiracy, Part I." This feature focused on the historical issues about black slavery in America particularly the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. A review essay penned by Michael Johnson, a professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University, which is entitled, "Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators," offered a new interpretation of the famous (and foiled) uprising of the Negroes in Charleston in the early 19th century.
Johnson started his essay with a brief background information on some significant events that occurred before the planned uprising was discovered, and he also included a brief biography of Denmark Vesey, the suspected leader of the black slaves, though most of the information is based on the data provided in the Official Report document, which is a detailed account of the events before, during, and after the Charleston insurrection was found out.
Johnson's main thesis in his essay is that the conspiracy led by Vesey, which many historians believed to be a possibility had it not been foiled, did not, in reality, existed. Further, in Richard Wade's view (quoted by Johnson), "...no conspiracy existed, or at most that it was a vague and unformulated plan in the minds of townsmen." Johnson proved this assumption by making a comparative analysis of two main documents chronicling the events that happened in the trials of Vesey and his co-conspirators: the Official Report prepared by Lionel Kennedy and Thomas Parker, the magistrates who presided over the proceedings, and a manuscript of the testimonies of witnesses and the defendants, which he referred to as the Evidence, or, Document B, patterned after Edward Pearson's two manuscripts presented in his book, Designs against Charleston. Johnson criticized Pearson for giving an inaccurate and unreliable study of two transcripts of the Vesey trial presented in his book, which Pearson labeled as Document A, while the other, Document B (Evidence). H e argued that Document A is merely a copy of B, and is not different from B. because A is merely a continuous documentation of the trial records and testimonies (Johnson proved and stated in his essay the reasons why that B. existed before A, and is an actual documentation of the occurrences during the trial). Also, he mentioned that the author of Designs "omitted words/added words, changed the capitalization, punctuation, and words" from the original text.
After the introduction of manuscript B, Johnson enumerated some differences and irregularities between the Official Report and Evidence, which supports his theory that an uprising supposedly led by Vesey, was not true, and the court that tried Vesey and his companions made up the "insurrection," as well as the witnesses and their testimonies that were given and documented during the trial. (For this paper, the researcher will only cite some significant observations made by Johnson). The first observation is that most of the testimonies given by the witnesses against the defendants were delivered without the presence of the accused. Contrary to the Official Report's claim that the witnesses testified in the presence of the accused, the Evidence document does not contain any text that acknowledges the defendant's presence during the witness's testimony, thereby making the historian conclude that the defendant might not be present at all during the proceeding. Another observation is the court's reliance on witnesses' testimonies. Much of the convictions during the trial are solely based on the testimonies of the witnesses, never mind if these testimonies are true or not. Johnson said that many of those executed or heavily punished (including Vesey and other leaders of the insurgency) are those defendants who kept quiet and did not admit their guilt. Those who confessed their guilt and turned witness against the suspects were spared from punishment, and instead, given special treatment by the court. Among other things which Johnson deemed as irregular from the Evidence (strongly contradicting claims by the Official Report) is that there is pattern of "testimonial convergence" among testimonies of the witnesses and with the questions given by the court. The historian then stated that collusion is probable between the court and the witnesses against the defendants, leading to their conviction of the said insurgency plot. These observations are some points that Johnson raised against his fellow historians (which includes Pearson, Egerton, and Robertson), whom he strongly criticized because much of their analyses in the Vesey conspiracy is based from the Official Report, whom he do not consider reliable and "authentic" in its official account of the trials held.
In its January 2002 issue, William and Mary Quarterly presented the second part of their feature. In that feature, the historians Pearson, Egerton, and Robertson presented their own analysis of the issue and refuted/agreed on some points raised by Johnson in his essay. Douglas Egerton, a history professor at LeMoyne College, wrote in his article entitled, "Forgetting Denmark Vesey; Or, Oliver Stone Meets Richard Wade," that he disagrees with Johnson on three points: first, that one problem with Johnson's analysis is that his distrust in the court's honesty and authenticity of its documents made him think that "if the court was prejudiced, all of the testimony presented to it (in the report) was equally prejudiced"; second, Egerton defended Pearson by suggesting to Johnson that he take a closer and critical look at the Official Report and Evidence document before making radical generalizations about the Vesey conspiracy issue; third, the historian did not recognize the Official Report as an authentic source of the trial proceedings irregardless of the fact that the document is "drawn from memory" of the magistrates Kennedy and Parker, and it is "not a hastily scribbled manuscript." Of all his criticisms of Johnson, Egerton said that the historian's biggest error is when Johnson failed to consult sources other than the Official Report and Evidence. Egerton said that Johnson became too focused in spotting differences between the two documents that he failed to recognize the importance of some small but significant and helpful sources such as "church records, city directories, and newspapers in St. Domingue," and most importantly, correspondence among people of Charleston during the time of trial and execution of the blacks. These "common biographer's technique" should have been helpful in his study of the issue. He also refuted Johnson's claim that the court punished heavily those who did not admit their guilt and pardoned those who did by giving an example. Sandy Vesey, Denmark's son, was also implicated in the insurgency plot, but unlike his companions who confessed and turned against them, Sandy Vesey did not admit his guilt, and as punishment, he was "transported to Spanish Cuba in 1822." Unlike Contradicting Johnson's assumption, Sandy Vesey is an example of a black slave who did not admit his guilt, and yet, was not hanged as punishment.
Similar to Egerton, David Robertson (Professor of Linguistics and Languages Department of the Public Library at Ohio) used the same method practiced by Egerton, that is, consulting other sources aside from the two documents whom Johnson primarily based his analysis. He, too, emphasized on the importance of some materials such as newspapers and other sources, but he stressed the importance of letters of correspondence among people of Charleston to fill in the gap that is present in the question of Vesey's and his companions' involvement in the conspiracy. He suggested that the historian should take a "closer appraisal" of the sources that Johnson used in his study.
Lastly, Edward Pearson, a member of the History Department of Frank and Marshall College, explained in his article ("Trials and Errors: Denmark Vesey and His Historians") that in…