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Black Conspiracies

Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822

edited by Robert S. Starobin
Great Lives Observed Series, Prentice-Hall, 185 pp., $5.95

The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Materials

by Henry Irving Tragle
University of Massachusetts Press, 485 pp., $15.00

Nothing in the study of American slavery is more ironic than the extent to which analysis of that institution has had to depend on white sources. Slaves themselves left few if any written records, and historians have been only partially successful in reconstructing the slave experience from folklore and oral tradition. The student of slave rebellions faces two further disadvantages. Whites had no desire to advertise these events and often suppressed essential historical records. At the same time they frequently succumbed to panic and greatly exaggerated the size and scope of projected uprisings. As a result, evidence on crucial points is often lacking and information that does exist must be used with extreme care. The new documentary collections describing two of nineteenth-century America’s most important slave conspiracies, the plot by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822, and Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831, perfectly illustrate these historiographical dilemmas.

Robert Starobin was a young radical historian of the South who died last year in Binghamton, New York, where he taught. It is altogether in keeping with his life that his last book, on Denmark Vesey, is dedicated to Bobby Seale and the memory of Fred Hampton, and that royalties from it are going to the Black Panther Party and the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Although limited by the format of a series to fewer than 200 pages, Starobin included an impressive number of primary and secondary sources concerning Vesey the most important of which is a long excerpt from the “Official Report of the Trials” of Vesey and his co-conspirators. There are also selections from contemporary letters, pamphlets, and newspapers, a few historical accounts of the Vesey plot, and a brief but perceptive introductory essay.

Henry Tragle, a former World War II tank commander and strictly an amateur historian, has attempted a more ambitious task—the collection of all extant primary documents concerning Nat Turner. It should be said at once that he has produced the most important single work ever published on the Turner rebellion. Tragle’s research is an example of historical detective work at its best. Over a period of two years, he made several trips to Southampton County, painstakingly reconstructing the exact path of the rebels and interviewing blacks and whites who might shed light on the local traditions which surround Turner’s name.

His book contains many contemporary sources, including selections from sixteen newspapers, the trial record of Turner and the other rebels, the diary and correspondence of Virginia’s Governor John Floyd, and the “Confessions” Turner dictated to the white lawyer Thomas R. Gray while awaiting trial. There is also a generous sampling of the historical literature on Turner. Aside from the Confessions, virtually all the documents are here published for the first time. Moreover, in piecing together the exact hour-by-hour chronology of the uprising, Tragle made ingenious use of other contemporary records, including militia reports, deeds, death and marriage certificates, and manuscript census returns.

Tragle seems to have succeeded in unearthing just about everything we are likely to know about Nat Turner’s uprising. Yet neither he nor Starobin is fully able to overcome the difficulties inherent in studying slave rebellions. A closer look at the Vesey plot may illustrate the problem. There is no document about Vesey equivalent in importance to Turner’s lengthy Confessions. Yet at the Vesey trials, several conspirators gave detailed testimony about the origin, size, and aims of the plot, and the character of its leader.

Vesey emerges from the contemporary evidence as a strong-willed, charismatic leader. He had read widely, knew a great deal about the Missouri debates in Congress and the Santo Domingo revolution of the 1790s. A prosperous member of Charleston’s free black community and a master carpenter, Vesey, by force of character, had made himself widely known among the city’s black population.

According to slaves who testified at his trial, Vesey had been actively recruiting conspirators since the winter of 1821-22 and had set July 14, 1822, as the date of his uprising. In late May, however, William Paul, one of Vesey’s lieutenants, attempted to recruit the domestic slave of a prominent Charlestonian, who promptly informed to his master. As a result, Paul was arrested and the authorities slowly amassed the evidence which enabled them to round up the leading plotters in mid-June. At the trials of the conspirators, black witnesses spoke of a far-flung conspiracy, of caches of muskets and gun-powder, and of detailed plans for columns of slaves to attack the city from surrounding plantations.

And yet, largely because the plot was betrayed and suppressed, the evidence seems insubstantial. Was Charleston saved at the last minute from a carefully planned insurrection, or was all that existed, as the historian Richard Wade has concluded, “loose talk” among a number of slaves, and hysterical fears among the whites? That some blacks may have discussed rebellion Wade admits, but he doubts that they did anything concrete about it, pointing out that no lists of conspirators or caches of arms were found.

Starobin argues, convincingly in my judgment, that a plot did in fact exist. He notes that the testimony of the important witnesses is consistent on almost all major points, and the three weeks which elapsed between the arrest of William Paul and the other arrests gave Vesey plenty of time to destroy evidence. Still, even in this, the best documented of all slave conspiracies, there is an inconclusiveness in the evidence, and thus uncertainty about what really happened.

In Turner’s case, events speak for themselves—no one can doubt that a rebellion was planned and begun and that on August 22, 1831, the rebels killed approximately sixty whites. Yet, even after collecting so much evidence, Tragle himself admits that “we know almost nothing of the historical Nat Turner in any context other than as the leader of a band of rebel slaves.” The question posed by a Richmond newspaper in 1831—“Who is this Nat Turner?”—remains largely unanswered, and may be unanswerable. The documents collected by Tragle add only a few tantalizing hints to the information about Turner contained in the Confessions.

The most revealing newspaper report mentions that Turner had once been whipped for predicting that the slaves would gain their freedom, and notes only in passing his wife as having been forced to give up Turner’s “papers…under the lash.” It also comments on the small size of Turner’s initial following—the rebellion began with only seven men—and adds that Turner told the group he had intentionally avoided communicating his plans to a larger number, since “the negroes had frequently attempted similar things, confided their purpose to several, and that it always leaked out.” (This casts doubt on the traditional view which contrasts Vesey’s careful planning with Turner’s seemingly spontaneous uprising. Turner, aware of the danger of betrayal, may have been a more astute strategist than we have believed. The very comprehensiveness of a plot like Vesey’s virtually ensured its betrayal.)

Tragle, of course, can hardly be blamed for the paucity of direct evidence about Turner himself and the size, scope, and ultimate objective of the rebellion. Contemporary reports refer to Turner’s “papers,” including a list of his men, a map of Southampton County, and a paper “filled with hieroglyphical characters,” but these have long since disappeared. So has Governor Floyd’s collection of “all the papers in relation to the Insurrection,” which he turned over to the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and which were probably destroyed. In the absence of such materials, historians have been forced to rely almost exclusively on the Confessions, but Tragle raises some doubts regarding even that pivotal document. Tragle offers evidence that the white lawyer Gray may well have come to his conclusions about the rebellion before he even questioned Turner, and finds that it is impossible to read the Confessions and know for certain “where Gray stops and Nat begins.”

Indeed, the evidence collected by Tragle tells us much more about whites than blacks, more about the reactions of Americans, North and South, to Turner’s uprising than about Turner himself. The revolt sparked a panic which spread as far south as Louisiana and Alabama, and rekindled fears which ran deep in the Southern psyche. As one resident of Richmond wrote to the press, the rebellion raised the question, “if the slaves in that county would murder the whites, whether they are not as ready to do it in any other county in the state.” More simply another Virginian observed, “A Nat Turner might be in any family.”

These fears inspired a massacre of scores of slaves in Southampton in the days following the rebellion, and the rounding up of suspicious free blacks and slaves throughout Virginia and North Carolina. Once the panic had subsided, Virginians turned to searching out the causes of the rebellion. Not surprisingly, they blamed outside agitators. The leading target was William Lloyd Garrison, whose militant The Liberator had begun publication in Boston a few months earlier. In spite of Garrison’s professed pacifism and his conviction that moral suasion was the correct road to abolition, he was denounced ferociously in the South. There is, in fact, no evidence that Turner ever saw a copy of The Liberator. Far from inspiring Turner, Garrison was himself partly created by him—or at least achieved notoriety through Turner.

The most striking outcome of the Turner uprising was a debate unique in Southern history. For the last time, Virginians openly discussed the possibility of ending slavery. There is an enduring myth in historical literature that Nat Turner killed a budding abolitionist movement in Virginia and closed off debate on slavery. In reality, the remarkable debates of January and February, 1832, in the Virginia legislature could not have occurred without him. As one Richmond newspaper observed, “Nat Turner, and the blood of his innocent victims have conquered the silence of fifty years.”

The Virginia debates ended with the defeat of anti-slavery resolutions, but they were a crucial moment in Southern history. Moreover the debates contain interesting discussions of the extent and implications of the Turner uprising. It is to be regretted that, with the exception of an outdated article and a legislative petition or two, Tragle’s material contains nothing about the debates. Nor does he include any contemporary black perspectives on Turner, although these are available in the letters of black abolitionists and in fugitive slave narratives which offer graphic descriptions of the impact of the rebellion, and the white reprisals, on Virginia slaves. It is a pity that having done so much Tragle did not do more. He neither suggests what new approaches and techniques might help to resolve some of the problems of investigating slave rebellions, nor places Turner in history by assessing his revolt within a larger view of slavery, slave rebellion, and American and black history.

Nonetheless, the evidence presented in these books does suggest some interesting conclusions about slave rebellion. Outright revolt was much less frequent in this country—and less extensive when it did occur—than in other slave societies of the Western Hemisphere, particularly Brazil and the West Indies. The smaller proportion of blacks in the total population in the United States, the relatively early ending of the African slave trade, and the unity of the white population in defense of racism and slavery, all made the prospects for rebellion bleak indeed. The odds against an uprising are graphically shown in a statistic unearthed by Tragle. Of the 700,000 whites in Virginia in 1830 (there were 300,000 blacks), 100,000 were in the state militia. Of course, this was largely a paper force, but the figure justifies Tragle’s conclusion that “Virginia was an armed and garrisoned state.” It also helps to explain the South’s confidence thirty years later in the success of secession, for did not their militia greatly outnumber the federal army?

In spite of the panic which followed the Vesey and Turner rebellions, responsible Southern leaders knew there was virtually no possibility of a sustained, successful uprising. Governor Floyd and his North Carolina counterpart, Montfort Stokes, were disgusted by the “cowardly” behavior of many of their citizens, as was the governor of South Carolina in 1822. It is significant that the only trial testimony suppressed in the “Official Report” of the Vesey conspiracy was one slave’s reference to a rebel plan to poison the wells of slaveowners. For poisoning represented an altogether different type of resistance, which was far more prevalent in the South than outright rebellion. This “day to day resistance” included breaking tools, feigning illness, doing shoddy work, stealing, more violent acts like arson and poisoning, and running away. Rebellion was the ultimate form of resistance, but it could also act as a stimulus for the day to day variety. Among the letters which poured into Governor Floyd’s office in September and October, 1831, were reports that there was an unusual “degree of impudence…in the deportment of our slaves” in the aftermath of the Southampton uprising.

Finally there was a form of resistance which historians have only recently begun to investigate—the slaves’ attempts to create an independent culture and community, beyond the direct control of their masters. Again, the relation between cultural resistance and rebellion is complex; in a sense, such attempts to maintain a separate culture can be seen as an alternative to a Turner-style uprising, yet it is also true that men like Turner and Vesey were themselves deeply rooted in their local black culture, especially in the church. That black religion could be a stimulant to resistance is a theme which runs throughout the Vesey and Turner documents.

Vesey and almost all his lieutenants were leaders and deacons in the African Church of Charleston, and several plotters testified to Vesey’s intense religious convictions. “His general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery,” said one; another added, “He studies the Bible a great deal and tries to prove from it that slavery and bondage is against the Bible.” In the Vesey plot, African religion too was represented, in the person of Gullah Jack, an Angolese with doctor who, it was said, had the power to make the rebels invulnerable.

As for Turner, the most cursory glance at his Confessions reveals a man for whom religion was the center of life, and who during the 1820s developed a religious commitment which bordered on fanaticism. As a self-appointed Baptist preacher, Turner had an immense influence among Southampton’s slaves and, after experiencing a series of religious visions, he became convinced of his divine mission to lead the “fight against the Serpent.” Turner’s language is that of apocalyptic Christianity; we can probably accept as genuine his statement to Gray, “It was plain to me that the Savior was to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.”

In both Charleston and Southampton, whites were unable to comprehend why their slaves had rebelled. Virginians prided themselves on their lenient treatment of their slaves, compared with the more brutal conditions of the Lower South. “No one had dreamed of any such event happening in any part of Virginia,” said one newspaper, and if it were to occur anywhere, surely it would not be in Southampton, an area of small farms in which the typical slaveholder owned only three or four blacks and overseers were almost unheard of. Turner himself acknowledged that he had no cause to complain of harsh treatment.

Similarly, slaves in Charleston and other Southern urban centers had considerably more freedom than plantation laborers. The “Official Report” of the Vesey conspiracy noted with puzzlement, “Not only were the leaders of good character and very much indulged by their owners, but this was very generally the case with all who were convicted.” Vesey, of course, was free, and most of his lieutenants were highly skilled craftsmen and mechanics, many of whom were hired out by their masters and enjoyed considerable economic independence. Urban slaves were, as Richard Wade has written, “more advanced, engaged in higher tasks, more literate, more independent, and less servile than those on plantations,” and one is tempted to conclude that it was just such skilled and self-reliant slaves—and certainly Turner as a literate preacher fits the pattern—who had the ability to become rebel leaders.

The organization of a conspiracy may well have had the greatest chance of success in cities or non-plantation rural areas, where the slave system was not so tightly enforced as in the plantation black belt. The Vesey and Turner documents both contain evidence of slaves leaving their masters’ premises without permission, holding illegal religious meetings with little white opposition: there is even evidence that most of the white males in Turner’s neighborhood were attending a camp meeting in North Carolina at the time of the uprising (which explains why so many of Turner’s sixty-odd victims were women and children). Eric Wolf’s conclusion about twentieth-century peasant wars—that “a rebellion cannot start from a situation of complete impotence”—suggests why most rebellions in American history took place outside the most oppressive areas of the South.

And yet, how then do we explain the rebellion of an estimated 500 slaves in Louisiana in 1811, in the heart of the sugar plantations? What seems in any case clear is that American historians have not yet attempted to formulate any general explanation of slave resistance, of where it is likely to occur, the types of slaves likely to become its leaders or betrayers, and the relationship between the various forms of resistance. We have no theory, for example, to help us interpret whether the sixty or eighty slaves who joined Turner should be considered a small or a large number, or why a handful of slaves at the home of one Dr. Blunt, armed by their master, helped to resist the rebels.

The reasons for our lack of perspective go beyond the difficulties involved in writing the history of slave rebellion. Most American historians have not taken slave rebellion seriously enough to try to overcome the difficulties, or if they have, they have considered it solely for its current political implications. The curious fate of the only full-scale work on the subject, Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts, is a case in point. Aptheker’s book has been either flatly accepted or flatly rejected by historians, depending on whether they find his conclusions politically useful. But no one has attempted the difficult work of refuting, sustaining, or modifying Aptheker’s conclusions. Thirty years since the publication of his book, historians are still not agreed whether Vesey and Turner were representatives of a vital dimension of the slave experience, or remarkable exceptions to an over-all passivity among slaves.

On the immense consequences of both conspiracies, however, historians should be able to agree. In Prelude to Civil War, William Freehling has explored how the Vesey plot affected South Carolina’s politics during the 1820s and 1830s. No such comprehensive treatment of Turner’s influence has yet been done, but the years 1831 and 1832 were a turning point in the history of slavery. With the emergence of a militant abolitionist movement in the North, the Turner uprising, and the Virginia debates, slavery seemed under attack both from within and without. In the short run the attack failed, but it profoundly affected the subsequent development of the Jacksonian political system, accelerated the drift toward war, and influenced the evolution of black culture and politics. For all these reasons, Vesey and Turner, far from being accidental figures, intruders in history, were pivotal to nineteenth-century America.

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