- The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History ed. by Douglas R. Egerton and Robert L. Paquette
Compiling and editing historical documents is difficult work. When your subject left behind no documents written in his own hand, when the extent of his travels through the Atlantic world is exceeded only by the broad scope of his impact and legacy, and when the historiography surrounding him is fraught with controversy, the task is nearly impossible. All of this marks the work of Douglas R. Egerton and Robert L. Paquette in producing The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History as a monumental achievement. In more than eight hundred pages, Egerton and Paquette have put together an annotated document collection that details the context, events, and influence of Denmark Vesey’s planned 1822 revolution in Charleston. The resulting volume comprises essential reading for understanding not just race and slavery but also the entirety of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world.
Taking a long view of the Vesey affair, Egerton and Paquette divide their collection into six parts. Part I, “Preconditions,” contains documents related to Vesey’s early life in the circum-Caribbean, African-descended people’s resistance to slavery and racial control in early [End Page 383] Charleston, and the history of black religion in the city. Part II, “Proceedings,” comprises materials regarding the discovery and disruption of the insurrection plot. Part III—the bulk of the collection—includes two of the major trial transcripts and reports produced following the summer of 1822. Part IV offers other contemporary accounts of the conspiracy, while Parts V and VI detail the aftermath and memory of the conspiracy in South Carolina, the United States, and throughout the Atlantic world. While compiling and editing only the documents relating immediately to the conspiracy would have alone been a substantial and worthwhile task, the depth and richness of this volume comes from the editors’ ability to bring in evidence from a broad geographic and temporal scope, providing essential intellectual and cultural context for the events of 1822.
Part III of the volume, “Trials,” makes the most significant contribution to the scholarly conversation about the Vesey affair. For decades, historians have debated whether or not the insurrection conspiracy truly existed. Much of the controversy stemmed from particular readings of various courtroom documents created in the months and years following the trial of Vesey and his would-be co-conspirators. As Egerton and Paquette lay out clearly in the Editorial Statement that precedes their introduction, the trials in the summer of 1822 produced four distinct documents, each based on the no-longer-extant original courtroom records made contemporaneously with the interrogations. Two of the four were trial transcripts, prepared following the trial at the request of the governor and several months later presented to the South Carolina House and Senate, respectively. In addition to these transcripts, individuals involved in the court proceedings published two accounts of the trials in the months that followed, the longer of the two being the Official Report written by attorneys Lionel Henry Kennedy and Thomas Parker, Jr.—published in no small part as an attempt to assuage public fears and “demonstrate the mastery of Carolina whites over the slave population” in the tense weeks following the discovery of the plot (155). Though alike in many ways and each based on the same set of court documents, these four accounts are not identical and the use and citation of one over another has been the source of considerable controversy. Egerton and Paquette wisely have chosen to publish the two most complete accounts—the Official Report and the Senate transcript—in their entirety, supplemented by footnoted references to the other two documents as necessary. [End Page 384]
Egerton and Paquette say little about the possibility that the affair was an episode grounded primarily—and perhaps exclusively—in white paranoia and fear of racial violence. By their account, “no white notable in South Carolina in 1822 . . . doubted the existence of an insurrectionary plot”; they debated only its extent...