How do you prove that something happened when the only testimony about the event comes from people who weren’t directly involved, and who may have been under duress at the time of their testimony?
That’s a question that confronts historians who study the story of Denmark Vesey, a black carpenter who bought his freedom after winning the lottery and then secretly plotted a slave rebellion in Charleston, S.C., in 1822. Though the rebellion never actually happened — a slave spilled the beans about it to authorities before it could happen — Vesey and 34 slaves, including some from the household of the state’s governor, were tried and executed for “attempting to raise an insurrection.”
However, because testimony about the plans for the revolt from Vesey himself cannot be found, historians have been left to draw conclusions about the event from the testimonies of people who knew him, leading modern-day scholars to question whether a detailed plan for such a rebellion even existed. (As with many investigations of conspiracies, experts are skeptical of the quality of and reliability of evidence, especially if it was extracted under stress.)
A new book out this week — The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History, edited by Douglas R. Egerton, Professor of History at Le Moyne College, and Robert L. Paquette, Professor of History at Hamilton College — aims to prove that even the revolt itself didn’t actually happen, the plot did exist, and that it was the most sophisticated collective plot against slavery in the U.S.
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Olivia B. Waxman