Reconfiguring the Old South: Solving the Problem of Slavery, 1787–1838

Teaching the Article
Exercise 5

Denmark Vesey Insurrection Scare

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In June 1822 slave informants tipped Charleston whites to rumors of an insurrection plot of significant proportions. By the time the city’s investigators and its so-called trial court had finished their work, most white Charlestonians believed they had uncovered a large-scale plot led by a free black carpenter named Denmark Vesey. Charleston authorities concluded that the Vesey plot projected not only an uprising of city blacks, slave and free, but also the arrival of slaves from the countryside to join the insurrection. The resulting investigation and trials resulted in the execution of 35 blacks, slave and free, and the deportation of 32 others. The guilt of those convicted—even if judged according to the standards whites typically used to determine the guilt of slaves and free blacks in the 1820s, much less those of modern jurisprudence—remains almost impossible for historians to determine.

In the weeks and months following the scare, a series of public meetings, published letters to the editor, newspaper editorials, grand jury presentments, pamphlets, petitions, and memorials allowed an alarmed white public in Charleston and the surrounding Low Country to analyze the aborted insurrection and to recommend remedial action. But commentators did not agree on exactly what action was needed. In August 1822 Charleston’s mayor, James Hamilton, a hero in the minds of the city’s white population because of his success in quashing the revolt before it began, blamed the supposed plot on lenient treatment of slaves by indulgent masters. Hamilton traced the leniency to paternalistic attitudes among Christian masters. Even more pointedly, Hamilton blamed evangelical interest in teaching slaves to read and write for heightened unrest among Low Country slaves.

The Low Country’s Christian community quickly proved willing and able to defend itself. At the head of the Vesey-era Charleston clergy stood Richard Furman, pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church and the preeminent southern Baptist of his generation. Furman fervently defended the efforts of white churches to evangelize slaves and insisted that nothing had been discovered to indicate that “the meetings of the religious Negroes approved by the churches to which they belong, for reading the Scriptures, learning their Catechisms, and the general purpose of Devotion and religious Improvement, have been in any way Instrumental in producing or advancing the late horrid Design.”


  1. How does the diagnosis of the causes of the insurrection plot presented by the anonymous Native Citizen in the Charleston press resemble that presented by James Hamilton, the city’s mayor, in his pamphlet? How do their diagnoses differ?
    1. A Native Citizen, “To the Members of the Legislature,” Charleston Courier, Nov. 13, 1822.
  2. How do the legislative remedies and preventive measures outlined by Native Citizen resemble those advanced by James Hamilton? How do they differ?
    1. James Hamilton, Negro Plot: An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection.... (1822),
  3. How do the analysis and recommendations of the Baptist leader Richard Furman differ from those advanced by both Hamilton and Native Citizen?
    1. Richard Furman, Exposition, (1823), .

Further Reading