The alleged conspiracy called on the slaves and free blacks of Charleston and environs to seize local munitions stores and slaughter the white population before leaving on ships bound for Haiti.
In the summer of 1822, Vesey and 34 slaves were hanged in what was probably the largest execution carried out by a civilian court in the United States. (A military court hanged 38 Dakota Indians after the Minnesota Sioux uprising of 1862.) The Charleston court ordered 37 other slaves to be sold into exile, probably to Cuba.
Michael Johnson, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, accepted the conventional wisdom when he set out to review three books about Vesey that were published in 1999. But when he went to the archives to check a discrepancy in a date, all kinds of information tumbled out.
Johnson has concluded that not only was Vesey innocent of organizing a slave rebellion, but that no such rebellion ever existed -- except in the minds of members of the court who, egged on by an politically ambitious mayor, coerced testimony from a handful of frightened slaves and free blacks to convict the others.
"Historians have treated the testimony of witnesses at the trial as if they were being interviewed by anthropologists" instead of what developed into "a horrible carnival of violence" that shocked even its perpetrators, Johnson told United Press International.
Johnson details his findings in a forthcoming article in the William and Mary Quarterly. In it he explains that 19th-century abolitionists took the court's conclusions about Vesey's leadership at face value while rejecting its defense of slavery and white supremacy.
Historians, as well, "have wanted to accept the court's judgment that these guys were ready to start a slave insurrection, but they wanted to reverse the morality," Johnson said. "What the court deplores as horrible, the historians said, 'Yeah! You guys are great.' "
Scholars have rejected the argument of Richard C. Wade, the lone dissenter from this case of mass suggestibility. In 1964, writing in the Journal of Southern History, Wade pointed out discrepancies between the "confessions" of two slaves in the official report and accounts that happened to have survived in the private papers of white planters.
"Many of these owners are just bitterly angry about this whole thing," Johnson told UPI, basing his comments on documents he found in the state archives. "They're absolutely convinced that this is a hoax and that their slaves weren't involved in anything."
The court's operational question was not "Were there conspirators?" but rather "Who were the conspirators?" Proceeding from this assumption, it used intimidation, beatings and the threat of death to collect testimony. "The court's power over life or death -- superceding the power even of the slave's master -- gave black witnesses a powerful incentive to try to say what the white court wanted to hear," Johnson wrote.
Suspects were first confined to the city workhouse, where Charlestonians routinely sent their slaves for beatings.
"The palpable menace of the court's power underscores the courage of the 45 men who pleaded not guilty during the July trials. Just as remarkable, 83 percent of the men arrested did not succumb to the court's desire to hear incriminating testimony. Only 23 of the 131 men arrested cooperated with the court by testifying against other defendants."
Unarrested witnesses "tiptoed through a dangerous minefield" in trying to tell the court what it wanted to hear. "Their testimony was valuable to the degree that it revealed their knowledge of a conspiracy, but knowing about a plot could easily implicate them in the eyes of the court."
Those who basically said: "It's not me; it's them," survived. The court granted them immunity from prosecution and made them what Johnson calls "pet witnesses."
Six arrested "star witnesses" furnished more than 90 percent of the testimony during the July sessions, and three "superstars" provided three-fourths of that. Their testimony had devastating results for the men they implicated.
"All the arrested witnesses had every reason to fear for their lives. Unlike the pet witnesses, they lacked immunity. ... (They) tried to make the best of their desperate situation by confessing their own involvement, testifying against other defendants who claimed to be uninvolved, and throwing themselves at the mercy of the court. ...
"Allowing for exceptions, black men who did not admit guilt were executed on testimony from those who admitted their knowledge or guilt but were not executed. The men who gave the least incriminating evidence -- who usually said nothing at all -- received the greatest punishment. The men who gave the most incriminating evidence, much of it self-incriminating, received the least punishment short of acquittal."
Incredibly, the efforts of two leading South Carolinians to stop the hysteria only spurred the court to more judicial killings. As the trials began in June, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson published in the Charleston Courier an account of a baseless scare that had occurred a decade or so earlier.
"Under the title 'Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement,' (William) Johnson recalled political leaders' overreaction to a hoax that had hinted of an impending slave insurrection in 1810 or 1811." In that case, a slave was whipped severely to extort a confession and threatened with instant death by saber stroke when he saved his life by implicating a sleeping slave named Billy.
Billy was convicted of inciting an insurrection by a hastily convened court of magistrates. Billy's thunderstruck master roused a judge to appeal, but (in the words of the Supreme Court justice) the "presiding magistrate actually conceived his dignity attacked and threatened impeachment against the judge, who, as an individual, had interfered only to prevent a legal murder." Billy was executed.
In a macabre re-enactment, the justice's story did not check the folly of the 1822 court, but energized it to commit its own "legal murders." Its members demanded that Justice Johnson retract his insinuations and exchanged barbed accusations with him that quickly became public.
Vesey and five other men were hanged on July 2, and 28 more "conspirators" went to the gallows before the end of the month. "This record of judicial energy ... suggests that the court set out to show William Johnson and his ilk that the insurrection conspiracy was no illusion and that the executed black men were bloodthirsty rebels," the historian wrote.
Justice Johnson's ilk included South Carolina Gov. Thomas Bennett, his brother-in-law and close friend. The governor at first withheld public criticism because his most trusted household slaves were among the first who were arrested, and he did not want to seem self-interested. But in private he lamented the court's secret sessions, where men were sentenced to death without being able to confront their accusers, and testimony was accepted in violation of the "rules which universally obtain among civilized nations."
But rather than causing the court to exercise greater caution, the criticisms galvanized the magistrates to prove that they knew what they were doing. "No proof could be more convincing than identifying, convicting, and punishing additional conspirators," Michael Johnson wrote.
The historian told UPI that both black and white witnesses testified on behalf of the accused. "So it's not a case in which all white people line up in favor of the trials. There are black people and white people on both sides of the trials," he said.
Johnson identified Charleston Mayor James Hamilton Jr. as the driving force behind the trials. "This whole thing would never have happened without him. In effect, he out-maneuvers the governor and the Supreme Court justice.
"Basically, he wants to be president," the scholar explained. "This is his path to power, and actually it works pretty well. By September of 1822, he has taken his mentor's place in Congress, so he's in the House of Representatives and serves until 1829."
Hamilton became governor of South Carolina in 1830 and leader of the nullification forces in the state. (Nullification was the doctrine that states have the right to declare null and void any federal law that they deem unconstitutional.) He aspired to be the successor of John C. Calhoun.
Hamilton was killed in a steamboat accident off the coast of Galveston, Texas, in 1857. "He gives his life jacket to a lady and goes down with the ship," Johnson said.