Monday, September 9, 2002

Vesey's Rebellion & The Controversy Over It

Vesey's Rebellion & The Controversy Over It

John Rosenberg draws a parallel between conventional wisdom with respect to the Denmark Vesey slave revolt of 1822 and the Bellesiles scandal. Having read Michael P. Johnson's William & Mary Quarterly article and the responses to it, I am not sure that I quite buy this parallel.

Johnson's claim is that historians have been too willing to believe in a vast slave conspiracy to rise up against their masters, even when the evidence consists of confessions which seem to have been sometimes tortured out of slaves, and other times coerced out of them by the threat of death. Johnson has an important point here, and I will tell you that I share his concern that the desire to find heroic slaves willing to risk all for their liberty may have caused historians to read into the evidence what they want to find.

Black history in the last twenty years has been infected with the doctrine of "agency." Once upon a time, historians, dependent largely on written sources by whites, saw black slaves as little more than pieces on the chessboard, moved and directed by masters. "Agency" is the notion that slaves, through passive resistance, manipulation, playing sick, use of contraceptives, abortifacients, infanticide, individual murders, and rebellion, influenced their lives and their relationships with each other, with masters, and with the larger white society.

It would be utterly foolish to think otherwise--but I have increasingly seen this notion of "agency" reach the point in some black history that you wonder who were the masters, and who were the slaves. As with most pendulum swings in the writing of history, we seem to be past the midpoint on this one.

Johnson also points to a recent collection of primary sources by Edward A. Pearson that combines and misquotes--extensively--trial transcripts and depositions associated with the conspiracy. Johnson has done a valuable service to the historical community by demonstrating that Pearson's book is so incredibly flawed as to be dangerous.

Unlike Bellesiles, Pearson's response doesn't play for time: "I plead guilty to his charge that my transcription of the trial record is deeply flawed. He is correct, therefore, to alert the historical community to its unreliability as a source, providing overwhelming evidence about material inadvertently introduced or omitted in my version. Moreover, Johnson's discussion of the trial record effectively demonstrates the ways in which I inadvertently corrupted the document. Although I openly admit to these mistakes for which I take sole responsibility and for which I unreservedly apologize, I should note that they were made not with malice aforethought, in some misguided and devious effort to load and distort the record in a way that makes my own interpretation of the plot unimpeachable, but through, as Johnson notes, 'unrelenting carelessness' (p. 926). "

Concerning Johnson's other claim, however, I am not completely persuaded, and this is another area where the parallel to the Bellesiles scandal doesn't work. Johnson raises some very important points about the unreliability of tortured and coerced testimony, and the peculiar situation in which a blatantly racist court that clearly knew what it wanted to hear is trusted by modern historians. Douglas Egerton, in other otherwise...hmmm..."edgey" and not terribly persuasive response observes, "If historians had to rely only on statements willingly made to officials in open, democratic courts that lacked any racial or class bias--as if such a venue has ever existed in any society--the available scholarship on the law and popular resistance to it would be thin indeed."

If you find this subject interesting, read all the responses to Johnson's claims, as well as Johnson's response to the comments. I don't think this matter is all that settled, but it will certainly make me a little more careful in how I teach the significance of Vesey's Rebellion.

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