This chapter explores the emergence and application of the theory that the revolutionary ideals of autonomy, liberty, and freedom that animated the age of revolution were not only a point of celebration for patriots and liberals across the Atlantic world, but also a cause for apprehension and vigilance. The powerful currents of radical individualism and personal autonomy that circulated during the final quarter of the eighteenth century did not decelerate after the inauguration of republics in 1776 or 1789. They continued, and once the racial limits to the supposedly universal discourses of freedom and liberty became increasingly central to the practical implementation of new political arrangements in the North Atlantic – and superbly confirmed by the nonrecognition of Haiti (politically and intellectually) – these currents, when appropriated by those increasingly outside history, became dangerous undercurrents. However, the circulation of these ideas, or rather the circulation of the notion that these ideas were truly universal, was not necessarily understood or conceptualized as occurring. The dangerous undercurrents of the revolutionary (black) Atlantic only became visible, only became definable and preventable, as the racial limits of autonomy and political modernity became inscribed in American political, social, and legal life. In other words, identifying the dangerous undercurrents of Atlantic history was a process, pieced together as various places wrestled with the highly variable application of the age of revolution’s central tenets to nonwhite peoples.
These processes were spatialized. Many nineteenth-century white Americans interpreted the push for liberty by American revolutionaries as an internal, naturally evolving process running along a general pathway towards, depending on the person, the Constitution, the millennium, or Jacksonian Democracy. But this process of internalization of revolutionary “success” on the American scene occurred with a simultaneous externalization of black revolutionary ideologies. For many white Americans, black revolutionaries came from without, from beyond, from places that had imperfectly applied revolutionary ideals altogether and thereby corrupted their political culture and historical trajectory. For them, constitutional, liberal modernity over time came to be imaged as a white accomplishment; alternative conceptions were misshapen, deformed, unhealthy, pathological, and dangerous, but this ideological move occurred over time and was not present in the opening decades of the Early Republic.
Yet, for many white Americans, particularly those who subscribed to the emerging “positive good” school of proslavery ideology, the outside agitation, the moral contagion, of misguided (read multiracial) republicanism was the primary threat to an otherwise harmonious slave system, a system that explained for them America’s rapid ascent in Atlantic world geopolitics. Black autonomy was antithetical to this emerging paradigm, and, so, Southern powerholders pathologized it, externalized it, and began considering ways to prevent the aberration from being introduced. The moral contagion of black autonomy was a disease of a body politic and could cripple it in the same way a biological ailment could wreak havoc on an individual. But this ideological move, this identification of dangerous black outsiders, had to be reconciled with the fact that Atlantic relationships, in which black people were intimately involved, were vital to Southern prosperity.
For white South Carolinians of the 1790s, the great sea offered promises of wealth and material comfort. It brought short-staple cotton seeds and the designs for Whitney’s machine which would make cotton so valuable. The Atlantic also deposited in Charleston saltwater slaves from West Africa and the West Indies, who supplied the labor source so vital for the expansion of rice and then cotton production. Slave merchants in Charleston found their human merchandise in great demand as the cotton revolution swept the Carolina Lowcountry, Upcountry, and beyond. The Atlantic also brought traders and merchants from around the littorals, and these men carried with them the latest wares and news, and exchanged the former for the cotton that drove the textile industries in Britain and the northern United States. The economic explosion of cotton was entirely attributable to the Atlantic Ocean, which brought the seeds, the innovation, the labor, the investors, and the consumers to the Palmetto State. Atlantic exchanges crowned King Cotton.
But the 1790s also unleashed disturbing undercurrents in the Atlantic. The French and Haitian revolutions upset religious, economic, political, and racial hierarchies, and they reinvigorated some of the lingering but unanswered questions regarding race, liberty, and equality broached during the American Revolution. In the 1790s, the South Carolina elite wanted nothing to do with the political, economic, and racial leveling that came to be associated with the Jacobins in France and their darker-skinned counterparts in St. Domingue. Beyond the resounding ideologies of those revolutionaries, which theoretically inverted the supposed natural order of society, their actions revealed a profound dedication to manifesting that new social order, regardless of the costs. Most vexing was the contemporaneousness of the two revolutions. What was occurring in Paris was not confined to Paris. It had not only spread to the French countryside, but it had crossed the Atlantic and provided a cohesive and thoroughly modern ideological platform on which the organic slave rebellion could implant itself. The revolutions in Paris and St. Domingue were in dialogue, and the very existence of this conversation was enough to evoke concern among the Lowcountry gentry, as whispers of universal rights and racial equality might inspire local slaves to consider themselves American Jacobins. In other words, the French and Haitian revolutions were proving that revolutionary rhetoric, and revolution itself, was exportable across Atlantic waters. It was also multidirectional. While the American Revolution helped pave the road to the French Revolution, which in turn affected the Haitian Revolution, the Americans were now receiving revolutionary movements. Thus, the very same maritime highway that provided the avenue to wealth for white South Carolinians also had the capacity to transport a revolution capable of destroying Southern society.
One event in particular illustrates these dual, competing perceptions of the Atlantic world. In 1793, when the vessel Maria arrived in Charleston from Cap-Française, St. Domingue, it sparked fear that French and Haitian revolutionaries, especially a republican officer on board, might wreak havoc, as they were “apostle[s] of liberty for the blacks.” Anti-revolutionaries in Charleston, some of them refugees from France and St. Domingue, sought the support of local members of the Federalist Party in hopes of quarantining the Maria and thereby preventing the disembarkation of the dangerous ideologies of racial equality. French Royalists and moderates in Charleston employed cataclysmic language in describing the potential for bloodshed in South Carolina if the contents of the Maria were unloaded in Charleston. Though the Maria was allowed to enter the harbor, it was not allowed to dock. South Carolina Federalists, already in firm support of Britain in its war against the leaders of the French Republic, spearheaded the quarantine. They held a “meeting of citizens,” from which a proclamation was issued declaring that the vessel’s “crews, passengers, free negroes and people of color, do quit the harbour and state immediately.”
The powerful visual effect of the Maria sitting off the docks dovetailed with the rhetorical maneuvering of the Federalists to produce a general state of apprehension in Charleston. The malaise was difficult to contain or combat. A week after the proclamation, the governor of South Carolina, a pro-France Jeffersonian Republican, yielded to his adversaries’ position and issued a proclamation of his own. In it, he called for the eviction of all recently immigrated free blacks from St. Domingue, as “there are many characters amongst them, which are dangerous to [the] welfare and peace of the state.” While Maria continued to sit in the harbor, though at a safe distance, rumors circulated that local slaves and free blacks were in revolutionary motion, inspired by the proximity of potential allies and pressed to action by the governor’s proclamation. Though investigations unearthed no conspiracy, popular excitement surrounding the Maria and the anxiety of a potential slave revolt forced Francophile Republicans to concede to the pro-British Federalists and send off the Maria, even though the Sage of Monticello himself thought the rumors of invasion and upheaval were exaggerated, if not totally fabricated.
Yet, no sooner had the Maria set sail out of Charleston than the fear of insurrection vanished. The quarantining of the Maria was an aberration, a hiccup in the otherwise steady history of South Carolina’s engagement with the Atlantic world. Charleston continued to be, as it had been in the preceding century, a quintessential Atlantic port city, even when the health costs of trade soared. The importation of yellow fever and other illnesses was collateral damage, so to speak. South Carolinians appeared willing to gamble with epidemics for the rich rewards of distant markets. With the brief exception of the Maria’s quarantine, white South Carolinians appeared content to accept potential ideological contamination just as they gambled with biological contamination, both for the sake of commercial expansion.
In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, this steadfast dedication to open borders had profound effects for South Carolina and for Charleston especially. First and foremost, the explosion of cotton and the increasing need for additional slave labor to cultivate it led to the reopening of the transatlantic slave trade in 1803. For the next four years, South Carolina imported upwards of fifty thousand slaves from Africa, despite the popular perception that saltwater slaves were much more likely to instigate individual and collective acts of insubordination and insurrection. Congress’s decision to ban the trade effectively ended this massive wave of slave imports, but the end of this nefarious traffic did not otherwise inhibit South Carolina’s interaction with the broader Atlantic world.
By 1820, German and Swiss servants, English planters, West African slaves, West Indian free blacks, and members of several other cultures lived, worked, and otherwise congregated in the streets around the Charleston piers. Black and white, rich and poor, native and immigrant moved about in close proximity. Some of the wealthiest planters in the South made Charleston their home, choosing the eclectic atmosphere of the port city over their disease-ridden plantations in the interior. The attractiveness of Charleston’s sea breeze to wealthy plantation owners complemented the allure that Charleston’s booming economy had for the lower classes. In the early 1800s, Charleston’s population swelled, and the city’s economy grew in concert. Taverns and shops lined city streets, and visitors were quick to note the “sinful” and “avaricious” atmosphere of Charleston’s business districts in the midst of the cotton explosion. Watering holes and scores of working poor offset the more charming and aristocratic portions of the city, areas that “surpass in luxury … those of the other capitals of the United States” and on par with the “polished cities of other countries.”
Charleston had something for everyone, a modern Babel of sorts. The diversity in the social spectrum mirrored the variety in material culture available within the Charleston market as merchants hawked wares from around the Atlantic. The local Gazette advertised Bristol beer, Portuguese wines, Virginian tobacco, and, of course, slaves. Charleston tavern keepers and merchants accepted a host of international currencies. In 1822 ships leaving Charleston headed for Cuba, South America, Barbados, and London carrying cotton, rice, and other agricultural products. The people of Charleston understood well the cosmopolitanism of their city. That same year, the Charleston Mercury proclaimed with a touch of pride that in its city, “you may see in miniature all the nations of the world” as “the sounds of many languages meet your ear.” White Charlestonians in 1822 understood their city to be one of relative peace. Despite the occasional barroom brawl among drunken sailors, public violence was widely understood to be isolated in nature, a result of particular circumstances or the inevitable side effects of commercial success. They were certainly not emblematic of the sort of structural defect that might lead to intense social or racial friction, the sort of conflict that might threaten the social, economic, and political stability of the city.
Apparently, the soaring profits generated by the plantations and trading industries inspired a perception of general peace in the midst of rapid growth, the epitome of the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.” Hired-out slaves and free blacks were a constant sight in the city, but most Charlestonians considered their presence a boon, evidence that Charleston’s economy was doing well. The bustling economy of the 1810s had placed money in the pockets not only of plantation owners, merchants, and skilled white laborers, but those of free blacks and hired-out slaves as well. And while the laws of the city and South Carolina alike showed no real changes regarding slaves and free blacks, lax enforcement of existing regulations indicated a general relaxation of the rigid racial codes. Slave patrols around the city often overlooked the gatherings of slaves and free blacks in the taverns near the wharves. Despite existing curfew laws, patrolmen – often having a stake in businesses near the wharves, including the lounges and saloons open to people of color – refused to break up evening meetings of working men, including slaves, who were spending their hard-earned wages.
However, Charleston’s economic prosperity sputtered as the 1810s came to a close. The prohibition of the international slave trade proved to be dramatic, as Charleston had been the premier corridor through which transatlantic slaves were distributed to the rest of the slaveholding states. The loss of this market, combined with increasingly volatile cotton prices, slowed the pace of economic growth, with the cotton market bottoming out in 1824. The high prices that Charleston’s exports once demanded were surging downward, and the Panic of 1819 slowed investment even more. With job growth stunted, the population increases among urban slaves, free blacks, and unskilled whites translated into a tightening labor market. These groups began to compete with one another for scarce and coveted jobs, and this competition bred distrust. Whites complained that free blacks, hired-out slaves, and recent immigrants undercut them and caused a general decline in wages. The once-celebrated cosmopolitanism of Charleston began to show signs of wear; the rich ethnic mix started to rub certain workers the wrong way. What the Atlantic wrought was universally celebrated in times of feast but regrettable in times of famine.
But in 1822, the anxiety over economic decline could still be characterized as momentary. Perhaps, this sense of hope, general peace, and racial quiet persuaded Mayor James Hamilton to dismiss as mere conjecture a recent report regarding a possible slave conspiracy. But when a close friend informed Hamilton that his own slave confirmed the news regarding an imminent insurrection, the young mayor contacted the city council and the governor. Hamilton’s plan was to call out the militia covertly under cover of darkness so that not only would the rebellion be foiled, but the perpetrators caught in the act. Governor Thomas Bennett grudgingly acquiesced. When no signs of disquiet surfaced on the suspected night, Mayor Hamilton was convinced that the rebels had been tipped off, proving the extensiveness of the plot and the effectiveness of the conspirators’ communication network. Eager to save face (according to his detractors) or to ferret out the insurgents, but most likely both, Hamilton convened a special court to investigate the matter.
When this suspected conspiracy occurred, James Hamilton was just beginning a long political career that would include stints as a federal Congressman, state governor, the central political tactician of Nullification, a leading voice pushing for the annexation of Texas, and a rabid secessionist in 1850 and 1860. Before being elected as Charleston mayor, Hamilton was a partner in the former law office of the esteemed William Drayton, Jr., county judge and son of a Revolutionary hero and Continental Congressman. In 1822, Hamilton’s political acumen had combined with his marriage into a well-established Lowcountry family to garner the attention of many important local politicians. His future seemed bright, but this “rebellion” was a double-edged sword. If it could be shown that Hamilton acted rashly, unnecessarily exciting the public and expending public monies over the manic claims of a couple of ne’er-do-well slaves, then his budding political stature would be jeopardized. However, if the failed rebellion proved to be a narrowly averted race war, then Hamilton’s decision to call out the militia may have saved Charleston from ruin.
Luckily for Hamilton’s political prospects, the special court the city convened had significant legal leeway in investigating and prosecuting the alleged conspirators. Because South Carolina law, like all slave law, did not require courts to extend most due process protections to either slaves or free blacks, the investigators were able to arrest suspects upon flimsy evidence. Uncorroborated testimony and secret witnesses were enough to press charges and secure convictions. As a result, arrests quickly mounted with well over a hundred slaves and free blacks facing three municipal tribunals. One hundred twenty-six arrests yielded sixty-seven guilty verdicts, with nearly half of the convicts receiving the death penalty. In all, thirty-five were hanged, including one free black, the apparent ringleader, Denmark Vesey. The rest were either confined to the workhouse or banished from the state. Alarmingly, the main conspirators were disproportionately well off compared with most of the slaves and free blacks in the state. Skilled and affluent blacks, including the house servants of the most influential personalities in the state, had been the apparent masterminds. Those with the most to lose were prepared to sacrifice it, at least according to the findings of the court.
The responses to the conspiracy and trials were far from unanimous, even among the white elite of the city. Before many of the trials even began, William Johnson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and Federal Circuit Court Judge for South Carolina, objected to the interrogations and charged that city officials jumped to unwarranted conclusions regarding the plot. Johnson’s brother-in-law, Governor Thomas Bennett, objected as well. Despite his approval to use the militia in the frantic hours before the alleged insurrection was to commence, Bennett believed the quiet night was proof that no conspiracy was in the works. Perhaps also motivated by the fact that some his own slaves were incriminated in the plot, Bennett penned a letter to the public in which he criticized the trial court for operating behind closed doors and outside the public eye. The court’s “secrecy and seclusion” during the “incipient stages of inquiry” when “few of the circumstances were known to the community” only fostered unnecessary anxiety throughout Charleston.
Thomas Bennett and William Johnson held considerable sway in the Charleston community, but their popularity could not compete with the news of a massive slave uprising, especially as the Vesey tribunals churned out conviction after conviction. In the immediate aftermath of the executions, numerous accounts of the Vesey rebellion came off the Charleston presses, and collectively, they drowned out the cries for calm and moderation. It was these accounts, not those of Bennett and Johnson, that constructed the prevailing narrative of the Vesey revolt. One of the most popular and authoritative publications of the trials and rebellion came from none other than Mayor James Hamilton, who praised the investigation as well as the conclusions of the court. The conspiracy was real, the plan was nearly achieved, and Charleston barely escaped ruin. Hamilton reaffirmed the findings of the court, declaring each guilty verdict appropriate and every acquittal soundly decided.
One portion of Hamilton’s text is especially revealing. Hamilton inserted a half-page footnote at the bottom of the page on which he summarized Denmark Vesey’s trial. Hamilton explained how Vesey ended up in Charleston. “During the revolutionary war, captain Vesey, now an old resident of our city, commanded a ship that traded between St. Thomas and Cape François [St. Domingue].” The captain was in the business of transporting slaves, and on one of his voyages, he and his mates were “struck with the beauty, alertness, and intelligence” of a young, fourteen-year old boy. “They made [him] a pet,” Hamilton wrote, “[but] having no use for the boy, sold him among his other slaves.” The captain was amazed upon his return the following year to the future Black Republic as the boy, named Denmark, was returned to him because of his “epileptick fits [sic].” The law of the island stipulated that a slave trader was bound to exchange a previously sold slave for a new one if the original could be shown to be defective. According to Hamilton, Vesey once again became the human property of the captain, to whom he remained a “faithful” slave for well over a decade before a stroke of luck, a winning lottery ticket, allowed him to purchase his freedom. Since that day, Hamilton stated, Vesey had worked as a carpenter “distinguished for great strength and activity.” However, Hamilton explained that despite his work ethic, Denmark Vesey was “impetuous and domineering in the extreme, qualifying him for despotick rule [sic] … All his passions were ungovernable and savage; and to his numerous wives and children, he displayed the haughty and capricious cruelty of an eastern bashaw.”
When the “official” court record was published by two of the presiding magistrates, Hamilton’s summary of Vesey’s foreignness and cruelty received extensive corroboration. According to these “transcripts,” witnesses had attested to the fact that Vesey was to receive “a large army from Santo Domingo and Africa” to reinforce his position once the conspirators had cut off the Charleston Neck from the rest of the city. Though searches produced no documentary evidence, witnesses apparently swore that Vesey maintained extensive correspondence with Haitians and West Africans, and used free black sailors to conduct his clandestine, treacherous communications. One witness recalled a key conspirator mentioning, “Santo Domingo and Africa would come over and cut up the white people if we only made the motion.” Furthermore, Vesey allegedly cited Haiti as the model for the conspirators to follow in exacting their race war in South Carolina. He supposedly uttered, “it was for our safety not to spare one white skin alive, for this was the plan they pursued in Santo Domingo.” Together, Hamilton and the trial magistrates had uncovered, or rather constructed the discourse of, the dangerous undercurrents of the Atlantic world. Their version of the conspiracy, whether true to the actual events of the trials or not, was consumed as if it were.
What is striking about these two accounts of the uprising, and a fact often overlooked in the historiography, is the emphasis both placed on Vesey’s foreignness. His foreign birth, his stint on St. Domingue, and his travels around the Atlantic threatened to undermine Charleston’s racial peace. His revolutionary ideas were imported from without, and his designs were thrust upon otherwise faithful slaves and unsuspecting free blacks. Vesey maintained contact with Haitian rebels, and he spread stories of Haiti’s successful race war to an African-American community supposedly at peace with the racial hierarchy of urban South Carolina. The fact that free people of color and slaves with the most freedoms were among the ringleaders only reinforced this interpretation of Vesey’s alien ideas. Before the infestation of Vesey’s poisonous contagion, Charleston’s racial system operated without major incident, or so the post-insurrection narrative went. Only by crafting stories of black agency and anchoring them in his Atlantic experiences could Vesey cajole otherwise pacifistic and doting slaves into insubordination. In short, Vesey’s alien notions of racial equality and the susceptible ears of Charleston’s skilled slaves and free blacks precipitated the conspiracy. The fact that his chief co-conspirator, Gullah Jack, was an African-born conjurer only helped prove this notion. The benign Atlantic of the 1800s and 1810s had grown stormy once again. Fantastic stories of Haitian and West African soldiers descending on Charleston proved the immediate danger posed by Atlantic-savvy free people of color. This was the way white South Carolinians reconstructed and interpreted the events of the Vesey conspiracy.
Of course, the real problem with this narrative – stressing Charleston’s racial peace before Vesey and highlighting the ringleader’s foreignness – was the utter refusal to see the rebels as inspired by the racial reality of 1820s Charleston. Recent historians have shown convincingly that the emergence of a local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston provided an important resource to Charleston blacks. It created a critical space, a forum both to worship outside direct white oversight and to articulate and disseminate ideas about the tragedies of urban slave life and the degradations facing free people of color. The church also offered a ready-made language with which to understand the parishioners’ current predicament. Biblical references could be easily interpreted to justify the slaves’ violent exodus from the crushing power of Charleston’s white pharaohs. But the white narratives of the Vesey conspiracy effectively hid the desperation of local slaves. Claims of Vesey’s foreignness masked the fact that he lived in Charleston for decades. Implicitly, such narratives also absolved slaveholders of responsibility for the most heinous features of the slave system and removed their own culpability for slave unrest. In their stead, the promoters of this trope of outside agitation placed foreign people of color as the primary catalyst.
In the midst of these reports, the primary question facing white South Carolinians was simple: how could they effectively prevent another conspiracy? Unsurprisingly, free people of color became lightning rods for criticism. Edwin C. Holland, the editor of the Charleston Times, used his press as a vehicle for his ideas and penned a widely circulated pamphlet. Holland’s publication deduced of all free blacks, “They are, generally speaking, an idle, lazy, insolent set of vagabonds, who live by theft or gambling, or other means equally vicious and demoralizing.” Holland continued, “Their repugnant behavior are [sic] a perpetual source of irritation to ourselves, and a fruitful cause of dissatisfaction to our slaves.” Holland’s resolution to the “irritation” caused by this “detestable caste” was simple: “A law banishing them, male and female, from the State, under the penalty of death, or of perpetual servitude, upon their return.”
Holland’s prescriptions complemented those emanating from other members of the Charleston upper crust. While Holland hoped to destroy the potential audience for revolutionary ideologies, Thomas Pinckney thought a more thorough form of protection could be gleaned by silencing both the potential audience and broadcasters. However, he was dismayed at the prospects of severing South Carolina’s Atlantic interactions. “Nothing effectual can be done by us to obviate the influence of the example of St. Domingo,” for even if Charleston cut all contact with the island, “the circuitous intercourse through the Northern States” would still leave South Carolina susceptible to Haiti’s dangerous model. For Pinckney, Holland’s idea was the best option. The state’s only surefire method for avoiding insurrection would be to evict all black mechanics and urbanites from the state and replace them with white workers, reducing the black population in the state to illiterate and insulated plantation slaves. Pinckney admitted his proposal was immodest and ripe with extravagant costs, but those costs could not rival the value of security, which “cannot easily be made the subject of calculation.”
Along similar lines, Mayor Hamilton spearheaded a memorial to the South Carolina legislature. In it, the “Citizens of Charleston” outlined their own recommendations for legislative change. The first suggestion mirrored Holland and Pinckney by urging the legislature to “send out of our State, never again to return, all free persons of color.” Unlike Pinckney, though, the memorial acknowledged that a law evicting all free blacks was not a realistic course. Natural increase and manumission laws had produced a significant free black population, and practicality would prevent a wholesale deportation. If the physical removal of free blacks was not pragmatic, the legal eradication of their status would be the next best thing. The petitioners urged the legislature to “prescribe the mode in which our persons of color shall dress” because “every distinction should be created between the whites and the negroes, calculated to make the latter feel the superiority of the former.” They also sought a further curtailment of rights, mainly access to real property and other forms of wealth. By limiting the rights and numbers of skilled slaves and free blacks, South Carolina could attract laborers from “Europe and Northern States … whose feelings will be our feelings, and whose interests our interests.” Such migrants would fill the urban labor vacuum and secure white hegemony. Some white laborers, a “considerable number of German, Swiss, and Scotch,” were already immigrating, but tended to head for the frontier because of the near monopoly black artisans maintained within the city. If such white flight continued owing to legislative apathy, then nothing would prevent another “plot, which in origin, extent, and design, may well bear comparison with the most atrocious of the West Indian insurrectionary schemes.”
In each of these examples, prominent members of Charleston’s white community turned to the law to reconfigure the environment that supposedly produced the Vesey conspiracy, and some shared a preoccupation with the outsider trope that dominated the narratives of the trials. In the frenzied atmosphere of 1822 Charleston, then, the recipe for insurrection seemed obvious. It required a large, local population of skilled slaves and free blacks – the receptive audience – and foreign black immigrants – the broadcasters.
Later that year, when the assembly adopted An Act for the Better Regulation and Government of Free Negroes and Persons of Color, it focused on both groups. According to the new law, no free black residing in South Carolina would be allowed to leave the state and return. Transgressors would face penalties ranging from fine and imprisonment to enslavement for repeat offenders. Further, the law stipulated, “every male negro, mulatto, or mestizo, in this State, above the age of fifteen years, shall be compelled to have a guardian, who shall be a respectable freeholder” responsible for testifying before the clerk of court that his ward was “of good character and correct habits.” Additionally, all free black males between fifteen and fifty now had to pay a hefty fifty-dollar tax per annum to defray the costs of enforcing the new legislation. This sum was substantial, even prohibitive, and free persons of color not conforming to the new requirements could be sold into slavery. The aim was to financially force out all free people of color without assuming the costs of Pinckney’s exportation scheme.
It is tempting to reduce this portion of the law to economic motivations. Lawmakers could quite easily have attempted to legislate away the tight labor market through these mechanisms, hoping the extensive legal handicaps placed on free people of color would motivate them to “self-deport.” It does not take a historian’s imagination to consider the possibility that a political faction might attempt to deflect attention away from the underlying causes of an economic downturn by stressing the role played by a racial underclass in driving down the wages of white workers and sapping the resources of the state. Of course, it is problematic to reduce the intentions of the lawmakers to a single silver bullet. The other portions of the law suggest that this statute was not simply meant to ease Charleston’s economic problems, but sincerely aimed at curtailing slave insurrection.
According to the Vesey model, these elements of the new law would not completely diffuse the potential for insurgency. After all, free blacks from around the Atlantic could still disseminate dangerous ideologies to slaves and the few South Carolina free blacks who chose to remain in the state despite the new legal handicaps placed on them. To preclude this interaction and further sever the Atlantic umbilical cord that was nurturing racial discord in Charleston, the law both criminalized free black immigration and restricted the ingress of free black sailors. South Carolina’s decision to ban free black immigration was hardly novel in 1822. Several other states enacted similar sorts of measures, and they only increased in frequency through the antebellum period. But the other part of the 1822 law was new. According to the statute, county sheriffs henceforth were obliged to arrest all “colored” sailors, regardless of nationality, until their ship was ready to leave harbor. The captain of the vessel was monetarily responsible for a bond to cover the expenses of incarceration for every free black maritime worker he introduced into the state. If the captain refused to pay, he was “liable to be indicted, and, on conviction … be fined in a sum not less than one thousand dollars, and imprisoned not less than two months.” If this penalty seemed a touch harsh, it paled in comparison to the one doled out to the sailors of the recalcitrant captain, as “such negroes or persons of color shall be deemed and taken as absolute slaves, and sold.” Without new free blacks entering the state and with each domestic free black male under the watchful eye of a white guardian, South Carolina sought to codify racial peace by creating a complex surveillance system to monitor the most likely class of potential subversives.
The author of this section of the new statute was Robert Turnbull, a prominent freeholder who sat on one of the Vesey tribunals. Turnbull was born in Florida, and would soon gain notoriety around the South and beyond for his 1827 authorship of The Crisis. This polemical tract celebrated states’ rights constitutionalism as the most effective safeguard against political abolitionism. It proved to be one of the primary philosophical foundations for the Nullification movement that began the year after the controversial book was published. As historian Edward Bartlett Rugemer has illustrated, The Crisis explicitly linked the emerging abolition movement in Europe to the increased incidence of Caribbean slave unrest. The transatlantic transportation network that connected colony to metropole was now being utilized by revolutionary antislavery advocates to spread their dangerous message. Colonial slaves were listening and acting in response. Thus the man who would transform states’ rights into the mantra of nullifiers and popularize the concept of outside agitation as the primary propeller of slave revolt was intimately involved in both the Vesey trials and the writing of the first “Negro Seamen Act.”
For free men of color, the Atlantic Ocean of the early nineteenth century represented both an avenue of opportunity and a potential for catastrophe. Seafaring could provide a respite from the brutality of segregation, disfranchisement, and economic marginality. The availability of work, the rugged equality of tar life, the ability to see worlds beyond the ones they left behind motivated many free black men to choose the Atlantic as their primary workplace. But the wider Atlantic world also contained dangerous places for such sailors. They often visited the Caribbean sugar islands, the Southern Cotton Belt, and other slave societies where the small modicum of liberty they enjoyed was completely absent for people of color. Worse yet, very little protected the black deckhand from a life in chains. An unscrupulous, greedy captain and a local slave marketer, if they were not intimidated by laws outlawing kidnapping or the Atlantic slave trade, could quite easily transform a free man into a slave. While the line that separated freedom and slavery was stark, it could be erased with relative ease while on the open sea. If we subscribe to the words of one study on free blacks – “the closer one stayed to home, the more secure one’s freedom” – free black sailors were especially vulnerable.
For many white slaveholders of the early and mid-nineteenth century, the Atlantic was also dangerous but lucrative. Distant markets, the lands where plantation staples metamorphosed into money and credit, could only be reached via the Atlantic. Since colonial days, South Carolina planters reaped handsome rewards from the labor of their slaves, sending boatloads of indigo, rice, and eventually cotton around the globe. But that same boulevard to wealth could also bring havoc. The Age of Revolution unleashed powerful ideas of equality and liberty, which, when applied universally, called into question the racial and social orthodoxies of plantation life.
In 1822, Southern lawmakers hoped to sequester these dangerous ideologies of liberty and freedom. In banning free black sailors in 1822, a shift had occurred. In previous decades, slave insurrections were inevitable events, as human bondage was envisaged as antithetical to the revolutionary ideals that undergirded the American Republic. Stopping slave insurrection in this context could only be secured by stopping slavery. But in 1822, South Carolina lawmakers were convinced that they could legislate away slave insurrection while keeping slavery in place. Slave insurrection was not a natural outgrowth of slavery in a republic, the argument went; nor was it an expected manifestation of an obvious contradiction. The institution of slavery and the ideals of the Republic were not in inherent conflict; they could be and largely were complementary. When slaves applied the Revolution’s ideals of liberty and autonomy and freedom, they subverted their meaning and gave them a universalism that Southerners increasingly refused to acknowledge. A slave fighting to be free was not natural, but an unhealthy subversion of the natural social and racial order. For white Southerners who espoused this emerging philosophy, Denmark Vesey was the source of subversion in 1822. Inspired by the revolution in Haiti and nurtured by a network of free black sailors, the Vesey conspirators illustrated to anxious white Southerners the true origins of slave unrest. By externalizing and pathologizing the roots of slave insurrection in this way, the philosophy undergirding the law against black sailors contributed to and drew strength from the ascending “positive good” strain of proslavery ideology.
Albeit in a different ideological context, the Vesey conspiracy revitalized fears of the Atlantic that first emerged in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. Much like the Maria from St. Domingue floating around 1793 Charleston, the 1822 conspiracy linked the ideologies of race war with servile insubordination. In the aftermath of 1793, the bustling cotton market and domestic political concerns allowed South Carolinians to privilege their aspirations for Atlantic interaction over their anxiety of the potentially dangerous Atlantic import of colorblind liberty, equality, and fraternity. “Greed triumphed over fear.” Anxiety about a Haiti recital in South Carolina had all but evaporated by 1820. But by 1822, the recent Panic slowed investment, Charleston was no longer the hub of the (legal) international slave market for the United States, and the overall proportion of free blacks to the white population doubled between 1790 and 1820. If, in 1822, white Charlestonians were reassessing the influence of the black Atlantic against the diminishing return of the Atlantic market, the post hoc construction of the Denmark Vesey affair tipped the scales with force. For the local elite, the conspiracy proved the imminent danger of the black Atlantic. With the Seamen Act sequestering domestic slaves from the dangerous Atlantic from whence slave unrest originated, the threat could be averted and Charlestonians could remain engaged in the Atlantic economy.
For the South Carolina legislators who saw the new law as a panacea for their Atlantic dilemma, they hardly imagined that the law’s enforcement would provoke such immediate, powerful, and contrasting responses. Robert Y. Hayne, future champion of Nullification, thought the new law was “certainly not very acceptable” and wished “more moderation” had accompanied the legislature’s deliberations. William Johnson, writing to his confidant Thomas Jefferson, lamented the reactionary and irrational measures of the state assembly.
To magnify danger is to magnify the claims of those who arrest it. Incalculable are the evils which have resulted from the exaggerated accounts circulated respecting that [Vesey] affair. Our property is reduced to nothing – strangers are alarmed at coming near us; our slaves rendered uneasy; the confidence between us and our domestics destroyed – and all this because of a trifling cabal of a few ignorant penniless unarmed uncombined fanatics, and which certainly would have blown over without an explosion had it never come to light.
According to Johnson, this frenzied atmosphere created by political opportunism and fear-mongering could allow the assembly “without due consideration” to pass such an obnoxious law. Moreover, paranoia and overreaction actually posed a grave threat to the institution of slavery itself.
South Carolina’s regulation of free black sailors became the opening act of a drama that spanned nearly four decades. But even by 1825, a US Supreme Court Justice, the Constitutional Court of South Carolina, the US Secretary of State and President-Elect, the British Foreign Secretary, and the federal House of Representatives all became ensconced in the Seamen Act’s saga.