Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Denmark Vesey and the Origins of Radicalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry

Three hundred fifty pages or so into Lacy K. Ford's Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, I can tell you that this is a superb book.

To give but one example, Prof. Ford includes a brilliant discussion of the of the Denmark Vesey scare in South Carolina during mid-1822 and its effect on South Carolina politics. (As a side note, did you know that Vesey's name was originally Telemaque but that “the local community's dialect changed the pronunciation of Telemaque to Denmark”?)

Prof. Ford argues that the Vesey scare led to a fundamental political realignment in Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry. Although the Upcountry was less affected (as votes in the South Carolina legislature in the session held at the end of 1822 attest), the reaction to the Vesey scare marked the beginning of the radicalization of the state.

Here, for example, is Prof. Ford commenting on the contemporary analysis of Supreme Court Associate Justice William Johnson. Johnson, one of the few natives of Charleston who resisted the frenzy, strangely saw the political dislocation as a reincarnation of old Federalist-Republican divisions. The South Carolina Association and the Negro Seaman's Act were, in effect, the Hartford Convention come back to life. Prof. Ford disagrees:
But in his [Johnson's] assessment of events in Charleston during the early 1820s, the politically minded Johnson seemed strangely unable to sense the political ground shifting under his feet. He failed to recognize that a new and intensely localist faction was emerging, one led by [James] Hamilton but drawing support from many of the area's leading politicians, who, regardless of their prior stances on the boundaries of states' rights and federal authority, now stood ready to assert state sovereignty, in its most radical forms if necessary. This new radicalism emerged as part of a concerted effort to protect the slaveholding society from both outside influence and internal unrest. This new, decidedly activist states' rights faction hardly embraced limited government in the abstract; they were willing to use the power of government, and particularly state and local government, aggressively in defense of white security and local control over slavery. They saw, or at least claimed to see, the ability to maintain maximum control over their admittedly “peculiar and local” society as a matter of survival. Former Federalists and national Republicans joined longtime states' rights Republicans to forge an assertive new coalition committed to defending the slaveholding society of the Carolina Lowcountry against all threats. This movement, embodied in the South Carolina Association, represented a counterrevolution of sorts, driven by the politics of slavery. In 1823, however, this counterrevolution, though it generated faint echos of support from black-belt enclaves scattered across the lower South, held sway only in the heavily black South Carolina Lowcountry, a region recently alarmed by an insurrection scare that had been presented to the public as one of previously unimagined proportions.

My recollection is that when he published Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry 1800-1860 twenty years ago Prof. Ford identified the Nullification Crisis as the central event that sent South Carolina spinning off on its radical course. I recall little if any discussion of Vesey in that book; it's been a while, though, so I may be wrong.

That said, the two books (assuming my recollection is correct) may well be reconcilable. By carefully noting that Vesey radicalized the Lowcounty while leaving the rest of the state relatively unscathed, Prof. Ford leaves open the distinct possibility that it was the Nullification Crisis that caused the Upcountry to join their Lowcountry brethren in the asylum.


  1. Amazing book--Ford gives the backstory of every episode we thought we pretty well understood. _Now_ we really get it.

  2. CW,

    Agreed. As carefully as I tried to read it the first time, this is definitely a book I am going to re-read soon.



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