On Friday, July 29, Robert Paquette, Executive Director of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), appeared at the Biltmore Doubletree Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, to speak on his forthcoming book The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History. The volume, coedited by Douglas Egerton, Professor of History, Lemoyne College, will be published in early 2017 by the University Press of Florida. It delves into a seminal event in the history of South Carolina, a plot, uncovered in Charleston in 1822 and allegedly masterminded by a freed black carpenter named Denmark Vesey. The plot transformed politics within the state, set the stage for South Carolina’s confrontation with federal power during the nullification crisis, and help chart the course of the South to secession.
The St. George Tucker Society, “an interdisciplinary scholarly organization dedicated to the study of the American South,” invited Paquette and Egerton to come to the annual meeting to discuss the project at a special luncheon. The volume has taken more than a dozen years to complete and will run to almost 1000 pages. At the “New Book Session,” Egerton provided a paper, read by David Moltke-Hansen, editor, Cambridge Studies on the American South. Egerton described the controversies surrounding the interpretation of the event and new evidence that will be presented on Vesey’s origin, appearance, and family life. Paquette discussed a number of the major actors in the drama, free and slave, by using a power-point demonstration that included some of the more than forty illustrations in the forthcoming volume. It begins in the late eighteenth century with Vesey’s enslavement and carries the story to the recent murders in Charleston of nine black congregants of Emanuel AME Church, a lineal descendant of the so-called African Church of which Vesey was a member and in which the1822 plot was alleged to have been hatched.
Randall M. Miller, Professor of History, Saint Joseph’s University, and co-editor of the series “Southern Dissent” of which the Vesey volume will be a part, has called the scholarship exhibited in the volume “daunting” and the editing “impressive.” Tad Brown, President of the Watson-Brown Foundation, the leading educational non-profit organization in the United States with a focus on the South, attended the session. “The first glimpse into the exhaustive research Professors Doug Egerton and Bob Paquette have compiled on the Denmark Vesey conspiracy,” he said, “was spellbinding. Their cited reams of evidence and commitment to empirical research are laudable; their methodical sifting of the evidence convincing; their conclusions damning of certain alternative interpretations. They may well have penned as close to a ‘definitive’ study as can be imagined of this wildly complex, chilling door-stopper of a tale.”
“It is difficult,” said Paquette, “for any monograph, however magisterial, to be called definitive. Not so for a documentary history. Doug and I believe we have left no stone unturned in bringing forth and explaining all relevant documents. We think we have a volume that will stand for the ages.”