Despite the appearance of more and more scholarly work on the Haitian Revolution and its effects, we still know only parts of the story of how news of a mighty slave rebellion and the subsequent creation of the western hemisphere’s second republic was received in, and then influenced, the area’s first republic, the United States. This deeply researched and engaging volume goes a long way to filling that gap. And while this is a story that most historians of race or of the ‘age of democratic revolution’ believe to be a familiar one, James Alexander Dun’s book succeeds in restoring contingency to the narrative, enabling us to see how white Americans reacted to constantly shifting and contradictory events with unforeseeable outcomes. Dun focuses his study on Philadelphia, and, although no one place can represent the entire American republic, Philadelphia is perhaps the most representative. The most centrally located of America’s major cities, Philadelphia had both slavery and abolitionism, extensive trading links with northern and southern colonies and the Caribbean beyond, and was home to the most ethnically diverse population in the nation. Indeed, more refugees from France and from Haiti made their way to Philadelphia than any other American city. It was also the capital city of a large state, and served as the national capital during the final decade of the eighteenth century. Most importantly for Dun, Philadelphia’s newspaper editors pulled news from all over the Atlantic World and beyond, and as something approaching national publications they then disseminated this news around the United States. Much of what Americans from Kentucky to Boston to Virginia learned of the Haitian Revolution came from Philadelphia’s newspapers. It is Dun’s contention that many of these news stories, for all that they were about people and events in Haiti, were thoroughly American in ‘composition and orientation’ (p. 12). Beginning, in his introduction, with American reconstructions of the massacre of white French Royalists by insurgent slaves (while Spanish troops stood by and watched) in Haiti’s Fort Dauphin, Dun shows how such events were understood and then retold within the context of American political and racial debates. The 1790s were a period of intense and indeed tumultuous partisan political activity in the United States, as a political party system unanticipated by the Constitution took shape in Washington’s cabinet and Congress, in state assemblies, in increasingly partisan newspapers and on the streets and in taverns around the nation. Perhaps Dun’s greatest achievement in this volume is showing just how important the Haitian Revolution was in the evolution of American political culture. Americans divided along partisan lines in their reactions to the French Revolution, with Federalists condemning democratic radicalism and counselling closer ties between the United States and counter-revolutionary Britain, while Jeffersonian Republicans initially embraced events in France while condemning counter-revolutionaries both abroad and at home. The Haitian Revolution was at first inextricably entwined with the French Revolution, before becoming a separate event with implications transcending events in Europe. As Dun shows, the events of the Haitian and French Revolutions required Americans to make sense of their own fragile new republic and of their own revolutionary heritage and its lasting significance. Yet, as much as foreign revolution divided Americans, so too it could unite them. Dun illustrates the way that, as Americans made sense of the changing situation and unfolding events in Haiti (not always accurately), they moved towards a consensus that the new black republic in the Caribbean had to be shifted from its position as a major trading partner to a new status outside the community of nations. Race and slavery trumped all, and for white Americans to feel safe in the presence of their own ‘peculiar institution’, Haiti had to disappear. In the wake of the American Revolution, slavery had weakened in America, with first Philadelphia’s Quakers and then a succession of Northern states moving gradually to abolish the institution. Even some Southerners, such as George Washington in his will and the Virginian planter Edward Coles during his lifetime, freed all the enslaved people they owned. Dun’s book makes a valuable contribution in showing how important were American reactions to, and interpretations of, the Haitian Revolution in the hardening of American defences of slavery after years of weakening. It is ironic indeed that the creation of the first black republic in the western hemisphere strengthened the institution of slavery in the American South. More generally, this signalled a break in Americans’ sense of their own revolution, from an articulation of a universalist commitment to rights and liberty to a more exceptionalist understanding of the American republic as a unique independent nation. This is an impressive and important book, and Dun’s impressively deep research and engaging style ensure that this will be a signal reference point for historians of Atlantic Revolution, race and the early history of the American republic. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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