Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution

University of Pennsylvania Press
2
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At the end of the eighteenth century, a massive slave revolt rocked French Saint Domingue, the most profitable European colony in the Americas. Under the leadership of the charismatic former slave François Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a disciplined and determined republican army, consisting almost entirely of rebel slaves, defeated all of its rivals and restored peace to the embattled territory. The slave uprising that we now refer to as the Haitian Revolution concluded on January 1, 1804, with the establishment of Haiti, the first "black republic" in the Western Hemisphere.

The Haitian Revolution cast a long shadow over the Atlantic world. In the United States, according to Matthew J. Clavin, there emerged two competing narratives that vied for the revolution's legacy. One emphasized vengeful African slaves committing unspeakable acts of violence against white men, women, and children. The other was the story of an enslaved people who, under the leadership of Louverture, vanquished their oppressors in an effort to eradicate slavery and build a new nation.

Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War examines the significance of these competing narratives in American society on the eve of and during the Civil War. Clavin argues that, at the height of the longstanding conflict between North and South, Louverture and the Haitian Revolution were resonant, polarizing symbols, which antislavery and proslavery groups exploited both to provoke a violent confrontation and to determine the fate of slavery in the United States. In public orations and printed texts, African Americans and their white allies insisted that the Civil War was a second Haitian Revolution, a bloody conflict in which thousands of armed bondmen, "American Toussaints," would redeem the republic by securing the abolition of slavery and proving the equality of the black race. Southern secessionists and northern anti-abolitionists responded by launching a cultural counterrevolution to prevent a second Haitian Revolution from taking place.

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About the author

Matthew J. Clavin is Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Pennsylvania Press
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Published on
Feb 23, 2012
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Pages
248
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ISBN
9780812201611
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Americas (North, Central, South, West Indies)
History / Caribbean & West Indies / General
History / United States / Civil War Period (1850-1877)
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Modernity Disavowed is a pathbreaking study of the cultural, political, and philosophical significance of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Revealing how the radical antislavery politics of this seminal event have been suppressed and ignored in historical and cultural records over the past two hundred years, Sibylle Fischer contends that revolutionary antislavery and its subsequent disavowal are central to the formation and understanding of Western modernity. She develops a powerful argument that the denial of revolutionary antislavery eventually became a crucial ingredient in a range of hegemonic thought, including Creole nationalism in the Caribbean and G. W. F. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

Fischer draws on history, literary scholarship, political theory, philosophy, and psychoanalytic theory to examine a range of material, including Haitian political and legal documents and nineteenth-century Cuban and Dominican literature and art. She demonstrates that at a time when racial taxonomies were beginning to mutate into scientific racism and racist biology, the Haitian revolutionaries recognized the question of race as political. Yet, as the cultural records of neighboring Cuba and the Dominican Republic show, the story of the Haitian Revolution has been told as one outside politics and beyond human language, as a tale of barbarism and unspeakable violence. From the time of the revolution onward, the story has been confined to the margins of history: to rumors, oral histories, and confidential letters. Fischer maintains that without accounting for revolutionary antislavery and its subsequent disavowal, Western modernity—including its hierarchy of values, depoliticization of social goals having to do with racial differences, and privileging of claims of national sovereignty—cannot be fully understood.

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From the Hardcover edition.
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