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.
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.
Focusing on England and France during the Hundred Years War, Crane draws on wardrobe accounts, manuscript illuminations, chronicles, archaeological evidence, and literature to recover the material as well as the verbal constructions of identity. She seeks intersections between theories of practice and performance that explain how appearances and language connect when courtiers dress as wild men to interrupt a wedding feast, when knights choose crests and badges to supplement their coats of arms, and when Joan of Arc cross-dresses for the court of inquisition after her capture.