Reviewed | ‘Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn’

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions, reviews by Editor on March 25, 2012

Thomas Bender, Laurent Dubois, and Richard Rabinowitz, eds. Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn (London: D. Giles Limited in association with the New-York Historical Society, 2011), 287 pages, ISBN: 9780916141240 (softcover), $45 / ISBN: 9781904832942 (hardcover), $65.

Reviewed for Enfilade by Jason Nguyen (Harvard University)

In the lavishly illustrated catalogue for Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn (on view at the New-York Historical Society through April 15, 2012), editors Thomas Bender, Laurent Dubois, and Richard Rabinowitz present a collection of eleven essays on the connections between the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. Whereas traditional narratives have tended to treat the three events separately, the fourteen contributors to Revolution focus instead on their political, economic, and social junctures. “The point here is not to abandon or dilute national history,” Thomas Bender suggests in the catalogue’s first essay, “but rather to enrich it by revealing the ways in which historical causation operates across space as well as through time” (40).

The chain of political events linking the three revolutions is offered straightaway by Bender (and subsequently evaluated by his fellow contributors). The financial and military support that France provided to the United States in their War for Independence sent the European kingdom into a crippling debt that led to the calling of the Estates General in May of 1789. This event resulted in the establishment of the National Assembly and, consequently, the onset of the French Revolution. The rhetoric of the Revolution, and in particular the Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (1789), helped to ignite abolitionist discourses and revolutionary fervor in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). And the political and military successes by the Haitians in the early years of the nineteenth century resulted in the selling of Louisiana by Napoleon to the United States in 1803, thus providing the young American nation with its first taste of continental expansion.

While each essay addresses at least one component of this transcontinental circuit of events, the scope of the catalogue is hardly limited to the political sphere. Cathy Matson, for example, reveals how the revolutions in France and Haiti nearly destabilized the commercial life among Philadelphia grain merchants in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. And in one of the catalogue’s more emotional contributions, Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrard chronicle through a chain of legal documents and personal letters the tumultuous social and family life of Rosalie, an African-born inhabitant of Saint-Domingue who found herself the victim of sexual and racial slavery three times during the course of her life.

Rosalie’s story encapsulates two themes that course through the various essays. First is the focus on the peripheral within the predominant historical narrative, or as Richard Rabinowitz terms it, “history’s silences.” This can be noted by the prominence of the Haitian Revolution in the catalogue, with seven of the eleven contributions centering squarely on the global and local dealings of the Caribbean colony between 1791 and 1804. Of the remaining four essays, two focus on the economic and social situation in America, one addresses the broader global condition linking the revolutionary conflicts in the United States, France, and Haiti, and one presents the aims and intentions of the exhibition. The curatorial decision to cast increased light on the Haitian Revolution serves two purposes. The first concerns the marked absence within the general public consciousness of the social and political insurrections that transformed the former French colony. And the second speaks to its privileged status as the culmination (and, indeed, the ultimate test) of eighteenth-century revolutionary fervor. “As the most thoroughgoing of these upheavals,” Rabinowitz writes in the catalogue’s concluding essay, “at least in its destruction of slavery, imperial dependency, and constitutionally sanctioned inequalities — the Haitian revolution could be viewed as the climax of the entire age of Atlantic revolutions” (255).

The revolutionary quest for “freedom” rarely followed a straight path, however: it is this concern that serves as the second theme of the catalogue. Robin Blackburn, for example, carefully unpacks the means by which the slave uprisings in Saint-Domingue during the early 1790s mobilized the Enlightenment trope of “utility” in order to achieve social and economic liberty. The first clause of the Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, she notes, clearly stated that, “Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility” (118). The Haitian rhetoric of freedom, therefore, served an instrumental purpose in broadening the social, cultural, and political conceits that made the revolutionary ideology in France possible in the first place. Laurent Dubois and Julius S. Scott press the significance of figurative speech further, examining how the Haitian revolutionaries deployed a host of linguistic symbols, often in conflict with one another. Sometimes Royalist and sometimes Republican, their words and texts eventually turned toward the possibility of national sovereignty, a declaration ultimately claimed in 1804. Yet, as the early decades of Haiti’s independence reveal, this situation too presented profound struggles, including local forms of political tyranny and crippling trade embargoes by both Napoleon’s French Empire and Jefferson’s United States.

The attention paid to verbal and textual rhetoric, however, marks the limit of the authors’ interest in representation, as the images within the catalogue serve mostly an illustrating function. Yet, as art historical contributions by Tim Barringer, Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, and Jennifer L. Roberts, among others, have made clear, colonial and revolutionary images are profoundly complex, embodying in their very form the geo-political and ideological rupturing that marked the events of this period. “To paint is, at the most fundamental level, to incorporate,” noted Grigbsy in her groundbreaking 2002 analysis of Anne-Louis Girodet’s Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley (1797), which serves as the cover image for the Revolution catalogue. “Formal description reenacts that deceptively transparent act of inclusion … constituting Belley as picturing’s object (paint) and aggrandizing him as social subject (portraiture’s sitter) were deeply bound up with one another …”[1] Dubois and Scott acknowledge (while not specificing by name) contributions by Grigsby and others in their essay, “An African Revolution in the Atlantic World.” For them, however, Girodet’s painting – on loan for the exhibition from the Musée National du Château de Versailles – serves not as a problematic in and of itself. Instead, it stands as an optimistic visual prolepsis, demarcating through imagery a future that was never to be realized fully.

Such a critique should hardly detract from the merits of the catalogue, which lucidly present for a general audience the social, political, and economic connections linking the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Timely and provocative, it suggests that the each historical event carries with it profound global ramifications. And by tracing these connections (through texts, objects, and images), we might begin to understand better the universal aspirations for human equality and freedom.

[1] Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Painting Empire in Post Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 13.