Revolutions of endless possibilities?

This blog post was inspired by Cassandra’s and Jeanna’s explorations of the role of women in the revolutions of the 18th century. In her blog, Cassandra highlights that the opportunities offered to women during the American Revolution were not without limit. She argues that, “just because homespun provided an opportunity for the politicization of the domestic sphere, and gave “women” a place in which they could contribute substantially to a rather significant cause, does not mean that women were readily accepted as political actors.” Jeanna’s post on sensibility echoes Cassandra’s in many ways. By showing the “inefficacy of sensibility as protest for women” through a close reading of Charlotte Smith’s novel Desmond, Jeanna also demonstrates the limits put on the possibilities for political action available to women. Reading Cassandra’s and Jeanna’s posts made me realize how much of the historiography on the French and American revolutions revolve around the questions of the possibilities that these revolutions opened up, as well as their limits.

I can think of two fields in which these questions are particular prominent: gender and the study of religious/racial minorities, such as Jews. Specialists of both topics continue to struggle with the legacies of the French and American revolutions. Much of the literature on these two revolutions, it seems to me, is devoted to how the revolutions did not, after all, yield as positive results as one (eg previous historians) had assumed. For example, in article published in 1995, historian Carole Shammas showed the persistence of patriarchal households in post-revolutionary United States, thus emphasizing the continuities in family life between British America and the United States.(1) By doing so, she suggested that historians tend to overstate the changes that the American revolution wrought, in particular as far as women were concerned.

I am struck by the contrast between the scholarship on American women and that on French Jews. While some historians of the former, such as Shammas, stress the limits of revolutionary change, historians of French Jews have acknowledged the nature of revolutionary change as a dramatic rupture with the past, but have questioned whether this break was good or bad for Jews. Unlike Shammas, who stresses the continuities between the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras, these historians see the French revolution as a rupture, but not necessarily a positive one. For example, Pierre Birnbaum reminds us that the historiography of Jews and the French Revolution has been divided among three lines of interpretation, one of which argues that the revolution was detrimental to the Jews because French universalism (that originated in the French revolution) jeopardized the ethnic link among Jews and destroyed their unique identity.(2) The truth is that, in recent years, this interpretation has been widely discredited. For instance, historians such as Lisa Leff and Nadia Malinovich have shown that ethnic identification and solidarity among French Jews did not disappear in the wake of the French revolution.(3) Yet, it strikes me that the question “Was the French Revolution good or bad for the Jews?” has shaped the historiography on French Jews, and echoes the question, implicit in the historiography of women in post-revolutionary America, “Was the American Revolution that good for women?”.

The question to me then is, do we tend to assume that revolutions should be “good” (empowering, liberating, equalizing, etc.), and if so, why? My intuition is that scholars of the “Age of Revolution” do in fact assume, maybe unconsciously, that revolutions should necessarily yield positive results, for minorities in particular, and seem surprised when the historical record indicates that maybe revolutions did not open endless possibilities after all. I am not sure why this is so; maybe we take the discourse of the revolutionaries themselves too seriously, or maybe there is a flair of romanticism about revolutions that tweaks our reading of past events. I really don’t know. But I want to suggest that we need to question our assumptions about what revolutions do or do not do; this, in turn, may help us assessing the degree of continuity and change during and following revolutions without resorting to moral terms.

1. Shammas,Carole. “Anglo-American Household Government in Comparative Perspective,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 52, 1 (1995), pp. 104-144.
2. Birnbaum, Pierre. ” Les Juifs entre l’appartenance identitaire et l’entrée dans l’espace public : la Révolution française et le choix des acteurs. ” Revue française de sociologie. 1989, 30-3-4. Sociologie de la révolution. Etudes réunies et introduites par François Gresle et François Chazel. pp. 497-510.
3. See: Leff, Lisa Moses. Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-century France. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006, and Malinovich, Nadia. French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth-century France. Oxford, UK ; Portland, Or.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.

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Revolution and Modernity

In his blog post “Print Culture and the Problematics of Revolution”, Haram referred to “the frictions and pressures that post-colonial nation-states encounter in the process of incorporation within the socio-political and cultural matrix of Western modernity.” This sentence brings up two questions that I have been struggling with for the past few months: What is Western modernity? Furthermore, what is the relationship between revolution and modernity?

Some of the scholars that we have read in this seminar would argue that modernity is a change in consciousness (here come the imaginary and representations again!), in particular consciousness of time. Lynn Hunt for instance claims that the French Revolution inaugurated a new relationship to time.(1) Arendt made a somewhat similar argument. In “The meaning of Revolution”, she wrote: “The modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never know or told before, is about to unfold, was unknown prior to the great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth-century.”(2) Both Hunt and Arendt seem to imply that the new relationship to the past and the future that emerged in the course of revolutionary events was itself modern.

Did modernity start in the “Age of Revolution”, in particular the French Revolution, then? Sociologist Gurminder Bhambra has argued that at least French historians have thought so for a long time. She claims that the idea that the French Revolution marked the beginning of modernity has roots in the French revolutionary historiography: “As Furet argues, the Revolution was not understood simply as an event within a complex of events, but rather, was seen as constitutive of the advent of a new age (…).This heightened the sense of the present as unique and unprecedented and, as a consequence, problematized the way in which the relationship between the past and present was theorized.”(3) Yet, does the fact that revolutionaries thought that they were opening a new, modern, time, makes them, or their period, modern? Did revolutionaries think of themselves as “modern” and can historians use their self-definition as a unmediated category of analysis?

It is worth noticing that there is no consensus about where “modernity” starts- witness the debate about whether the Enlightenment marks the beginning of modernity. I wonder what is at stake in the debates about the chronology of modernity. Periodization is central to the writing of history, and it would make sense that historians discuss when modernity emerges, at least for purposes of communication. If we all start the “modern” age at a different time, discussing modernity becomes nearly impossible. Yet, there is something more to this debate, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. How important is it to trace modernity back to the “Age of Revolution” for example? What does the category of “modernity” teach us about the revolutions themselves? Does modernity, as a lens, further or hinder our understanding of the Haitian, American and French revolutions?

As I am writing these questions, I find myself wondering what modernity means, after all. And the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the “modern” refers to whatever resembles the world we know, the world of the 21th century: a world in which citizenship, nation-states, and technology frame and define our identities as individuals, and members of local and national groups. Thus, the attempt to locate the “modern” in the “Age of Revolution”, which still permeates the historiography, is part of a quest to understand who we are, and trace the genealogy of the world we know. There is nothing wrong per se about doing this, but I think that there is a great need to define “modernity” better, and ask ourselves whether and when it is a useful heuristic device, if we want to understand the past better.

1. Hunt, Lynn Avery. Measuring Time, Making History. Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2008, p.68.
2. Arendt, Hanna. On Revolution. New York: The Viking Press, 1963, p.21.
3. Bhambra, Gurminder K. Rethinking Modernity. Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, p.106.

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Sensibility and Revolution: A Case Study

In seminar this week, we started to talk about the discourse of sensibility. Sensibility was particularly prominent in Mary Ashburn Miller’s article, in which she linked sensibility to authenticity. Miller writes, “The more passionate an individual during the phase of the Terror, the more authentic his actions were interpreted to be” (372). Sensibility was linked to authenticity, certainly; it was also linked to morality, both to an individual’s moral judgment and to the effect of that judgment on the broader community. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith calls sympathy one of “the original passions of human nature” (2). Though the discourse of sensibility was appropriated for the rhetoric of politics and revolution (as noted by Miller and numerous others), its insistence on authenticity and morality, and in those things being evidenced by the body, presents an important tension. In seminar, Tom King asked the question: how revolutionary is the discourse of sensibility? He suggested the possibility of decidedly non-revolutionary violence, latent in a strong rhetoric of sensibility.

However, I would like to take this important question in a different direction in this blog post. Because sensibility relies on the body and physicality to demonstrate its own authenticity, it may not be read as political or revolutionary in itself; the context of the particular body or group of bodies is important. This is especially important to consider for bodies of those not in authority: women, racial, ethnic, and religious “others,” the socioeconomically underprivileged, etc. Sensibility was an important discourse that manifested not only in print but also in the public sphere, on the body, in moments of action—what was it for a body operating within the discourse of sensibility to not be recognized as politically minded or “revolutionary,” and what are the consequences of such a failure of recognition?

I am particularly interested in considering the convergence of sensibility with the political in sentimental novels of the 1790s. Notably, though sensibility was not an inevitably gendered discourse, even in novels (see Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, 1771), the sentimental novel, known for its excessive emotionality, was very much associated with women. The work of radical authors like Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Smith is particularly useful when looking at this intersection of sensibility with revolution, as they often parody the extremes of the genre and/or offer critiques of the representation of women as irrational creatures overcome by physical sensation (the sort of sentimentality Wollstonecraft criticizes in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

To this end, I would like to briefly look at an example of a particularly virulent scene of sensibility in Charlotte Smith’s 1792 novel Desmond, widely considered to be her most radical work. Desmond, Smith’s only epistolary novel, was written explicitly in reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Borrowing from Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise, Smith crafts an unorthodox sentimental narrative in which the young, idealistic, and wealthy Desmond (a revolutionary who nonetheless embodies Burke’s chivalric ideal) pines after Geraldine Verney, a married mother of three who suffers under the rule of her despotic husband; the novel’s climax comes when her husband tries to prostitute her to a French duke to pay off his debts. Desmond is not alone in his plight to save Geraldine from her husband’s plot: he is aided by Bethel, his Burkean mentor, and Fanny, Geraldine’s sister. Anne Mellor says, “Insofar as there is a feminist voice in the novel, it occurs in the letters that Fanny writes to her sister and Bethel” (118). Fanny is intensely critical of her brother-in-law’s despotism as well as her mother’s failure to defend Geraldine from harm. Though Fanny doesn’t connect her sister’s situation to the oppression of British (let alone French) women on a systemic level, her criticisms are still potent. Fanny’s critiques operate in two registers: satire (the verbal, e.g. wordplay) and sensibility (the physical, e.g. tears). Patricia Meyer Spacks’ assertion that eighteenth-century satire and sensibility both “proceed by and depend on exaggeration” is exemplified in Fanny, as she often swings from one to the other within one scene (131). However, satire proves a far more useful protest than sensibility, because sensibility is constantly misread as conventional sentimentality by other characters.

Indeed, Fanny’s sensibility is not recognized as political even in her most powerful scene, when Geraldine is about to leave for France, ostensibly to be prostituted. At this point, Geraldine is mentally and emotionally exhausted, as evidenced by her claims that she would rather die in the course of duty than be prostituted by her husband and cruelly treated by her mother—she sees herself as a martyr to virtue (303). Fanny and Bethel are responsible for seeing Geraldine off, and Fanny is physically overcome: she sobs violently, incapable of speech. This is Fanny’s last scene in the novel, and this overflow of emotion towards her sister can be seen as the culmination of her protests, which have been heard but not heeded. Fanny’s powerful show of sensibility affronts Geraldine’s near-parodic pursuit of duty and actually incites a response, suggesting the possibility that sensibility may function as a form of political protest.

However, Fanny’s sensibility is misread by Geraldine and Bethel, who see it not only as a sign of conventional (irrational) femininity, but also as being fear-driven and anti-Jacobin. For Desmond, this is decidedly anti-revolutionary. Geraldine appeals to Bethel, stating:

This dear girl is so unfortunately full of sensibility and affection, that it is impossible to pacify her. She fancies I go to meet anarchy and murder in France; and on seeing me packing… she has relapsed into the wildest expressions of sorrow. I wish you would try… to reason her out of these groundless apprehensions. (303)

Curiously, Geraldine suggests that Fanny’s reaction is inspired not by the injustice of her situation but rather by “groundless apprehensions” about the dangers in France, implicitly aligning Fanny with Burkean conservatism. Fanny’s sensibility, interpreted by Geraldine as anti-Jacobin, is thus repudiated. The sudden association of Fanny’s sensibility with Burkean conservatism and public fear is further solidified by the fact that Bethel, Burke’s fictional counterpart, agrees with Fanny’s purported “apprehensions,” further undermining any revolutionary reading of Fanny’s sensibility.

One potential political commentary that emerges from this scene is the inefficacy of sensibility as protest for women, which also makes a broader statement about the options women in crisis had during this era. When Geraldine departs, Fanny is once again “sobbing bitterly,” and Bethel is moved by the scene but says that he has no time to “[indulge] useless sympathy” (307). Rather, Bethel has used his resources in order to offer Geraldine some provision for both finances and her physical safety. Bethel possesses agency and access to resources to assist Geraldine on her journey; Fanny has only tears, which are construed as almost harmful, as when Geraldine says, “Do not destroy me… by your affection, which is now almost cruelty” (307). Compared with men’s economic agency, Fanny’s sensibility is presented as an ineffective recourse.

While Smith hints at the possibility of sensibility as protest, the potential for misinterpretation is high. Insistent misreading of female sensibility further marginalizes non-privileged bodies by reinscribing them as apolitical. The refusal to recognize sensibility on behalf of political and revolutionary causes in women, for example, is not only a refusal of political agency on the public level, e.g. political representation in the National Assembly, but—perhaps even more dangerously—privately, in that it denies female agency: the authenticity of a woman’s own experience that is engaged with politics and/or revolution. In thinking about what constitutes the revolutionary in this course, I increasingly question how much the revolutionary requires recognition by others: can the revolutionary exist in the individual, or must there be recognition and exchange? In Desmond, sensibility is too easily misread on a woman’s body to register as revolutionary.

Mellor, Anne. Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780-1830.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Print.
Miller, Mary Ashburn. “Mountain, Become a Volcano: The Image of the Volcano in the
Rhetoric of the French Revolution.” French Historical Studies 32.4 (2009): 555-
585. Print.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1892. Print.
Smith, Charlotte. Desmond. Eds. Antje Blank and Janet Todd. New York: Broadview
Press, 2001. Print.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English
. New York: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

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The Many Lives of Fortune Freeman

This is a blog about people in revolution. Specifically, it’s a blog about documents and what they can and cannot tells us about the people who participate in revolutions. It is inspired by something Kathleen DuVal said at our November symposium: “War creates documents.” This struck me as a profound truth about the way many historians study revolutions. The most bountiful manuscript collections related to the American Revolution, for example, owe much of their abundance to wartime documentation. George Washington’s eight years of wartime correspondence are more voluminous than the rest of his life combined. Similarly, the Papers of the Continental Congress devote volume after volume to collecting and organizing materials tracing the course of the war. Historians do not always study revolutionary war. But they owe much to its largesse.

Fortune Freeman's Discharge, 1783 Wartime documents offer unique opportunities to examine individual lives during revolution. In a period where ordinary people left few documents providing detail about their lives, military service created a vast paper trail that once reassembled allows us to reconstruct the experiences of those who are often silent in the documentary record. In this scenario, even the seemingly mundane can turn out to have incredible significance.

During the course of dissertation research, I came across the document pictured to the left (courtesy of the National Archives and Fold3.) Found in federal pension records from the nineteenth-century, this soldier’s discharge from December 1783 is a relatively unremarkable document except for the fact that the soldier in question turned out to be former slave with the felicitous name of Fortune Freeman. Living in New York City in 1818, Freeman appeared before a city judge to attest that he was “extremely poor” and needed “the assistance of my Country to prevent my being dependent on charity.” His net worth was less than ten dollars; his only belongings clothes “all old & nearly worn out.” As proof of his military service during the American Revolution, he produced his discharge. The court clerk (who described Freeman as “a black” in the record) sent the materials to Washington DC for review. Fortune Freeman soon received a standard soldier’s pension of eight dollars per month. [1].

Freeman’s life turned out to be a bit of a mystery. Hoping to learn more about his background, I dug into the comprehensive seventeen-volume index Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War. To my surprise, I found no less than four men named Fortune Freeman serving in the Continental Army between 1777 and 1783. To my even greater surprise, not one seemed to be the individual who applied for a pension in 1818: all were serving in different regiments and at different places than those claimed in Freeman’s pension application. Further research into extant army muster and pay rolls has led me to believe that Fortune Freeman was originally a slave from Essex County, Massachusetts named Fortune Conant. He served in the Continental Army for two different terms totaling six years. Significantly, enlistment documents for his second term of service list him as Fortune Freeman, indicating that he probably earned freedom through military service.

Fortune Freeman’s discharge is a simple document. It lists his name, his regiment, the date of his discharge, and not much else. There are thousands just like it scattered across the millions of papers in the pension files, but this one turned out to be a treasure trove. Whereas I began my quest searching for one man, this document revealed the Revolutionary stories of five different African-American soldiers each with their own unique wartime experiences.

But if Fortune Freeman opened new doors, others remain firmly and frustratingly shut. Each of the five men discovered through this single document remain otherwise invisible in the historical record. Massachusetts town and census records contain few references to men named Fortune Freemen, let alone for several different ones. Fortune Freeman’s life in New York City is equally obscure. He doesn’t appear in city directories or on the decennial census schedules. Even the federal government eventually lost track of him: an undated, handwritten note on his pension record reads “Time of death not on file.” Ultimately, their lives before and after the American Revolution are unknown. Each survives in the historical record solely through materials created to document their military service. This speaks not only to the importance of wartime documentation in tracing people in revolution, but also to the significance of the Revolutionary War in each of these eighteenth-century lives.

[1] All quotations from documents in the pension file for Fortune Freeman, File S43572, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files.

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Spinning Revolution


In our last seminar meeting of the semester, we focused on material culture, discussing the ways in which the study of “things” can deepen and nuance our understanding of revolution. I found this seminar theme particularly useful in complicating the relationship between public and private and between the domestic and the political. As historians such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich have recognized, this complicating of spheres can provide access in particular to women’s lives and experiences (see, for example, Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun). As I reflected on this meeting, I thought about how my own research into portrayals of women in eighteenth-century newspapers might intersect with inquiries into material culture during the American Revolution. One of our readings, Leora Auslander’s essay “America’s Cultural Revolution in Transnational Perspective,” seemed a particularly good starting point for considering the ways in which material goods, print culture, and gender connected during the American Revolution.

Auslander examines the intersection of political change and cultural change during the Age of Revolution, arguing that in both the French and the American Revolutions, “aesthetic forms made manifest the essence of the revolutionary moment.” [1] Culture and politics thus informed each other, and material culture in particular had the power to convey allegiances. In America and France, one could quite literally wear one’s politics – as homespun cloth in the former, and as kneeless trousers in the latter. Auslander notes that while there were parallels between the politicized clothing in America and France, there were also notable differences: homespun signified a substitution of domestic, homemade cloth in place of imported British materials; the pants of the sans-culottes represented a refusal to wear a garment that suggested membership in the aristocracy. [2] Furthermore, the wearing of homespun and its home-based production involved women as well as men; kneeless trousers, on the other hand, could only be worn by men, and as they were not produced at home, women had little personal involvement in their manufacture. Auslander argues that this difference was important for how each revolution played out domestically. While the French Revolution never centered on politicizing the domestic realm, the American Revolution symbolized a “melding the public and the private” that emphasized the political importance of home and thus “gave women a specific political place.” [3]

Though this place may have been “specific” (the home), women’s allegiance to the homespun movement – and by extension, to revolution – was contested, and in a way that I see as explicitly gendered. Auslander acknowledges that women strove “to defend themselves against accusation that they were undermining the nation through their ‘innate’ taste for luxury.” [4] I would add that these accusations could be framed to not only question individual women’s political loyalty, but also women’s more general suitability for political involvement. The homespun movement certainly provided women space for a type of political participation that was not available to women in revolutionary France. But the popular rhetoric of homespun in America also suggests that there was considerable anxiety surrounding women’s political fitness.

Participation in the homespun movement was framed by some as a path to virtue. But the distinction between political virtue and sexual virtue could easily be elided, making disloyalty to the movement a breech of sexual mores and gendered expectations. This 1768 article from the New-Hampshire Gazette, for example, celebrates the elevation of women’s character and women’s contributions to society through spinning:

“Whenever I have the Pleasure of seeing a Knot of Misses busy at their Spinning-Wheels, I consider myself as in the School of Industry; and regard the most beautiful Part of the Creation not only as providing against the most dangerous Ensnarers of the Soul, but as contributing a Part to the Support of the Families to which they belong; & taking the most effectual Step to conciliate the Esteem of the considerate, sensible Part of our Sex.”

Those who spun were both contributing to their communities as well as avoiding the dangers of female idleness – the so-called “ensnarers of the soul.” Those who didn’t spin, however, fell prey not only to luxury but also to inappropriate sexual behavior, becoming “the airy Flirt, and the insidious Coquette,” fit only for “the Attention of the superficial Coxcomb….” [5] The refusal to spin, and to support non-importation through the homespun movement, could render women unfit for political participation as well as unfit for marriage. Political virtue and sexual virtue went hand-in-hand; refusing the homespun movement was tantamount, at least in this article, to ruining one’s chances for marriage.

Women could also intensify their allegiance to homespun by pressuring the men in their lives to commit to non-importation. In this 1769 letter published in the New-York Journal, its author devised the following plan:

“The Method I would propose to their consideration is, that the married Ladies, unite in one general Agreement, that they will respectively use their Influence (which is not a little) with their Husbands; not to rescind from that noble Resolution of Non-Importation, now subsisting among them.”

Wives, then, were urged to play a key role in the movement – an acknowledgment of a certain type of social, and perhaps political, power. Yet this letter, too, betrayed fears that women were unfit for the task because of their inherent desire for luxury. The writer went on to urge women to:

“…not only recommend it [the boycott] within the respective Spheres of Acquaintance, but will likewise enforce it by their own Example, of quitting the Use of those Tinsels and Gewgaws, and exuberant Fineries, which costs their Husbands much Toil in the Acquisition, and a serious Sum of Money in the using.” [6]

Women’s contributions to non-importation might have been politically important, but renouncing luxury also had the benefit of alleviating husbands’ financial burdens – burdens caused primarily by acquisitive wives, according to the letter writer.

Finally, women’s wearing of homespun could serve as a substitute for more direct political involvement – a passive demonstration against the Crown, as opposed to men’s more direct and active role as actual politicians. In a summary of a recent ball in Virginia in 1770, the Boston Gazette reported that patriotism was,

“most agreeably manifested in the dress of the Ladies on this occasion, who, to the number of near one hundred, appeared in homespun gowns; a lively and striking instance of their acquiescence and concurrence in whatever may be the true and essential interest of their country. It were to be wished that all assembles of American Ladies would exhibit a like example of public virtue and private economy, so amiably united.” [7]

In this piece, there was no mention of women toiling to make those homespun gowns, though this might have been implied by the term “homespun” itself. More striking is their “acquiescence and concurrence in whatever may be the true and essential interest of their country,” marking them as essentially passive participants willing to pitch in when needed, but not active political beings capable of truly revolutionary action.

These are but a few examples of the complicated, sometimes wary rhetoric surrounding women and homespun. Certainly there were a great many celebratory depictions of women’s involvement, as Auslander notes in her essay. But just because homespun provided an opportunity for the politicization of the domestic sphere, and gave women a “place” in which they could contribute substantially to a rather significant cause, does not mean that women were readily accepted as political actors. By examining the intersection of material and print cultures, then, it is possible to gain a fuller appreciation of both the opportunities revolution could provide, as well as the limitations it could reinforce.

[1] Leora Auslander, “America’s Cultural Revolution in Transnational Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, edited by Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 612.

[2] Auslander, 616.

[3] Ibid., 620.

[4] Ibid., 622.

[5] “Newport, Rhode-Island, December 28,” The New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth, NH: January 22, 1968).

[6] “New-York, June 26, 1769,” The New-York Journal (New York: June 29, 1769).

[7] “Williamsburgh, (in Virginia) January 3,” Boston Gazette (Boston: February 12, 1770).

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Print Culture and the Problematics of Revolution

Preparing the bibliography on the periodicals in the age of revolution as an assignment in our seminar, I had a chance to glimpse an immense depository of the scholarship which deals with the print culture in the United States, France, and Haiti around 1800, and which increasingly incorporates this subject within the study of the ‘revolutionary’ public sphere. This short-term research was instructive in showing me how the historians in the different fields share research interest and method as well as how they, in their apparently similar approaches, subtly differ from one another. Generally speaking, I find the scholarship on the Haitian Revolution in relation to print and the public sphere quite distinctive from work on the revolutions in North America and France; and, in this post, I would like to address this particularity of the historiography of Haiti, its meaning and implications. I will suggest that the different focuses of the scholarship on the French, American, and Haitian revolutions in regard to print and the public sphere show the different problematics of these revolutions—the difference sometimes overlooked in the process of underscoring the interconnections among them.

At first glance, what characterizes the anglophone historiography of the print culture and the public sphere in regard to the Haitian revolution is its relatively small size and its rapid growth in recent years.[1] One might be tempted to infer from this external fact that the scholarship on Haiti, in this respect, is still deficient or belated, considering that the historians of France and the U.S. have had interest in the public sphere a couple of decades before and in print earlier than that. Yet, I argue that the current state of the scholarship on Haiti—with its own gaps to be filled—indicates not so much its lack or belatedness as a symptom of the specificity of the Haitian revolution, especially as one examines not only its quantitative aspects but also its thematic tendencies.

That is to say, historiography of print culture in relation to the Haitian revolution seems to differ from that of other revolutions in terms of its locus and problematics. First, historiography of Haiti tends to pay significant attention to the foreign press, often more attention to it than to the Haitian press. Representation of the Haitian revolution and Haiti—either by Haitians themselves or by Westerners—in mostly French and U.S. presses features as an essential subject of the recent scholarship on print ant the public culture. Second, in this historiography of Haiti, some of the basic problems of print culture in Western countries such as readership and authorship are converted to a different problem, that is, the problem of literacy.[2]

These peculiarities in the existent scholarship on Haiti suggest not only the urgency of international recognition for Haiti but also what I call the ‘postcolonial’ problematics of the Haitian revolution. The specificity of the problematics is no more evident than in the issue of literacy. What is often not emphasized in the discussions of the literacy of Haitian revolutionaries is the fact that the ‘literacy’ here is not concerned with native language but with the capacity to read and write in a foreign language, that is, French. To understand the ‘literacy’ as the literacy in foreign language(s) helps us to see more clearly what is really at stake when the historians analyze the public sphere by focusing on the Western presses. What they mean by the ‘public sphere’ is, in fact, the public scene of the Western countries which operates upon cultural and discursive exchanges in the Western languages. What I would like to draw attention to not the historians’ ellipsis or erasure of the ‘Westernness’ from their discussion of the public sphere but rather their preoccupation with the public sphere as such. The Western public sphere, in their view, played a crucial role in determining the fate of Haitians at that time, and it was all the more so precisely because Haiti was precluded from that Western cultural/ discursive field in terms of language and race. In other words, the current scholarship implicitly reveals the ‘postcolonial’ problematcis of the Haitian Revolution, the ‘postcolonial’ here entailing the frictions and pressures that postcolonial nation-states encounter in the process of incorporation within the socio-political and cultural matrix of Western modernity.

These ‘postcolonial’ problematics are unique to the Haitian revolution in comparison with the other two revolutions discussed in our seminar. The peculiarity of the Haitian case is quite striking when we think of the American case, because the United States, despite its identical status with Haiti, in theory, as an independent nation and former colony, seems to have not incurred substantial cost for entering into (or remaining in) the Western public sphere. However,  Haiti’s uniqueness, it seems to me, tends not to be acknowledged enough in such a claim that regards the Haitian Revolution as the epitome of Western modernity. I believe it is completely legitimate to make that point, but it is also salutary to bear in mind that stepping over the threshold of modernity demanded irrevocable loss and damage.


[1] I am not in the position to give an overview of the historiography that discusses print and the public sphere in relation to the Haitian revolution, partly due to my insufficient research, restricted to resources published in English. However, as for the historiography’s small size, I would say that, at least, the scholarship on the Haitian press seems to be curiously scant; for example, I could not find any book classified between PN4699 and PN5650 (i.e. the journalism section according to the Library of Congress Classification) that pertains to Haiti/ Saint-Domingue. For a few discussions of the Haitian print culture that largely focus on the pre-revolutionary Haiti, see James E. McClellan III, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue in the Old Regime(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 97-102; John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 124-27. As for the recent increase in the historiography, I will discuss some of representative works within the post and the next note.

[2] For recent works that exemplify these tendencies, see Nick Nesbitt, “The Idea of 1804,” Yale French Studies, no. 107 (2005); Deborah Jenson, Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011). See esp. chap. 1, “Toussaint Louverture, “Spin Doctor”?: Lauching the Haitian Revolution in the Media Sphere.”; Marlene L. Daut, “The “Alpha and Omega” of Haitian Literature: Baron De Vastey and the U.S. Audience of Haitian Political Writing,” Comparative Literature 64, no. 1 (2012). Nesbitt’s article is one of the earliest works that analyses the Haitian revolution by using the concept of the public sphere. Jenson’s and Daut’s works illustrate the recent tendencies I mention, as they discuss the Western (i.e. French and American) public sphere’s influences on the Haitian revolution and independent Haiti and offer substantial analyses of the issue of the literacy (e.g. that of Haitian revolutionaries).

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Threads in the Age of Revolution

At the end of each of our seminar meetings, each participant suggests a thread or theme that they’d like to see carried forward in our next meeting or throughout the year. This week, we are turning the threads into a post with the hope of starting the dialogue online. See the other threads in the comment section!

My Thread:
One of the articles that we read this week was Marlene Daut’s “The ‘Alpha and Omega’ of Haitian Literature: Baron de Vastey and the U.S. Audience of Haitian Political Writing,” this article really got me thinking about issues of self-representation in each of the revolutions. I’d like to talk more about the layers of self-representation in each revolution and the different narratives that become evident when we pay attention to the diversity. I’d also be grateful for suggestions for further reading or sources.

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Civil War and the Haitian Revolution

For our first meeting, participants of the seminar read a chapter by David Armitage, “Every Great Revolution is a Civil War,” forthcoming in Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein, eds., Scripting Revolutions (Stanford, 2014). “When tracing the genealogy of the modern script of revolution,” Armitage argues, “we should seriously consider the hypothesis that civil war was the original genus of which revolution was only a late-evolving species.” Ever since our first meeting, I’ve been thinking about how we can situate Haiti in Armitage’s argument; I think it does fit, but the case needs a bit of special attention.

My immediate question when I began reading was “can slaves be part of a civil war?” It seems as though Algernon Sidney beat me to it in the 17th century. Sidney, Armitage reveals, sought to exclude wars involving slaves and free non-citizens from the category of “civil war” in order to refute Robert Filmer’s defense of monarchy. By narrowing the definition, Sidney was able to confine the period of civil wars to the Roman Empire and therefore provide evidence of the instability caused by monarchy. Because slaves were not citizens in Saint Domingue, my first instinct was to exclude the Haitian Revolution from the category of civil war. But the story is not quite as simple as slaves v. free people and I began to see the parallels and similarities that Armitage emphasizes between “civil war” and “revolution” since they are part of the same genealogy.

In 1791, enslaved people in the northern part of the French colony of Saint Domingue rose up in rebellion and began the event that we know today as the “Haitian Revolution.” Without any other choice, the French commissioners in the colony declared the abolition of slavery in 1793. The French National Convention ratified this decision in 1794 and applied it to the entire French empire and they also granted civil and political rights to all non-whites in the colonies. Up until 1793/4, therefore, the war had been between slaves/non-citizens and free people/citizens (the French revolutionary government had granted citizenship to free non-whites in 1791 but the measure had not been adopted by the ruling colonial elite).

Between1793/4 and 1798, however, the colony was entangled in a complicated series of battles involving local conflicts and international armies. British and Spanish armies, royalists, republicans, whites, former slaves, and former free people of color all fought with and against each other whenever it suited their immediate goals and needs. I’m struggling to think of this period as a civil war since the British and Spanish forces played such a central role and occupied territory in the colony. Can civil wars also include a central international dimension? Can Revolutions? Between 1799 and 1803, however, the conflict is much more clearly civil since the central military and political conflicts were between Toussaint Louverture and André Rigaud and then between Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Napoléon’s army under Charles Leclerc and Donatien Rochambeau.

What I find incredibly interesting, is that at least one observer at the time claimed that the conflict between Haiti and France after 1804 should be considered a “civil war.” In a debate surrounding the prohibition on trade with Haiti in the United States in 1806, Senator Samuel White of Delaware proclaimed a lengthy speech in support of continuing the trade with Haiti.[1] To help make his case, White tried to prove that prohibiting trade with Haiti was contrary to the law of nations. The status of Haitians as free citizens (according to the 1794 law), White argued, meant that the battle between St. Domingo and France was not a “rebellion” but instead a “civil war.” He cited Emmerich de Vattel in support of this argument. “Custom appropriates the term of civil war,” White read from Vattel’s writings, “to every war between the members of one and the same political society. If it be between part of the citizens on the one side, and the sovereign, with those who continue in obedience to him, on the other; provided the malcontents have any reason for taking up arms nothing further is required to entitle such disturbance to the name of civil war, and not that of rebellion.”[2] White cited resistance against political and personal slavery as a very just cause for war. Once he had established that the conflict should be considered a civil war, White argued that in such scenarios neutral nations were to treat both parties equally. White did not win his case in Congress and the United States prohibited trade with Haiti in 1806.[3]

Armitage argues that many “self-conscious revolutionaries… were well aware [that] the scripts of civil war and revolution had much in common and were difficult to disentangle.” I too am having difficulty disentangling the two – if it can be done – and I welcome any additional thoughts on the issue.

[1]Mr. White’s Speech in the Senate of the United States, on the bill interdicting all intercourse between the United States and the island of St. Domingo; February 20, 1806,” ([no publication information], 1806).
[2] White, 11; White cites from Vattel’s chapter on Civil War: Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Natures, Applied  to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, Joseph Chitty, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1834), 424; Lauren Benton highlights that thirteen years later US President James Monroe defined the “status of Spain’s former colonies as belligerents in a civil war.” Lauren Benton, “Strange Sovereignty: The Provincia Oriental in the Atlantic World,” Mexico 20/10, La Modernidad en el Atlantico Iberamericano; see also Jaime E. Rodriguez O., The Independence of Spanish America, (Cambridge, 1998).
[3] This paragraph is a modified excerpt from my dissertation, “’So Many Schemes in Agitation’: The Haitian State and the Atlantic World, (Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University, 2012).

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Newspapers and Revolution


In his excellent essay “Reading the Republic: Newspapers in Early America,” historian Jeffrey L. Pasley – an upcoming guest in our seminar – engages in a curious exercise.  In order to contextualize the political and social world of the Early Republic, Pasley examines a single sheet of a 1794 newspaper, the December 17 edition of Greenleaf’s New York Journal and Patriotic Register.  In explaining the significance of this single sheet, Pasley writes, “Newspapers were so central an institution in the Founders’ world that it is possible to see almost the whole of their republic in this one example.”[1]  While this newspaper does provide substantial insight into the politics and government of the Early Republic, Pasley suggests that it is in some ways even more useful as a tool for social historians – allowing tantalizing glimpses into quotidian transactions, ordinary lives, and encounters significant because they were, at the time, relatively unremarkable.

Inspired by these findings, I decided to engage in a similar exercise.  How might a sheet of newspaper printed during the period of the American Revolution reveal what was “ordinary” about this rather extraordinary time?  In what ways does a newspaper give access to lives less documented?  And for the purposes of our Sawyer Seminar, how can one single sheet of newspaper help us to more fully understand the Age of Revolution?

On the evening of March 5, 1770, as the incidents that came to be known as the Boston Massacre were unfolding on King Street, the Massachusetts Gazette found its way to readers throughout the city.[2]  The front page contained news from London, important for connecting colonists to political events in England.  On page two was a report from Virginia, of a ship captain named Ferguson who was recently imprisoned “for the murder of three of his crew, and a Negro boy of his own, at sea.”  Page three contained a proclamation by Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts colony.   Each of these items was likely of interest to Bostonians, and can certainly tell us much about their social and political world.  Yet what of the Gazette’s fourth and final page?  Like today, eighteenth-century newspapers reserved the most pressing matters for the front page; the back, by contrast, was for advertisements and stories of a less urgent nature.  But advertisements were certainly important; as a vital aspect of commerce, they alerted potential buyers of goods, services, and even people for sale.  And as Pasley points out, “we can learn a great deal about the society that produced [newspapers]” through advertisements – what people bought, sold, valued, and desired.[3]

What, then, was for sale on the night of the Massacre?  William Dennie offered “Jamaica sugars of the very first Quality, perhaps superior to any ever brought to this Market” – revealing Boston’s commercial interest in Caribbean sugar production, and Bostonians’ vested interest in Atlantic slavery.  Timothy Kelley advertised his services as a “hair cutter and peruke maker” and boasted qualifications of “many years experience in the most sugareminent shops in London.”  Kelley offered perukes – highly styled wigs – that were as fashionable and as “genteel as can be had from thence.”  Kelley’s ad suggests that the Homespun Movement could coexist with a yen for fashion, and even a desire for the latest styles from Britain.  And an unnamed “young woman” advertised “a good breast of milk,” hoping to “go into a Family in town to Suckle a Child” – indicating that women on the eve of revolution sought employment through breastfeeding, and opening up an interesting line of inquiry regarding women’s labor during a period in which their lives were greatly circumscribed.  Taken together, these brief advertisements provide a complex view of commerce and culture in the Revolutionary period, commenting on race, labor, gender, and transatlantic connections in a manner far different from the reports featured in the newspaper’s earlier pages.

In addition, the final page of the March 5, 1770 issue of the Massachusetts Gazette contained two letters, neither of which was concerned with commercial activity, but instead with the recent appearance of a comet in the night sky.  One letter described the comet in great detail, noting the remarkable length of its tail and its very close approach to the sun – and overall, hailing the comet’s appearance as a great moment of scientific interest.  The other letter framed the comet’s appearance in religious terms, as evidence of a God who had been offended by his earthly subjects.  Though its author could not have had the Massacre in mind as he was writing, one must wonder what Bostonians thought on the evening of March 5 as they read these lines: “How you have griev’d your SOVEREIGN, quickly tell, lest angry justice, hurls you into hell!”

Neither the advertisements nor the reactions to the comet comment explicitly on political events.  Yet as Jeffrey Pasley points out, a single sheet of newspaper can provide invaluable insight into the social and cultural contexts from which political events emerge.  As I continue to think about the Age of Revolution during the course of our Sawyer Seminar, I hope to extend this method of thinking to other geographic and political contexts.  That is, to keep considering how the “ordinary” – selling sugar, seeking employment, advertising a haircut, pondering the evening sky – influences, and is influenced by, the “extraordinary” – in this case, revolution.


[1] Jeffrey L. Pasley, “Reading the Republic: Newspapers and Early America,” Gilcrease: The Journal of the Gilcrease Museum 18 (fall/winter 2011): 36-53; 41.

[2] Massachusetts Gazette (Boston, MA: March 5, 1770).

[3] Pasley, 41.

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Thinking Citizenship

“Citizenship” was a topic that came up briefly during our last seminar, and I wanted to raise it as a subject for more discussion here. What are the varying categories of “citizen” or “citizenship” that we think of when discussing revolution and the formation/reformation of constitutions? What constitutes citizenship? Who counts as a citizen during each of these revolutions and why?

In this post, I’m going to briefly dive into the issue I’m most interested in: parsing the potential definitions of “citizen” during the period. I’ll put a few working definitions on the table, and hopefully comments from others will help further contextualize how the category of “citizen” has been constituted historically, theoretically, and politically.

First, we might consider citizenship as a legal category that reinforces civic participation as well as the importance of belonging to a state (and, ergo, the state itself). Citizenship can also reinforce class stratification. As Sophia Rosenfeld notes in Common Sense, citizenship—and, by extension, voting rights—in the American colonies were limited to gentleman of property because it was believed that those without property (laborers, women, etc.) would be too easily influenced by outside forces in their civic participation. She writes, “In English thought on the subject, only those in possession of income-producing land could truly be called independent. And only those who were independent could be counted on to make good judgments in matters of community interest” (163). This view was challenged by the idea that a multiplicity of voices from the community—the “full, equal, and direct participation of all adult men”—would result in “the best decisions” (165). However, Rosenfeld suggests that the laws were initially framed, and citizenship limited, with the intention of the propertied classes voting in what we might call the “best interest” of the entire population. Indeed, in the wake of their respective revolutions, the United States and France limited “citizenship” to adult men of property. The Haitian Constitution of 1805 implicitly limited “citizenship” to adult black men, and also contains unusual provisions surrounding citizenship itself. For example, citizenship could be suspended in the case of bankruptcy or lost if one emigrated to another country—citizenship, then, was contingent upon financial solvency and physical presence within the nation.

However, there is also an ideological (and psychological) aspect to the rhetoric of “citizenship,” in that the ideas of “citizen” or “citizenship” can be framed as  ideological categories that do not privilege national boundaries but rather national or political sympathies. One writer from the period who actively used this definition of citizenship was Helen Maria Williams, an English writer who fervently believed in the tenets of the French Revolution. Williams eventually moved her entire family over to Paris, was imprisoned during the Terror (she was a Girondist sympathizer), and, most notably, was essentially the first female war correspondent on the scene, reporting events and seeking to rouse English sympathy for the revolution. In her first letter of Letters Written in France, Williams documents her attendance of the Fête de la Fédération, which commemorated the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Caught up in the excitement of the crowd, she declared herself a “citizen of the world” (69). Her sympathy for the Revolution renders juridical categories obsolete. Indeed, the phrase “citizen of the world” infers that the French Revolution is not only the revolution of France, but also one that can be tapped into the world over; it challenges xenophobia and the ideology of nationalism. For Williams, “citizenship” is an ideological allegiance, a declaration of solidarity that supersedes borders and legal systems. Williams emphasizes how easy it is to take up this position: “It required but the common feelings of humanity to become in that moment a citizen of the world” (69). I’m not overly satisfied with calling this sort of “citizenship” an ideological category, but what Williams professes refuses allegiance to a state, person, or system.

To conclude with a few questions: how can we further define these legal, political, and ideological categories of citizenship? What happens in each of these revolutions when there is a rupture between “citizenship” as a legal category and “citizenship” as an ideological category? Consider Loyalists in the colonies, for example, and the social stigma, geographic displacement, economic loss, etc. that can result when certain groups of citizens assume supremacy over others (again, back to the idea that every revolution is a civil war). Where is line between the rhetoric of “citizenship” and the rhetoric of political ideology/partisanship in a revolution, where the fight is not for political dominance within a system but of a complete overhaul of that system based on the right of the citizen?

Works Cited:

Rosenfeld, Sophia. Common Sense: A Political History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

Williams, Helen Maria. Letters Written in France, in the Summer 1790. Eds. Neil Fraistat & Sue S. Lanser. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2001.

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