restricted access Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution. By Matthew J. Clavin. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. viii, 238. $39.95 cloth)

In recent years, scholars have shown with increasing subtlety the breadth and depth of the long shadow that the Haitian Revolution cast over the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. Matthew Clavin's new book contributes to this literature by exploring manifestations of historical memory of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution in late antebellum and Civil War America. Following a similar binary thread that Edward Bartlett Rugemer traced in The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (2009), Clavin likewise situates the origins of this historical memory in contemporary accounts of the Haitian Revolution produced in the 1790s and early 1800s, especially those based on first-person narratives of the white "victims" of the revolution. These early works established an indelible narrative about the revolution, the abolition of slavery, and race war that, in the U.S., shaped subsequent arguments of both slaveholders and abolitionists.

Clavin does an excellent job of showing that conservatives and reformers frequently invoked the memory of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. In the 1820s and 1830s, abolitionists sought to counter the proslavery narrative (that their efforts would provoke slave rebellion) by praising Toussaint Louverture's "compassion, probity, and integrity at the expense of his militancy and defiance." By the eve of the Civil War, according to Clavin, radical abolitionists had "transformed Louverture into a symbol of black masculinity and violence that they deployed to bring about the destruction of slavery" (p. 35). Chapter three continues this line of argument for the period between John Brown's raid and the outbreak of war. [End Page 308] Here and at other points, Clavin is less successful in his analysis of the proslavery camp, missing clues in his own evidence that suggest it was not only memory of the Haitian Revolution that informed southern perspectives. Discussing the 1860 proslavery writing of Professor Albert Taylor Bledsoe of the University of Virginia, for example, Clavin's evidence makes clear how steeped the proslavery camp was in the history of the French Revolution—especially French Jacobinism, and the slaughter of innocents and violent destruction they associated with it.

In part two, Clavin focuses entirely on the Civil War years after 1862 when the arming of slaves and emancipation became fundamental components of Union war policy. Again, the Haitian example often took center stage in these debates. Unitarian minister John Weiss's Atlantic Monthly articles, published in 1862-63, in fact, anticipated Clavin's work. Weiss noted, for example, how for decades Northerners and Southerners had similarly, though for different ends, invoked the history of "St. Domingo." And now partisans on all sides invoked memory of the Haitian Revolution to weigh in on the question of African American recruitment. For John Weiss, the "history of the Haytian Revolution" was "positive proof that negroes have made good soldiers" (p. 83). William Wells Brown, Wendell Phillips, and others made the same point. In various ways, Clavin shows how antislavery politicians like George Boutwell and Charles Sumner, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, James Redpath, and Lydia Maria Childs regularly drew on the Haitian example. But in invoking Toussaint, many writers avoided his use of military violence and the essential participation of slave-soldiers in ultimate overthrow of the French regime. Rather, they depicted the freedmen of Saint-Domingue as docile and contented with Toussaint's new labor regime, arguing by analogy that freed American slaves would be the docile children that Southerners claimed them to be.

Perhaps the clearest example of how memory of the first French emancipation could affect decision making was William Whiting's The War Powers of the President, and the Legislative Powers of Congress in Relation [End Page 309] to Rebellion, Treason, and Slavery (1862), which impressed Lincoln enough that he appointed Whiting solicitor of the War Department. In this work, Whiting had expressly drawn upon the actions of the French civil commissioner to Saint-Domingue, Léger Félicité Sonthonax, whose successive decrees, issued over several months in...