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"What Mischief Would Follow?": The Emersons, Haiti, and Romantic Racialism
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"What Mischief Would Follow?"
The Emersons, Haiti, and Romantic Racialism

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Toussaint Louverture. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-7860. [End Page 218]

In a letter dated 17 October 1849, Wendell Phillips thanks Ralph Waldo Emerson for the use of a set of volumes that he describes as a "valuable contribution to the scanty stores of Haytian history."1 Phillips's apparent claim that "Haytian history" exists only in "scanty stores" is interesting, not only because African American newspapers had been publishing stories about Haiti throughout the first half of the nineteenth century but also because Phillips himself would consequently discover and contribute to a broad Haitian archive, lecturing on the heroics of Toussaint Louverture by the beginning of the Civil War.2 The first decade of the twenty-first century is similar: many scholars who were previously unfamiliar with the "scanty stores" of Haitian history have, within ten years, become immersed in studies of the island—beginning with its 1791 insurrections. Even in an archive shaped by Western thought's limited ontological presumptions of racial difference and human freedom, the Haitian Revolution populates the historical landscape with possibilities whose "right to existence," as Michel-Rolph Trouillot puts it, had been silenced within the "field constituted by previously created facts."3 Rewriting the Haitian Revolution provided Ralph Waldo Emerson and his cohorts—especially his brother Charles Chauncy Emerson—with a corrective to the providential narrative of freedom that dominated United States history. [End Page 219] Placing the Anglo-American concept of righteous rebellion in a hemispheric context could amend the patterns of Anglo masculinity that had historically marred the ideal of freedom. This theoretical world, born of an odd combination of love and violent rebellion, presented a new world of racial meaning and masculine power. By amalgamating the histories of Haiti and the United States, mid-nineteenth-century scholars could also envision a reformed masculine world.

Similarly, for many twenty-first century scholars, the "differential exercise[s] of power" that amplified the accomplishments of one colony's revolution and suppressed the other's shed light on the United States' exceptional "progress" as a world power.4 As the "other" foundational site of American Revolution, Haiti has become the focal point of contemporary scholarly rebellion. As a corrective to American exceptionalism, Haiti signifies what Nick Nesbitt describes as "the capacity for self-determination that is a universal, immanent potential."5 Haiti was not a nation whose founding fathers condoned what David Brion Davis identifies as the sin of slavery— or what Charles Emerson referred to as "sewing up the body politic . . . in a sack with a living viper."6 The two poles of representation that characterized Haiti in the nineteenth-century United States, however, ranged from Nesbitt's space of immanent potential to something far worse than Charles Emerson's viper-infested sack. In other words, the images of insurgent black power that characterized the first free black nation in the Western Hemisphere frightened many of Emerson's contemporaries more than any representation of slavery. Waldo Emerson's and Phillips's interest in Haiti on the eve of one of the most turbulent decades in United States history reflects their attempt, not only to make sense of conflicting racialized representations of the Haitian past and of people of African descent in general, but also to listen to the silences that reveal how a more perfect union might coalesce in the future. This perfectionist vision, however, frequently came into focus through the lens of romantic racialism.

While romantic racialism often endowed people of African descent with a fictional, heightened capacity for love and empathy, [End Page 220] it at the same time depicted Anglo-Saxons as somewhat bereft of those qualities. Abolitionist representations of the Haitian Revolution deify Toussaint in particular on the grounds that he possessed a heightened sense of love, morality, and compassion. If anti-black representations of Haiti focused on violence and cruelty, the rhetoric of Waldo Emerson's English Traits (first published in 1856), which emphasized an Anglo-Saxon propensity for violence, flipped that proverbial script: it turned the most disturbing...