James Alexander Dun's Dangerous Neighbors is a well-researched and creative study of how early Americans contextualized the Haitian Revolution within political discourse about their own revolution and used the drama in Saint Domingue as a sounding board for partisan political rhetoric in America's early party system. Dun's work makes a valuable contribution to a growing field of scholarship that explores the Haitian Revolution's reverberations throughout the Atlantic world, specifically building on the work of historians such as Ashli White and François Furstenberg who have recently analyzed the impact of refugees from Saint Domingue on American politics during the early republic period. As a study of public discourse, Dangerous Neighbors relies mainly on newspapers and political pamphlets published in Philadelphia from 1789 to 1804. Dun demonstrates convincingly that the Philadelphia press commentary on Haiti changed over time, reverberated across the young republic, and influenced national political discourses. The author's command of the histories of both the Haitian Revolution and the early republic is a strength of Dangerous Neighbors.
The book consists of an introduction and seven chapters arranged chronologically according to different phases of the Haitian Revolution. Chapter one discusses the initial phase of "Philadelphia's Haitian Revolution" from the outset of the French Revolution in 1789 to the French Legislative Assembly's May 15, 1791, law that granted political equality to free people of color in Saint Domingue born to free parents. This development led to a public debate that broadened the implications of the universal declarations at the heart of the American Revolution as the proto-Republican (Dun's term to identify those who would later join Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party) defenders of the French Revolution argued for the positive effects of the May 15 law. Chapters two, three, and four discuss the [End Page 666] next phase of the Haitian Revolution in Philadelphia, which began in August 1791 as slaves rose up on Saint Domingue's North Plain, setting fire to the cane fields and launching the first successful slave uprising in the Western Hemisphere. Although American observers condemned the violence and bloodshed emanating from Saint Domingue, proto-Republican commentators in Philadelphia used the event as an avenue to discuss the potential danger of slavery in the United States, leading to "a high tide of Revolutionary-era antislavery sentiment and activity" (p. 21).
Chapters five and six discuss the impact of Toussaint Louverture's rise to power on discussions about the meaning of the Haitian Revolution for the United States. Louverture's rise occurred in the context of an increasingly bitter partisan divide between Federalists and Republicans amid the Quasi-War with France. As Louverture increasingly steered Saint Domingue toward independence, Federalists championed cooperation with his government as a way to strike against France while Republicans "married a simmering effort to expose the Federalists as betrayers of American honor and independence to a portrait of Louverture as a despot" (p. 147). Chapter seven discusses the final phase of the Haitian Revolution, marked by former slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines's declaration of Haitian independence in 1804. As the first black republic, Haiti became "an alien and dangerous place" in the minds of white Americans, and commentators increasingly dismissed events there as "irrelevant to their discussions about race, slavery, and revolution" (p. 23). Dun suggests that "in reducing the intricate and nuanced revolutionary agendas at work in Saint Domingue over the period to a simple portrait of black violence, Americans pieced together a basic agreement about their own nation's Revolution, one that marked it as complete" (p. 23).
Dun's most important contribution is to show that Haiti's legacy in the United States was an historical construction that developed during extended public discourse about the revolution in the early republic. Initially, events in Saint Domingue sparked genuine debate about the meaning of the American Revolution for slavery and racial [End Page 667] equality. Later, the radical implications of America's revolutionary ideology were silenced by...