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  • Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment
  • Jenny Shaw
Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. By Nick Nesbitt. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008. 260 pp. $59.50 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

In Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment, Nick Nesbitt explores the Haitian Revolution's influence on radical enlightenment philosophy and simultaneously traces Haiti's current place in the world as an "incomplete project of Enlightenment countermodernity" (p. 6). Drawing largely on political philosophy and intellectual history, Nesbitt traces the history of universal emancipation in the Age of Enlightenment, and the development of human rights in contemporary political philosophy using the Haitian Revolution as his starting point. According to Nesbitt, the Haitian Revolution's unwavering commitment to universal emancipation (Haiti's "unique contribution to humanity" [p. 2]) illuminates how fully transnational the so-called Age of Enlightenment was. By overthrowing slavery and making universal emancipation the centerpiece of the revolution, those who fought for independence in Saint-Domingue accorded full human rights to people of African descent, something that even the most radical enlightenment philosophers "refused" (p. 3) to do. A challenging but fascinating read, Universal Emancipation is a book that demands that we recognize the importance of the Haitian revolution beyond its place in history as the first successful slave [End Page 520] revolt in the New World, or as the first black republic established in the Americas. For Nesbitt, former slaves on Saint-Domingue borrowed from, shaped, challenged, and remade Enlightenment philosophies to achieve universal emancipation. Moreover, the society they created in the aftermath of independence in 1804 stood as a direct challenge to the development of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism and, as Nesbitt argues, continues to exist as a challenge to twenty-first-century imperial power through its "alternative economic and/or political model" (p. 195).

Universal Emancipation begins by situating the Haitian Revolution in the context of the Age of Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century. In doing so, Nesbitt emphasizes the transnational Atlantic flow of enlightenment philosophies, but also makes a strong case for the singularity of the Haitian Revolution, which he argues was "simultaneously a dialectical negation of slavery, violence and global capital" (p. 25), none of which can be said about postrevolutionary United States or France. Arguing forcefully that those who fought for emancipation in Saint-Domingue were the true inheritors of both Benedict de Spinoza's radical philosophy and also the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Nesbitt is persuasive in his assertion that the Haitian Revolution was "the most brilliant political improvisation of the globalized Radical Enlightenment" (p. 36). But Nesbitt is very careful to impress on the readers the ways in which Haiti forced the idea of universal emancipation on reluctant European radicals: the political philosophy of the Haitian Revolution "Tropicaliz[ed] the Enlightenment" (p. 61). This was no mere "passive mimicry" of European Enlightenment thought, but rather "one in which the slaves of Saint-Domingue actively restructured contemporary debate on universal human rights" (p. 61).

In the following chapters, Nesbitt develops his argument about Haiti's singularity to show how the aims of the revolution became universal through the revolutionaries' adherence to human rights in the form of emancipation. Nesbitt traces the foundations of human rights to thirteenth-century Mali, arguing that "centuries before such civil rights would even be theorized in the West" in Africa a society was founded "upon the universal and unqualified rights of all human beings to be free from enslavement" (p. 45). In exploring Mali's oral tradition of freedom from enslavement that reappeared on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean as a Haitian Kreyol proverb espousing freedom, Nesbitt demonstrates the links between the African past and the Haitian present, which also allows him to explore (albeit briefly) how Kongolese political philosophy and the religions of Catholicism and [End Page 521] Vodou influenced both Toussaint Louverture and the former slaves of Saint-Domingue.

Just as Nesbitt is concerned to impress on the reader that the "Enlightenment" was not merely a European philosophical phenomenon (no more in its invention than in its applicability), so too he takes care to...


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pp. 520-524
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