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  • Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment
  • Celucien L. Joseph (bio)
Nesbitt, Nick. Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2008.

On January 1, 1804, Haiti's chief general Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the independence of Haiti, thus indicating the birth of the first black independent state in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Nick Nesbitt insists that the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, led by Haiti's foremost general, Toussaint L'Ouverture, was the only triumphant slave revolution in world history, and has become a symbol of anticolonial revolt and universal emancipation. The slaves at Saint-Domingue who revolted against their masters in 1791 "invented decolonization" (9), thus making Haiti "the first postcolonial state" (56) in 1804. Nesbitt convincingly argues that the Haitian Revolution stands today as a reminder of former slaves' commitment to freedom and their affirmation of their humanity and dignity. They explicitly announced what was then thought impossible and unpractical—that is, the humanity of the enslaved and their natural desire for "inner freedom in an unfree world," which Nesbitt calls the "freedom of active creation" (2). In fact, according to Nesbitt, it was Haiti that fulfilled the failed promises of both French and American Revolutions concerning the unqualified and universal human right to freedom and equality (see chapters 1 and 4). Consequently, the author contends that the Haitian Revolution is not an appendix to the French Revolution, as eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century scholarship maintained. Rather, he proposes that the Haitian Revolution both embodies the principles of and is the historical fulfillment of central tenets of Enlightenment thought. In other words, it was at Saint-Domingue that such abstract ideas were tested and came into their full force in historically concrete form (see chapters 2 and 3). The ultimate test of the global pretensions of Les droits de l'homme (Rights of Man), the universal principles of liberty and equality affirmed in 1789 by the French Assemblée nationale constituante, was realized in Haiti through a series of forceful and unstoppable events between the years of 1791 and 1804 (see chapter 5). Accordingly, as Nesbitt forcefully argues, the so-called Enlightenment was not solely a European radical phenomenon; the slaves at Saint-Domingue were also actors and makers of history. They were, in short, the architects and defenders of the rights of man and universal emancipation.

Universal Emancipation joins and continues a long overdue conversation about the political, ethical, and philosophical ramifications of the Haitian Revolution, which are carefully analyzed in recent influential works such as Sibylle Fischer's Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (2004) and Susan Buck-Morss's Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009). Fischer's basic thesis is that Western historiography has silenced the Haitian Revolution because it was necessary for the development of a hegemonic concept of Western modernity rooted in an ethics of differentiation and otherness. She contends that the Revolution challenged the notion of European particularism [End Page 1132] as universal. In this way, the Western world disengaged the question of race, racial inequality, and the culture of slavery which it had created and which was necessary for its survival. In her path-breaking study, Buck-Morss demonstrates that the events of Saint-Domingue inspired Hegel's theoretical model of the master-slave dialectic. She argues that revolutionary Haiti has contributed considerably to European critical discourses on subjectivity, freedom, identity, and consciousness. These recent studies constitute a major attempt to situate Haiti's revolutionary events within the modern philosophical discourses of the Western world, and thus have contributed significantly to Haitian revolutionary scholarship.

The major thesis of the Universal Emancipation is that "the construction of a society without slavery, one of a universal and unqualified human right to freedom, properly stands as Haiti's unique contribution to humanity" (2). Consequently, Nesbitt contends that the Haitian Revolution has considerable relevance for contemporary debates on human rights, ethics, and universalism. The author insists that the idea of 1804 goes beyond the politics of French Jacobinism and that Toussaint L'Ouverture transcends the conditions and confinements of Western political autonomy.

Nesbitt engages rigorously...


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