Haiti, Toussaint Louverture, Haitian Revolution, Slavery, John Brown, Abolitionism
I will admit from the first my bias: I operate from the basic assumption that the Haitian Revolution is one of the most important events in the history of the world, and go around talking about it to pretty much anyone who will listen. So I was a particularly receptive audience for the arguments in Clavin's impassioned book about the ways in which Haiti—as example, referent, ghost, nightmare, prophesy, and much else—shaped politics and culture in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
This is not the first time this story has been told: The book returns to a terrain explored in Alfred Hunt's 1988 book Haiti's Influence on Antebellum [End Page 712] America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean, reissued by Louisiana State University Press in 2006. In some ways, his argument is about extending and further emphasizing these earlier arguments: The Haitian Revolution, he writes, "had a much a greater impact on slavery and abolition than has been suggested" (4). But Clavin also brings out new material as well as a different energy and angle to the story, making this a vital contribution. Before and during the Civil War, he argues, "Louverture and the Haitian Revolution were resonant, polarizing, and ultimately subversive symbols, which antislavery and proslavery groups exploited to both provoke violent confrontation and determine the fate of slavery in the United States" (5). I appreciated the way Clavin illuminates how complex, slippery, and multivalent the Haitian Revolution was as a symbol. He remains attuned throughout to the often contradictory way in which it could surface in various types of debates and discourse, and does a nice job of leading us through its various appearances. At the same time, he also preserves a line of attack and argument throughout, with a drive and urgency that made it exciting reading. To my mind, alongside works like Ashli White's Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Baltimore, 2010) and a series of recent works on U.S. foreign policy toward Haiti during the Revolution, this book is required reading for anyone interested in thinking about the ways U.S. and Caribbean histories of slavery and antislavery shaped one another.
I didn't—and couldn't—read it this work the way a specialist on antebellum U.S. history would, and will have to leave to others to respond to and evaluate the specific claims Clavin makes about the extent and impact evocations of Haiti had on debates about secession. More familiar with the history of slave revolt and abolitionism in the United States, however, I was impressed by the way in which is his study illuminates the way the symbolism surrounding Haiti really shaped the political imaginary of antislavery activism. For me that was really the crucial heart of the work: Indeed the climactic argument, the one I have repeated to people most often when explaining to them why they should read this book, is Clavin's point that the very strategy of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry was likely linked to his study of the tactics of the Haitian Revolution.
As Clavin also notes, Brown's most elaborate funeral took place not in the United States but in Haiti, where the president and his family oversaw a ceremony in the Port-au-Prince cathedral, complete with an empty coffin that declared the abolitionist a "martyr for the blacks." If I had one regret about the book it was that, even at moments like this, it [End Page 713] remained focused almost entirely on the United States. There, however, much more that could be said about this fascinating moment in the history of Haiti's own relationship to U.S. abolitionism. Clavin evokes this relationship but does not go into it. That is understandable, of course: No book can do everything, and this book already does so much it seems greedy to ask...