REVIEW: James Alexander Dun, Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America

On Monday, the Junto featured a Q&A I did with James Alexander Dun, who teaches history at Princeton University, about his new book: Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (UPenn Press, 2016). Make sure to go read his smart and provocative comments over there. But I thought it’d still be worthwhile to jot down some of my own thoughts on the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Dangerous Neighbors is a history that spans Atlantic, hemispheric, and local history. While much of the focus is on newspaper coverage in Philadelphia, that context is only important insomuch as it is reacting to a much broader world. Most especially, Dun persuasively argues that early Americans collapsed the distance around them even as they sought to maintain a cultural silo; that is, they were immensely interested in events taking place outside their boundaries, but only as a way to reflect local concerns. Events like the Haitian Revolution, then, “reverberated in America because of their capacity to provoke self-reflection,” he notes. “They stimulated connections and comparisons; they raised questions about America’s own revolutionary pasts and their current realities. In crafting narratives from and about Saint Domingue, Americans fashioned and re-fashioned their own stories” (4). As a book that adds provocative nuances to traditional narratives concerning the Age of Revolution, Dun digs deep into how early Americans understood the Revolutionary Age themselves.

These categories of revolutionary belonging are important, as they were central to how Dun’s characters conceived of the world around them. Those who were most committed to the more radical revolutionary notions, like abolition, connected these transatlantic happenings into interwoven republican narratives. America was the spark for a transnational fire. Their understanding of the slave revolt in Saint Domingue took on a special hue, as many viewed it as part of the broader transformation taking place in France, which in turn was following America’s example. “Americans saw a French Revolution in Saint Domingue,” Dun explains, “not a Dominguan (let alone Haitian) Revolution” (21). Even as emancipation was declared, and the insurrection became more politicized, radical abolitionists continued to see elements of the fight as representative of a broader universalist front. Most famously, David Walker posited all revolts in the America and Europe as part of a global push for equality. Revolutionary, indeed.

But the American reactions to Haiti wen through stages, evolving as they witnessed a slave revolt that raised questions concerning republicanism and anti-slavery, Toussaint Louverture’s rise and the perils of black leadership, and the final and utter violence of black independence. This was not a predetermined trajectory. Developments at home, especially the Federalist and Jeffersonian battles, framed these new perceptions. Once Louverture came to power, the war turned deadly; and as the large-scale slave insurrection became too much to defend, many Americans divorced the conflict from its French origins. Even for those who defended the principles of the French Revolution, Haiti was too much a burden to maintain. By Jefferson’s presidency, and especially after Haiti achieved independence, most were willing to cut off the black nation as a political pariah. It was neither French nor Republican. And by disregarding Haiti’s Revolution, they in turn were redefining their own: no more was abolitionism or universalism seen as the heart of the American Revolutionary cause.

Dun argues that by shifting their understanding of Haiti’s revolution, they made a concomitant revision to their own “Revolutionary settlement” (69). Rather than being a radical push for universalism and equality, America’s founding was now seen as based more in political independence. More, their revolution was less representative of a broader global move and more an exceptionalist break-off divorced from the other nations. Americans, Dun believes, consciously chose to put an end to their Revolutionary era by capping off its radical potential. Even in the City of Brotherly Love, the hub of anti-slavery agitation, activists eventually “articulated a conception of Philadelphia that made the city an exceptional oasis rather than an auger of coming change” (142). In an age where nationalism seems once again to be blunting progressive change, this story is as relevant as ever.

Dangerous Neighbors fits a much larger literature, both concerning books on Haiti’s role in the early republic as well as the Age of Revolutions more generally. But I was especially struck by its similarities to Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics (reviewed here), another book that just came out last year. Both books embody the en-vogue hemispheric approach that re-centers historians’ focuses on the geographic neighbors to America’s south. Both books shed new light on the early republic’s debates concerning race and slavery. And both books demonstrate that the “Age of Revolution” in America was an artificial category that met its end due to conservative backlash and anti-republican retrenchment. Dun and Fitz argue for a Revolutionary moment that was surprisingly open to radical forms of universalism that was eventual squelched by those who tried to bring the age to a commanding halt.

This is one of those books where it is difficult to find a critique, so I’m just going to mention my single biggest frustration: it’s a bit too dense and thorough to assign in my undergraduate class. I periodically teach a course on the Age of Revolutions, so I’m constantly on the lookout for possible new books to assign. Dangerous Neighbors‘s topic and insight would fit perfectly, but I fear my students are not the book’s ideal audience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the problem is rooted in Dun’s strengths: the work is exhaustively researched, meticulously argued, and powerfully written. But it will make its biggest impact with fellow scholars. To make one more comparison to Fitz’s work: Our Sister Republics was meant for the general reader and undergraduate student, while Dangerous Neighbors is destined for the graduate seminar room.

And it is there where I believe this book will help shape the field. Dangerous Neighbors adds much to an already rich historiographical arena, and demonstrates what a close analysis of texts and incisive dissection of contexts can yield. I imagine Dun’s work will spark discussion for many years to come.

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