Revolution and Slavery in the Atlantic World

“The liberty and equality which these blacks acclaimed as they went into battle meant far more to them than the same words in the mouths of the French. And in a revolutionary struggle these things are worth many regiments.”

— C.L.R James, The Black Jacobins

“No Patriot leader had been more firmly persuaded than Jefferson of the moral superiority of Americans; and none was more astonished and chagrined when they revealed during the postwar period that they were not the paragons of patriotism, spartanism, rectitude he had supposed them to be.”

— John Chester Miller, A Wolf by the Ears

For all eighteenth century societies encountering the Enlightenment, a delicate balancing act unfolded. Thirty years after the battles of Lexington and Concord, America, France, and Haiti all had undergone revolution. Though each differed in context, the three revolutions drew upon the ideological ferment of the Enlightenment. Accordingly, the manner in which the Lockean and Rousseauan beliefs influenced revolutionaries differs. The presence of slavery in America and Haiti altered the trajectory of each revolution. If during the American Revolution, some revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson questioned the legitimacy of human bondage, these questions faded in independence. In France, attitudes toward the Haitian Revolution fluctuated as well. In moments some French leaders called for emancipation while in others, they demanded the institution’s reestablishment. Across the Atlantic world, slaves, free blacks, and mulattoes (more so in Haiti then the former British colonies) absorbed the same ideologies as revolutionary leaders. The conflict between hopes for freedom among those enslaved, demands of liberty from those colonized, and the fears of those grasping at post revolutionary calm collided.

Historians often reflect the time period in which they write. C.L.R. James proves no exception. James’ The Black Jacobins represents a Marxist interpretation of the Haitian Revolution and its leaders. Published in 1938, James’ work exudes the same revolutionary spirit as his subjects, “Pericles on Democracy, Paine on the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, these are some of the political documents which … have moved men and will always move them, for the writers …. strike chords and awaken aspirations that sleep in the hearts of the majority of every age.” Using archival sources and interviews from survivors, James provides a case study of the Haitian Revolution. Black Jacobins remains the standard by which all other accounts of the uprising are measured. Speaking to the colonized peoples of the Caribbean and Africa, the work promotes the Revolution’s successes while underlining its failures, “the blacks of Africa are more advanced, nearer ready than were the slaves of San Domingo”.

Black Jacobins begins in Haiti prior to the French Revolution. With an established Haitian race based class system, the island’s society rested on a complex collection of “small whites”, “great whites”, free blacks, mulattoes, and slaves. Additionally, the French colony remained divided between three differing economic regions the “maritime bourgeoisie” north, the less populous western region which featured a large mulatto population, and the southern province which more than the others, stands apart because of the vast majority of mulattoes present. When the French Revolution erupts, the north, west, and southern sections respond according to their own interests. The north, controlled by white merchants and lawyers, opposed the colonial administration believing its interference in their political and economic affairs retarded their growth. Promises of widespread liberties made many in the North anxious, while mulattos in the neighboring areas embraced France’s revolutionary fervor. Despite claims of freedom for themselves, propertied free blacks and mulattoes did not extend such promises to black slaves in Haiti. The revolving alliances that emerged reflect protection of these interests, all of which excluded Haiti’s slave population. While the mixed nature of mulattos left them alienated from all other groups, their prevalence made them a vital ally to both whites and blacks alike.

James gives credit to the events and ideals of the French Revolution for contributing to Haiti’s own uprising. For example, French attitudes toward Haiti’s planter class fluctuated. When the north’s “maritime bourgeoisie” appealed for British intervention, French perceptions of mulattoes and free blacks changed. Remaining loyal to France, French political leaders begin contemplating black citizenship. Revolutionary leaders, free blacks, mulattoes, and slaves all demanded the revolution’s promises of citizenship and freedom, while the vast majority of whites attempted to dampen such hopes. Juxtaposing the role of working class French citizens and black slaves in Haiti, James argues “it was the quarrel between bourgeoisie and monarchy that brought the Paris masses on the political stage. It was the quarrel between whites and Mulattoes that woke the sleeping slaves.”

A traditional Marxist, a class based interpretation of the revolution informs James’ view. While acknowledging the role of race, James clearly points to divisions that arise between free blacks and mulattoes and slaves. For James, property owners “are the most energetic flag wagers and patriots in every country, but only so long as they enjoy their possessions; to safe guard those they desert God, King and Country in a twinkling.” This did not exclude groups one might thought sensitive to revolutionary freedoms, “Mulatto proprietors … preferred their slaves to liberty and equality.”

Though James clearly credits Haitian slaves as the driving force behind their revolution, its leaders figure prominently. Obviously, no leader emerges as clearly as Toussaint L’Ouverture. Unlike the equivocating propertied classes, be they mulattoes, free blacks, or whites, L’Ouverture fully committed the revolution to the ideals put forth by the French, “Toussiant was whole man. The man into which the French Revolution had made him demanded that the relation with the France of liberty, equality, fraternity and the abolition of slavery without a debate should be maintained.” L’Ouverture continually maneuvered among the three European powers (France, Britain, and Spain) to ensure these rights. Acknowledging L’Ouverture’s political and economic wisdom, James also notes his inability to explain his decisions to followers and rivals. For example, the mulattoes of the west resented L’Ouverture’s reconciliation with former planters. Former slaves disliked his strict rule over their labor. Though committed to abolition, L’Ouverture believed Haiti needed to retain economic and political ties to France. L’Ouveture illustrated a nuanced grasp of Haiti’s complicated economic and political situation, but having never articulated such motives properly, they evaporated as the revolution unfolded. Dessalines lacked the grace and reserve of his superior, but he exhibited the necessary brutal exactitude to carry the revolution to its logical conclusion.

Almost 30 years later, David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823 examined similar themes but from a comparative perspective. Focusing on the Atlantic world, Davis’s work explores the rise of abolitionism and its relation to capitalist forces (specifically the industrial revolution), religious ferment and ideological developments. Davis’ work also displays aspects of Marxist thought especially in regard to attitudes toward the English poor by abolitionists, “As reformers grappled with the problems of crime, pauperism, and labor discipline, they seemed to be unconsciously haunted by the image of the slave plantation.” Abolitionists ignored the “invisible chains being forged at home” but recoiled at those created by slavery. Unlike James who placed an inordinate amount of stress on propertied interests, Davis notes the intersection of ideology, religious beliefs, and economics, “[anti-slavery] ideology emerged from a convergence of complex religious, intellectual, and literary trends – trends which are by no means reducible to the economic interests of particular classes but which must be understood as part of a larger transformation in attitudes toward labor, property, and individual responsibility.” Yet if such changes created classes attracted to anti-slavery, economic processes also deepened American dependence on plantation slavery, “Slave grown cotton had become indispensable for the industrial development of Lancashire as well as New England. And if slave labor itself seemed repugnant to capitalist ideology, there was little ground for the hope that that the free play of market forces would soon undermine a supposedly wasteful, unproductive, and unprofitable system of labor.”

Davis’ comparative framework enables his work to explore ideological and economic conflicts that Black Jacobins stresses. Juxtaposing Lord Dunmore’s proclamation promising freedom to American slaves who took arms against the Patriots with Leger Felicite Sonthonax’s call to “rebellious slaves” in the countryside, Davis illustrates the contrasts of emancipation of the two revolutions. By Davis’ lights, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation failed, “Several hundred Negroes succeeded in joining Lord Dunmore’s small army, but their forays along the coast were generally unsuccessful.” Whereas Sonthonax’s rescued his forces due to “some ten thousand blacks [storming] down upon Le Cap, and it was the pro-planter governor, accompanied by most of the surviving white residents, who fled by the sea..” Using Black Jacobins description of the event, Davis compares the context in which each “call to arms” occurred, explaining the subsequent results.

Davis acknowledges the importance of the Haitian Revolution and its widespread effects on the Atlantic world. Still, he notes the unique social structure of the French colonies along with the influence of the French Revolution made analogies to the American South difficult. Pointing to the divided nature of the islands’ society, “the slogans of liberty, equality, and fraternity would have quite different meanings for these fragmented groups. And they would have meaning altogether different for the Negro slaves who listened to heated political discussion or who, in the person of Toussaint L’Ouverture, even pondered the stirring and inflammatory words of the Abbe Raynal.” With that said, Enlightenment ideals, grievances toward mercantilist policies, and resentment of European officials (as in the British colonies) fueled Haitian ideas concerning liberty.

If English abolitionism spread as result of several forces, why did efforts emanating from the American Revolution stall following the conflict’s conclusion? As Davis points out, few northern governments attempted to legislate abolition. In Massachusetts, where revolutionary ideals found some of their most militant expression before and during the fight for independence, “judicial decisions eroded the institution.” Religious movements like the Great Awakening encouraged anti-slavery beliefs even in parts of the South (though usually such regions featured a relative larger Quaker population) “Indigenous questioning” of slavery in the South failed to create an anti-slavery/pro-slavery binary. Instead, “it led to a resolution which channeled idealism toward the goals of Christian trusteeship … which committed the entire society to the moral defense of the slaveholder.”

Ideas of liberty and independence were not based on abstractions. Property ownership created the independence upon which many revolutionary ideals rested. Drawing from Edmund Morgan, Davis emphasizes that slavery freed the South from fear of a dangerous landless white underclass. American colonists “feared and mistrusted men, regardless of race, who lacked any tangible stake in society … it follows that eighteenth century southern leaders could promote the ideal of a free white yeomanry and profess allegiance to the rights of Englishmen precisely because black slaves had taken the place of lower cast whites.”

Following the American Revolution, political leadership on the issue of slavery faded. Thomas Jefferson’s evolving beliefs illustrate this collapse of political will. In his early years, Jefferson argued for the eventual emancipation of slaves, but also their deportation. Jefferson never viewed blacks as equals. Concerned with maintaining his reputation, from which his political power emanated, Jefferson exhibited an increasing reticence regarding slavery. In A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson abdicated American responsibility for the “peculiar institution’ blaming British imposition. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson criticizes the institution for its effects on Masters and their children. However, the passage of time dulled Jefferson’s enthusiasm. In addition, his own economic difficulties prohibited him from encouraging emancipation, “Jefferson was at this time in critical financial straits and was faced with the need of selling land or slaves … “ Even worse “when the chips were down, as in the Missouri crisis, he threw his weight behind slavery’s expansion, and bequeathed to the South the image of anti-slavery as a Federalist mask for political and economic exploitation.” In keeping with the comparative nature of his work, Davis discusses Jefferson in the context of his contemporaries Frenchman Moreau de Saint-Mery and Englishman Bryn Edwards. Though the two Europeans opposed the anti-slavery movement, they expressed a certain appreciation for blacks that eluded Jefferson, “one gets the distinct impression that both Moreau and Edwards actually liked blacks.” Thus, economic interest, political relevancy, and racism diminished Jefferson’s abolitionism.

Edmund Morgan’s 1975 work American Slavery, American Freedom explores the dynamics of pre-Revolutionary Virginia from its failed Roanoke colony to the eve of revolution. Unlike Davis’ work, Morgan confines his focus to Virginia’s pre-revolutionary existence. Moreover, American Slavery, American Freedom establishes the trajectory of slavery’s establishment in America’s oldest colony. As mortality rates declined, English immigration diminished, competition with sugar plantations in the West Indies receded, Jamestown delayed the adoption of slavery. Rather than an inevitability, slavery emerged out of a complex set of circumstances and practices which developed in seventeenth century Virginia.

Morgan’s work illustrates the impact of changing demographics, economics, and social/political structures that shaped the colony’s eventual adoption of slavery. Early colonists to Jamestown consisted of primarily gentlemen and indentured servants. Land existed in great abundance but workers did not. The development of tobacco as a viable means of support increased the colony’s dependence on indentured servants. Excessively harsh treatment of the indentured became common in Jamestown society. The behavior of masters toward their servants, established a precedent of severity that was later easily extended to slaves. Additionally, before the adoption of slavery, Virginian planters had created a system of plantation labor, thus, allowing for a smooth transition to large scale plantation bondage.

By the late seventeenth century, growing numbers of former servants, spatial growth, and the presence of Native Americans constricted the population. Landless whites accumulated. Bacon’s Rebellion erupted when the landless masses demanded the colonial government abrogate its agreements with the surrounding tribes so that new land could be settled. Land remained necessary not only for subsistence but man’s freedom, “Men who labored on their own land grew not only food but independence. No would be tyrant could starve them into submission or win their vote with paltry promises.” As acknowledged by Davis, Morgan emphasizes the importance of slavery as a means to extend Republican ideals. The system of slavery served as a leveler for Virginian society. All white men by dint of their skin color could claim some notion of equality. In addition, having solved their labor problems, many average whites could attain land, “during the colonial period there were enough [men] who did own land to make Virginia, in the eyes of Virginians at least, a land to fit the picture in republican textbooks.”

Both Davis and Morgan note “the seventeenth century had seen the simultaneous rise of republican thinking and of that contempt for the poor.” This same fear of masses of indigents, fed Jefferson’s fear of a manufacturing society. For large scale manufacturers produced a dehumanized landless poor. As part of justification for slavery, racism developed. Prior to the establishment of slavery in Virginia, black indentured servants frequently labored with their white counterparts. However, slavery required an explanation. The hostility expressed for decades toward Native Americans transferred to blacks. The simultaneous degradation of the poor made this even easier, “Racism thus absorbed in Virginia the fear and contempt that men in England … felt for the inarticulate lower classes. Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared the soul of liberty.” Furthermore, racism enabled Virginians to lump “Indians, mulattoes, and Indians in a single pariah class”. Free individuals from these groups clung “to their freedom. But it was made plain to them and to the white population that their color rendered freedom in appropriate for them … they were denied the right to vote or hold office or to testify in court proceedings.” By the same logic, “Virginians had paved the way for a similar lumping of small and large planters in a single master class.” Morgan, as others after him, identifies the foundation upon which Virginian Republicanism rested on “their power over the men and women they held in bondage.”

According to Morgan, “the most ardent American republicans were Virginians … “ If true, John Chester Miller’s The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery explores Virginia’s most famous Republican and his elusive positions on slavery. Published two years after American Slavery, American Freedom, Miller focuses exclusively on the sage of Monticello. As Davis noted, Jefferson’s views on slavery as a young man contrasted markedly with those he held later in life. Jefferson’s// A Summary View of the Rights of British America// blamed George the III for “foisting slavery upon the American people.” Favoring gradual abolition and subsequent deportation, Jefferson made efforts to reduce slavery in his home state. His apparent fear and loathing of racial mixture contributed to this position. If Davis describes the Lord Dunmore episode in order to illustrate the stark differences between two Atlantic world revolutions, Miller explores Jefferson’s manipulation of the incident for different ends. Miller’s work uses the episode to illustrate the contradictions present in even the more strident youthful anti-slavery Jefferson. Accusing England of fomenting “racial, servile war,” the Declaration of Independence “asserts the right of white Americans to rebel against attempts to reduce them to slavery” but denies inferentially, in the context of the events of 1775-1776, the right of black slaves to rebel against their masters in order to attain their freedom”

For Jefferson, history amounted to a linear line of progress. If slavery were not abolished in his generation, subsequent generations would. The abolition of Virginia’s slave trade in 1778 serves as one example. If civilization moved according to his beliefs complete abolition would arrive soon. Yet, the same process that abolished the slave trade in Virginia also tightened rules for slavery. Like Davis and Morgan, Miller refers to Jefferson’s comments in Notes on the State of Virginia. In contrast, Miller examines the motivations for his prejudice toward blacks, “Jefferson was under powerful psychological compulsion to believe that the blacks were innately inferior. Had he thought that he and his fellow Virginians were keeping in subjugation and debasement thousands of potential poets, philosophers, scientists, and men of letters … he could not have endured the … the continued existence of slavery.” In this way, he could justify his own participation in the institution. However, by doing so, Jefferson greatly undermined his own appeal for their emancipation. Perhaps more importantly, the “rebuffs” Jefferson experienced in regard to his appeals, led him to abandon any public “effort to abolish slavery in Virginia.” Advocating for abolition weakened his own political standing among many of his fellow Virginians, which in turn made his attempts less likely to succeed. As a gradualist, Jefferson believed his generation had done all it could, the remaining work must be done by those that followed.

Ideals for any political leader do not exist in a vacuum. Circumstance and time function to alter perceptions. Miller traces these developments in Jefferson’s thought. Several historical developments affected Jefferson’s views on slavery. First, the Haitian Revolution alarmed President Jefferson. He fully believed, that “black crews and supercargoes from St. Domingo would soon be at work spreading subversive notions among American slaves.” Fearing widespread racial conflict, Jefferson hoped to “emancipate and deport black slaves without delay… “ His fears subsided, as political maneuvering between France and the US led to the Louisiana Purchase. Still, Jefferson clung to the new belief that Haiti would be the perfect destination for future emancipated slaves. C.L.R James makes little mention of U.S. interests, only that they impeded efforts by Haitian Revolutionaries. However, James’ L’Ouverture exhibits a similar political flexibility. Adjusting to the shifting winds of the French Revolution, L’Ouverture in some moments fought for King and country and in others for Republicanism. In accordance, L’Ouverture maneuvered among alliances with European powers. Of course, he did so out of necessity. Moreover, the Haitian revolutionary fought to extend citizenship and end slavery rather than to deny the former and extend the latter.

Second, domestic politics greatly influenced his positions. The Marshall Court’s extension of federal power stood in direct opposition to his own state’s rights beliefs. Though he privately claimed reservations about the institution of slavery, the growth of federal power superseded all other concerns, “he preferred to live, however, uncomfortably with slavery than under the tyranny of an all powerful federal government.” Third, the Missouri Compromise drove Jefferson to violate his own hopes for an agrarian yeoman tradition. Believing that abolitionists opposing the extension of slavery to the territories were poisoning “the minds of Northern people against Southerners as cruel, oppressive, unconscionable slave drivers”, Jefferson fought for slavery’s extension. In doing so he opened up western territories to large scale plantation farming, thus, making the acquisition of lands by small farmers more unlikely. If anything, he believed that allowing slavery’s diffusion throughout the territories would weaken its resolve. Moreover, Jefferson’s fear of race mixing “put himself in an anomalous and morally untenable position of advocating the opening of the West to black slaves and closing it to free blacks.” Here, Miller extends Davis’ contention that Jefferson held a deep prejudice against blacks. The presence of African Americans proved acceptable only when under the control of whites.

Finally, Miller’s work examines an area of Jefferson’s life that both Davis and Morgan excluded, Sally Hemmings. Miller does not assert that Jefferson engaged in a sexual relationship with Ms. Hemmings. Instead, Wolf by the Ears suggests that if he did not, it is likely that his nephews frequently indulged with Jefferson’s female slaves. Though accepted as fact today, at the time of Miller’s publication, questions regarding Jefferson’s sexual proclivities remained debatable.

Unlike Miller’s 1977 work, Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) examines the American Revolution more broadly. Rejecting the Progressive belief that within pre-Revolutionary America existed significant class divisions, Wood argues that though the Revolution promoted radical ideas that greatly altered colonial society, these changes did not represent a revolutionary change. However, the forces over the course of the nineteenth century did. An interpretative work, Wood re-evaluates the scholarship of the last century concerning the Revolution and its meanings.

Under the monarchy, colonial America was a series of hierarchical relations, where everyone had superiors and inferiors. This hierarchy featured a system of dependency and social obligation. The weakness of the state along with its multiple forms resulted in a society in which a patron-client paternalistic dynamic developed between colonists. Traditional relationships of the period were of this nature. For “gentlemen”, reputation was of the upmost importance. If one failed to maintain his reputation or allowed others to disparage it, the individual might lose social and political authority. The weakness of the state expanded the power of such men since they were able to support others and in the thought of the day, provide an economy for locals through their consumption. Attached to these relationships were assumptions concerning various concepts such as equality, interest, and the idea of work.

Enlightenment ideas along with economic developments led to “immense changes occurring everywhere in … personal and social relationships – the loosening and severing of hierarchical ties of kinship and patronage that were carrying [citizens] into modernity.” A questioning of old dependencies emerged. While some did question slavery, others did not. Wood argues that though in the presence of slavery “all their high blown talk of liberty, makes [colonists] seem inconsistent and hypocritical … it is important the that Revolution suddenly and effectively ended the cultural climate that had allowed black slavery …. to exist … without serious challenge.” No longer would slavery persist as an accepted reality. While the old society had “many calibrations and degrees of unfreedoms”, in theory, the new Republican society promoted legal equality. In reality, many of the young revolutionaries hoped to exchange one set of dependencies (imperialism, client-patron) for another (Republicanism, master-slave, “aristocracy of merit”). The meaning of work changed. Work now meant more than survival. Now it represented wealth and prosperity. Competing with “free labor” came to mean something entirely different. As result, pro-slavery forces turned to “racial and anthropological” explanations to justify the enslavement of peoples. In this way, Wood argues “the Revolution in effect set in motion ideological and social forces that doomed the institution of slavery in the North and led … to the Civil War.” Davis’ work made a similar observation, “If the American Revolution could not solve the problem, it at least led to a perception of the problem.”

Though the Revolution reserved many of its freedoms for white men, it established a pattern by which other groups – most notably women and blacks – could attain their own. According to Wood, the rights enjoyed by white men eventually trickled down to the rest of society, “the principles of [white men’s] achievement made possible the eventual strivings of others … for their own freedom, independence, and prosperity.” Here Wood differs from Davis, Morgan, and Miller. Where Wood sees the foundation for future progress, the others see retrenchment. Moreover, Morgan argues that the Republicanism that Wood celebrates rested on the forced labor of slaves and the subordination of women.

Tracing the Civil War back to the ideological stew of the American Revolution, Wood suggests that by changing the meaning of work, the North and South found mutual understanding increasingly problematic. Idleness, once seen as the symbol of an individual’s superiority, developed a new pejorative connotation. The idle slave owner failed to command the respect of Northerners, “celebration of work and disparagement of idleness [made] the South with its leisured aristocracy supported by slavery seem even more anomalous than it had been at the time of Revolution, thus aggravating the growing sectional split.”

Like Davis and Miller’s embittered revolutionary, Gordon Wood’s Jefferson, found younger generations lamentable. The value of Wood’s work here revolves around his ability to describe the system of dependencies that made reputation such a concern for Jefferson. If he had once believed “science and enlightenment were everywhere pushing back the forces of ignorance, superstition, and darkness”, by the 1820s, Jefferson felt people “were not becoming more enlightened after all.” His support of states’ rights appeared to be “an embarrassing fire eating defense of the South.” Wood enriches historians understanding of Jefferson. Miller and Davis depict a disappointed revolutionary who fails to understand the generations after him or how he himself contributed to their development. Placing Jefferson in the world of obligations and dependencies he grew out of allows observers to see his generation as transitional. Despite espousing Republican ideals, most revolutionaries lacked egalitarian credentials. Many believed they deserved deference. Even Jefferson as Miller points out, concerned himself more deeply with books elites read than those consumed by the ordinary masses, “Jefferson was fare more concerned with what books were read by the intellectual elite than with the reading matter which found its way into the hands of the common people.” Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries thought themselves the best arbiters of the country’s future. Though they supported legal equality for white men, they did not advocate social equality. The forces unleashed by the Revolution did. Economically caught between mercantilism and capitalism, the market revolution and rise of capitalism served to exaggerate this generational divide.

Returning to the serpentine Haitian Revolution, Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004) provides an interpretive history of the successful slave rebellion. Similar to Wood’s work, Dubois builds on recent works to reevaluate the meaning of the Haitian revolt. Dubios argues that ideas of liberty, fomented by the French Revolution, inspired free-coloreds and slaves alike. Nearly as complex as the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution consisted of a dizzying array of alliances and betrayals. Race did not serve as the broad unifying factor one might expect. Instead, free coloreds, many of whom owned slaves themselves, actively discriminated against Haiti’s slave population. Divided by class Haiti’s free black population sought to establish their citizenship and equality at the expense of the enslaved. Even Toussaint L’Ouverture consistently abrogated the rights of former slaves by ordering them back to cultivation. L’Ouverture’s political and economic intrigue led him to adopt dictatorial methods that created a “society based on social hierarchy, forced labor, and violent repression.” By the time of his capture, Napoleon’s emissaries had enlisted the aid of blacks resentful of L’Ouverture’s actions.

Though Napoleon captured the French leader his attempts to regain the island failed. European intrigue greatly complicated matters. Spanish, British, and French governments all attempted to gain control over the island, issuing questionable promises of liberty to the island’s black population. Still, the idea of liberty held such potency that L’Ouverture himself, at various moments, had fought either for or with all three European powers. Even the United States involved itself in hopes of continuing trade with Haiti while weakening French power in the New World. Yet, Thomas Jefferson and others’ fears of slave revolt in their own nation, tempered U.S. policy. Unlike Miller, Dubois ascribes Jefferson greater political acumen. Where Miller suggests Jefferson reacted to Napoleon’s gambits, ultimately determining the Emperor’s intentions, Dubois projects a president more aware of political intrigue. Dubois’ Jefferson remained fully in control, “With his eyes on Louisiana, he was clearly interested in limiting French power … but he was also concerned with limiting the revolution’s impact in North America.” Clearly, Dubois shares Davis and Miller’s perception of Jefferson’s racial anti-pithy when he quotes President Jefferson’s hope to “contain this disease to the island.”

Black Jacobins and Avengers of the New World share several similarities. Each illustrates the class divisions that pervaded Haitian society. Both authors provide evidence of L’Ouverture’s deft grasp of international politics and economics. James and Dubois note the importance of the French Revolution in driving the revolution. However, differences exist as well. First, undoubtedly, James’ work reveals Marxist nationalist influences not present in Avengers. Second, James papers over some of L’Ouverture’s harsher methods making little mention of the resentment former slaves held at being forced back to work on their plantations. Third, Dubois’ work benefits from decades of work completed on slavery, emancipation, and western revolutions. Avengers clearly demonstrates the differences between sugar and coffee cultivation and the effects those differences had on slaves. The general spatial layout of Haiti appears with greater clarity. Finally, James wrote Black Jacobins utilizing archives and interviews from surviving witnesses and participants, additionally his strident tone sharply contrasts with Dubois. Black Jacobins called West Indian and African peoples to revolution and it reflects that perspective.

Finally, Cassandra Pybus’ Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty (2006) explores the revolution and its ideas from the perspective of slaves. Pybus’ transnational work crosses four continents as freedmen and women attempted to establish communities in Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and Australia. Carefully reconstructing these slave narratives, Pybus utilized archives in Sydney Australia, London and Kew, England along with a source referred to as The Book of Negroes.

Pybus’ work presents the Revolution from black loyalists who were also former slaves; this is a perspective that reflects poorly on men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. British promises of freedom led many slaves to abandon their plantations and farms at great risk. Lord Dunmore’s proclamation “that freed “all indented Servants, Negroes, or others … that are able and willing to bear Arms. He made no distinction between Patriot or Loyalist property,” outraged colonists. Pybus’ contribution comes from the perspective of the slaves who escaped to Dunmore. Additionally, like Miller, Pybus explores the Dunmore proclamation to illustrate the concerns of colonial leaders. Washington and Jefferson react poorly to their abandonment by some of their slaves. Jefferson’s anger seethes to the extent that years later in negotiations with British officials over American debts, he used the appropriation of his former slaves as reasons for default. Jefferson returned to this argument on numerous occasions, “Several times he was to repeat this claim of thirty stolen slaves, even though he had lost eighteen at most. He estimated that the slave loss to Virginia in one year alone was thirty thousand, a number he seemed to have derived from adding zeros to his own spurious total.” Whether his indignation emanated from anger over lost profits, an excuse to avoid repaying debt or a wounded pride that could not admit his slaves desired freedom over his company remains difficult to determine. However, the incident proves Jefferson took the issue seriously enough that he incorporated into international negotiations.

In addition to undermining the American economy, these runaways also aided the British war effort by providing intelligence, artisanal work, and other sorts of labor. The Crown’s officials made great attempts to secure their safe passage from the colonies to England even violating the spirit of the Treaty of Paris. Though free upon their arrival in England, London drove many into abject poverty. Increased visibility among the English led officials and English abolitionists set up committees for their welfare. Eventually, a movement developed to send former slaves to establish Freetown, Sierra Leone. Alternately, several freedmen had ended up in prison, eventually becoming part of England’s plan to establish a penal colony in what would become modern day Australia. Pybus tracks both groups’ experiences.

The freedmen’s time in England provides Pybus an opportunity to explore differences in Atlantic world racial attitudes. According to Pybus, the presence of blacks did not alarm many English. Though some like slavery apologist Edward Long decried interracial marriage, “parish records and other sources reveal no stigma attached to black men in the late eighteenth century, at least among the poor … “ In post-revolutionary America, such relations were not acceptable. Moreover, British intellectuals fashioned a belief that slavery construed a fundamental difference between England and her former colonies, “As tension with the American colonies mounted, these men began to articulate their views about slavery that would distinguish the British from the slave owning American colonists.”

British abolitionists sympathized with the fate of indigent former slaves, a compassion that Davis and Morgan point out, they did not reserve for their own masses of poor. This sympathy fed the movement to establish colonies for blacks, most notably in Africa and Nova Scotia, Canada. In each setting, the freedmen and women were besieged by poor planning, hostile or ambivalent indigenous peoples, incompetent leadership, and harsh weather. Though each “colony” differed in its structure, former slaves often found themselves at odds with the leadership put into place by the British crown. Threats of starvation emerged regularly. In South Wales, the freedmen were treated harshly. Similarly in Freetown, religious differences and the arrogance of white leaders undermined intra-colonial relations such that the colony persisted in permanent conflict. Ultimately, the black settlers’ views on liberty were as radical as those of the American Revolution, leading English Abolitionist William Wilberforce view them like “Jacobins as if they had been trained and educated in Paris.” If a handful of freedmen and women did gain liberty, the vast majority did not.

In relation to Wolf by the Ears, the establishment of the Sierra Leone colony influenced Jefferson’s own beliefs concerning the repatriation of blacks. Despite his states’ rights beliefs, Jefferson believed it the duty of the federal government to establish colonies for freedmen and women. Distrustful or dubious of the success of private efforts, Jefferson never warmed to the American Colonization Society. Moreover, he advocated Haiti as a more suitable alternative, since “Haiti seemed to him to be a proper laboratory for settling the pragmatically the vexing question whether the apparent inferiority of blacks was innate or simply the result of servitude.” In alignment with his admittedly fluctuating political beliefs, Jefferson argued efforts to resolve the issue of slavery must come from the southern states themselves.


Slavery and the impact of revolutionary ideology on the enslaved, colonists, and elites remains a topic for historical discussion. C.L.R. James initiated an early transnational model for exploration of these ideas. Black Jacobins examines events not only in Haiti but also France. The meaning of French black citizenship meant something very real to free blacks, free coloreds, and slaves. Dubois adds to this work by reinterpreting the revolution based on recent work in conjunction with James’ classic. Published nearly 70 years after Black Jacobins, Avengers of the New World and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution’s fidelity to much of James’ observation serves as testament to the importance of his work. Davis’ work much more than the others provides a comparative examination of the American situation. Placing it within a broader context, Davis reveals the differing circumstances with which slavery contended. Traversing Europe and the Americas Davis’ approach enables readers to identify the peculiar characteristics of the American system. Edmund Morgan’s contribution explains how Virginia acted as a catalyst for large scale plantation slavery. The conditions of America’s oldest colony established a precedent to be followed by others. Moreover, Morgan illustrates the manner in which Republicanism moored itself to racial and gendered subservience. Racism emerged in order to justify such inequalities. John Chester Miller’s research provides historians with a nuanced study of one of the nation’s critical political thinkers. Tracing Jefferson’s beliefs on slavery conveys the complex, contradictory nature of the system and the political structure it supported. Jefferson’s vacillations and disappointments reflect those of a nation struggling to rectify an economic system that over time proved immoral and economically inefficient.

Gordon Wood’s examination of the revolution proposes a more positive interpretation than those of previous historians. For Wood and to a lesser extent Davis, the Revolution at least constructed a social/political reality in which slavery no longer existed without question. As Morgan also pointed out, slave owners became dependent on racist arguments to justify their use of bondage. Wood credits the revolution with creating the abolitionist movement, tying the revolution’s ideology with the eventual sectional split of the Civil War. Finally, Pybus’ truly transnational work provides historians with a new way of examining the American Revolution. Important for not only the voices it amplifies, but also for the direction in which it takes the field, Pybus’ work reframes the role of the// revolution in the Atlantic world. Increasingly, American history has been accused of parochial exceptionalism. Epic Journeys// like Davis’ 1975 work, provides historians with a new way of envisioning the Revolution’s meanings outside of a strictly American context.

Ryan Reft


Davis, David Brion, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Cornell University Press: New York, 1975.
Dubois, Laurent, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution
James, C.L.R., The Black Jacobins, New York: The Dial Press, 1938.
Miller, John Chester, A Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Morgan, Edmund, American Slavery, American Freedom, W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1975.
Pybus, Cansandra, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty, Beacon Press: Boston, 2006 Wood, Gordon, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Vintage Books: NY.

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