The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World

Synopsis

Exotic, seductive, and doomed: the antebellum mixed-race free woman of color has long operated as a metaphor for New Orleans. Commonly known as a "quadroon," she and the city she represents rest irretrievably condemned in the popular historical imagination by the linked sins of slavery and interracial sex. However, as Emily Clark shows, the rich archives of New Orleans tell a different story. Free women of color with ancestral roots in New Orleans were as likely to marry in the 1820s as white women. And marriage, not concubinage, was the basis of their family structure. In The Strange History of the American Quadroon, Clark investigates how the narrative of the erotic colored mistress became an elaborate literary and commercial trope, persisting as a symbol that long outlived the political and cultural purposes for which it had been created. Untangling myth and memory, she presents a dramatically new and nuanced understanding of the myths and realities of New Orleans's free women of color.

Excerpt

The cryptic notice that opens this chapter appeared on the front page of Philadelphia’s Spirit of the Press in the fall of 1807. The charged words of the item—an attending physician, partnership, consanguinity—all vaguely point to the birth of racially mixed progeny, “a race of real Quadroons.” But the words do not make much sense, unless one imagines some mad doctor undertaking a living demonstration of the salutary benefits of interracial breeding among the artisans and laborers who populated Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties district. A contemporary item in another Philadelphia paper offers the key to decoding the cipher. “Is the Quadroon party forming to support the intended protégé of Mr. Dallas?” asked the Democratic Press. “Were the intrigues of Dr. Leib at Lancaster last winter connected with the formation of the Quadroon party?”

The significance of the names Dallas and Leib in the same paragraph is arcane but clear. Michael Leib was the leader of the radical faction of the Pennsylvania Democratic Republican Party, known as the Philadelphia Democrats, and Alexander Dallas was among the most prominent members of a rival group of more-moderate party members. The two groups had been sparring in Philadelphia’s partisan press for years, but the impending election of 1808 brought the factionalism to an ugly climax. This episode is generally seen as a turning point in the ideological evolution of the Democratic Republicans who came into power with the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. But the piquant emergence of the quadroon on the pages of Philadelphia’s newspapers that year revealed a less nobly conceived anxiety that stalked the city’s popular imagination: Haiti. Labeling . . .

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