Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America

Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America

Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America

Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America

Synopsis

Dangerous Neighbors shows how the Haitian Revolution permeated early American print culture and had a profound impact on the young nation's domestic politics. Focusing on Philadelphia as both a representative and an influential vantage point, it follows contemporary American reactions to the events through which the French colony of Saint Domingue was destroyed and the independent nation of Haiti emerged. Philadelphians made sense of the news from Saint Domingue with local and national political developments in mind and with the French Revolution and British abolition debates ringing in their ears. In witnessing a French colony experience a revolution of African slaves, they made the colony serve as powerful and persuasive evidence in domestic discussions over the meaning of citizenship, equality of rights, and the fate of slavery.

Through extensive use of manuscript sources, newspapers, and printed literature, Dun uncovers the wide range of opinion and debate about events in Saint Domingue in the early republic. By focusing on both the meanings Americans gave to those events and the uses they put them to, he reveals a fluid understanding of the American Revolution and the polity it had produced, one in which various groups were making sense of their new nation in relation to both its own past and a revolution unfolding before them. Zeroing in on Philadelphia--a revolutionary center and an enclave of antislavery activity--Dun collapses the supposed geographic and political boundaries that separated the American republic from the West Indies and Europe.

Excerpt

Late in the morning of July 7, 1794, Friar José Vázquez arrived at the town of Fort Dauphin. Though he could not know it at the time, he came telling stories of the Haitian Revolution. Perched on the northern coast of French Saint Domingue, Fort Dauphin sat close to the border with Spanish Santo Domingo. Vázquez, in fact, came from the Spanish colony, from the interior town of Dajabón where he was a priest. What made his arrival noteworthy, however, was less his spiritual authority than his earthly influence. Insurgent ex-slaves had controlled the area since late 1791, and Vázquez was known to be an advisor to one of their leaders, Jean-François. After Spain and France declared war in 1793, the priest had become an intermediary between the insurgents and Spanish authorities. In spring 1793 Jean-François had been made a general and his troops declared auxiliaries of the Spanish army. Relying on these forces, Spain had nominally taken control of wide swaths of Saint Domingue’s North and West provinces. In January 1794 they secured Fort Dauphin, known to the Spanish as Bayajá, and began to mass Spanish and black troops in preparation for an attack against the French republican forces at Cap Français.

For the anxious inhabitants of Fort Dauphin, Friar Vázquez seemed like a safe source of information as they tried to make sense of this shifting ground. Many of them were planters, white French colonists of a royalist bent who hoped the fight against the Republic would ultimately bring stability back to the region, even if it also put the colony under foreign control. A sizable number among them had recently returned from the United States, having fled there during earlier moments of tumult in the colony. In American cities they had read an invitation addressed to all who opposed the “anarchy” of the French . . .

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