Sunday, August 12, 2012

Just Finished Reading

The Haitian Revolution's influence on the American Civil War is finally getting the scholarly attention it deserves. Along with Edward Bartlett Rugemer's The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War, Matthew J. Clavin's Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution, adds a better understanding of how northerners and southerners associated the late-eighteenth century Caribbean quest for freedom with the mid-nineteenth century one in the United States.

The first "black republic" in the Western Hemisphere was the result of a slave uprising that started in 1791 and finally ended in 1804. The results were dramatic and long-lasting. Clavin contends that the France's losing battle to regain Haiti actually prompted Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States, thus spreading slavery westward, which eventually brought on the war. But, similarly, and just as importantly, individuals in the North and South used competing perspectives of what happened in Saint Domingue (later Haiti) to promote their side of the debate and tear down their opponent's argument.

While northern abolitionists - before and during the Civil War - used the Haitian Revolution and its leader, Toussaint Louverture, as the promise of what would happen if the South did not end their slaveholding ways, southerners warned that the fate of the island's slaveholders would be their own if they loosed their form of social control on the bondsmen. Louverture to abolitionists was thus presented as a martyred saint that had organized and successfully led the island's slave forces against not only the French, but also English and Spanish armed forces sent to battle them. On the other hand, the former slave commander was to southern proslavery proponents a blood thristy brutal leader of murderers of women and children. Louverture would not live to see his island nation's dream completed. He was captured by the French and sent to Europe where he died in prison.

Clavin's research finds evidence upon evidence from personal letters, newspapers, public and political and religious speeches - from both African American freemen and slaves and white abolitionists and proslavery men - that these contending interpretations were used by both sides to help bring on the conflict and continue it once it started. Clavin puts it succinctly in the last sentience of the book, "While disagreeing on the legacy of the Haitian Revolution and the various lessons it taught, all agreed that in the case of the sectional war over slavery, the past was prologue."

In the text Clavin correctly brings out that John Brown was a student of Louverture methods of combat, and as the author states, "fueled Brown's faith in revolutionary black violence." This certainly fits with what I have always read about Brown's influences. But, Clavin makes a mistake in stating that "He [Brown] throughout his life followed the abolitionist papers that kept alive the memory of Louverture - in his childhood, his father subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator." Clavin is right on the first point that Brown kept up with the abolitionist papers, but incorrect on the last part because the Liberator was not published until 1831 - Brown was born in 1800, so in 1831, he would have been well into manhood and far from childhood.

The origins of America's greatest tragedy include events outside of  our own borders. Reading books such as Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War are important to give us a fuller understanding on these external contributing factors. I highly recommend it. On a scale from 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.

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