Because we have recently been discussing the role of media and mediation in the Romantic era, I thought it would be provocative to provide some reflections on my recent visit to the New York Historical Society’s current exhibit, “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn.” Thinking about these varying materials presented in one large display brings other questions and considerations on mediation to the table; it also invites inter-disciplinary approaches to the radical period of great political, historical, and literary consequence (to name but a few) as well as further thought on the significance of Enlightenment and Romanticism.
Thomas Bender, professor of History at NYU, begins the collection of essays dedicated to the elaborate exhibit with his article, “A Season of Revolutions: The United States, France, and Haiti.” In it, he explains: “the three great eighteenth century revolutions were not only close in chronology . . . they were also part of a larger and interconnected history of the Atlantic World” (18). Committed to this idea that these revolutions were interrelated, Bender curiously distinguishes all three cases as a “separate . . . [and yet] collectively single world-shaping event” (15).
First, I am intrigued by what makes a revolution “great,” specifically. Why do the American, French, and Haitian events receive this recognition? Does such a distinction rely on the magnitude of a revolution’s philosophical objectives? Does the number of casualties the event claims matter? Or, does “greatness” refer to the short or long-term effects of a revolution’s overall success as a political change agent? How do these quite dissimilar cases of social transformation from transcontinental and trans-imperial spaces obtain a uniform distinction in Bender’s estimation? In his The Age of Revolution from 1962, Eric Hobsbawm seems to give an answer concerning the French case:
“In 1789 something like one European out of every five was a French man. In the second place it was, alone of all the revolutions which preceded and followed it, a mass social revolution, and immeasurably more radical than any comparable upheaval. It is no accident that the American revolutionaries, and the British ‘Jacobins’ who migrated to France because of their political sympathies, found themselves moderates in France . . . In the third place, alone of all contemporary revolutions, the French was ecumenical. Its armies set out to revolutionize the world; its ideas actually did so” (75).
Hobsbawn singles out the French circumstance as the paragon for mass social reform because of its numbers, the intensity of its radical beliefs and believers, and the extent to which its ideals inspired other nations. For the Marxist historian, 1789 symbolized the pivotal year that ultimately abolished “agrarian feudal relations” for the first time. Hobsbawm states: “If the economy of the nineteenth century world was formed mainly under the influence of British Industrial Revolution, its politics and ideology were formed mainly by the French” (74). Bender, however, seems to have other criteria in mind for the revolutions on display if he regards these three disparate instances as “great” social transformations. It is well known that the French revolution had made its American predecessor appear less and less like an actual revolution and, compared with the prevalence of and familiarity with the happenings in France, Haiti was hardly considered comparable in magnitude and influence on a transcontinental scale. For these reasons, I believe more nuanced exploration of the case for a “great” revolution is in order especially since Bender does not clarify.
Additionally, I also wished to address Bender’s label of these disparate yet successive revolutions as a “single world shaping event” (15). What is at stake if we meld their particular concerns and outcomes into one progressive occurrence? What are the limits of such a vast “event” that helped shape the Western world—as R.R. Palmer so articulately describes in his 1959 publication, The Age of Democratic Revolution, 1760-1800? Do these three separate instances of political reform in America, France, and Haiti make up a fraction of a larger Zeitgeist that Palmer attributes to a series of upheavals throughout Europe and the Americas? Do they collectively launch an era of contagion for transformation across the Western continents? What does it mean to connect the multiple temporal, spatial, cultural, and political concerns with the domain of “Revolution” as one dominant yet perhaps nebulous totality? Does an attempt at universalizing the experience undermine the particulars of each circumstance?
The New York Historical Society’s exhibit attempts to recreate this “single event” impression in an almost seamless presentation of many specific materials from the latter half of the eighteenth century. Set in one large space that is divided loosely into chronological sections from 1763 to 1804, the exhibit displays the many remnants symbolizing the radical “movement” across these three countries (four countries if we incorporate the many British imperial materials included). After its initial portrayal of the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War that redrew British, French and Spanish control of the Americas and left France in vengeful distress, the exhibit seems to argue that the ensuing events followed each other naturally. The acerbic conclusion of the Seven Years’ War prompted French support of the American revolutionary cause that lead ultimately to France’s financial troubles. These economic tensions led to the storming of the Bastille that subsequently inspired the revolts in Haiti by the end of the century. The exhibit also includes a reflection on the economic usurpation of the colonies, a portrayal of slavery and its economic implications for empire, the brutal conditions of the Slave Trade, and the many efforts in support of abolition.
If we could imagine the exhibit space as a text itself, we could appreciate its sudden twists and turns as well as some of the narrow paths the designers chose to emulate the spirit of the age (to invoke Hazlitt). In addition to encountering fleeting moments with great empire nations (at the exhibit’s start in 1763) that would suddenly change, for instance, visitors experience the unfolding revolutionary narrative through multiple representations from the times. Some of these media include recordings of human voices demanding equal rights (imagine reenacted British, French, and Spanish male and female accents), influential texts such as a copy of Addison’s play, Cato, maps of newly drawn imperial boundaries, images of the brutal conditions of slavery, books and treatises of Enlightenment political theory from Locke, Paine and Rousseau, and first-time constitutional drafts or pamphlets such as The Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, or the Haitian Constitution.
It appeared to me that the series of media did not simply help relate the revolution; it was a part of the struggle. Walking by and absorbing the many representations produced an accumulating effect of that temperament that helped enact the radical transformations. Though the curators tried to emphasize the significant role of speech and orality by using recordings and video, it was evident that the written word, whether in print or manuscript, represented the dominant mode of inspiring change by transmitting the ever-powerful idea of revolution. Copies of Montesquieu, Paine, and Smith (among several others) conveyed the far reaches of this revolutonary mindset—specifically the degree to which social, economic, and political registers were not only deeply interwoven spheres of influence but also significantly altered during this time.
I was pleased by the representation of the Haitian Revolution as it took up at least a third of the exhibit’s space—naturally closer to the end because of its chronological position. This display did a fine job emphasizing the merits of the first successful black slave rebellion. It underscored how strong communal ties enabled the revolt’s effectiveness. A video narrated by a presumed Haitian woman speaking Kreyol described the power of Voudou as a common spiritual practice that connected the many slaves in St. Domingue. She also highlighted her language, Haitian Kreyol, as a unifying element at the time of the revolution. Despite the varying Africans from several nations, the subjugated peoples of Haiti arguably strengthened their cause and ultimately succeeded to gain their independence from France as a united people culturally, spiritually, and linguistically. The exhibit highlighted the power of the community to achieve this unprecedented political reform and social independence. I don’t believe we can justifiably conflate the remarkable occurrences in Haiti as a part of a single “world-shaping” phenomenon when it arguably symbolizes this distinction on its own terms.
As I approached the end of the exhibit, I was quite struck by a short film portraying the contemporary poverty and corruption in Haiti. It displayed numerous poor citizens as well as ruined houses at the mercy and whim of natural and political disaster. One segment even presented a view of a luxury cruise ship docked at Port Au Prince showing the privileged tourists who visit for “their personal gain” alone. The film’s narrator made explicit that the ideals of the French Revolution, liberty and equality in particular, have yet to become a reality in Haiti. If Bender’s claims are true, specifically that the major transformations of the late eighteenth century comprised one “great” event, then the film appears to posit that “revolution” is not only a loaded term but also still taking shape—yet to be truly realized in Haiti.
-Omar F. Miranda
Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (New American Library, 1962)
Thomas Bender, “A Season of Revolutions: The United States, France, and Haiti.” In Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn. Ed. by T. Bender, L. Dubois, and R. Rabinowitz (New York Historical Society, 2011), pp. 14-42.
Palmer, R.R. The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (Princeton University Press, 1959, 1964 ), vol. 1.