The Emperor’s Epistle: Haiti and Race in Jeffersonian America

15562Today's post comes from James Alexander Dun, who teaches history at Princeton University and who is the author of Dangerous Neighbors. Through extensive use of manuscript sources, newspapers, and printed literature, 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—a revolutionary center and an enclave of antislavery activity—Dun follows contemporary American reactions to the events through which the French colony of Saint Domingue was destroyed and the independent nation of Haiti emerged. In today's post, Dun takes a close look at one particularly fascinating document that he turned up during his research, tying it to the larger historical context that the book examines.

Finding oddities in the archives is wonderful and fun, but also problematic for historians trying to make sense of the past. How does one know an aberration from something that, though rare, is telling? A text that is bizarre to us may be a fleeting window into what was typical in a different time. Or it may have been bizarre then too, but in a different way than we can fathom. The best way to try to cut through this thicket, of course, is to read and read and read, steeping yourself in the culture of the time as best you can in the hopes that your radar will become sensitive enough to pick up the echoes and murmurs of the moment and make sense of them in an honest and compelling way.

I had (at least) one of these moments in the early stages of my research for Dangerous Neighbors, my study of the ways in which the Haitian Revolution was experienced and understood by contemporary Americans. It happened after I picked up the Philadelphia literary magazine, the Port Folio, edited by Joseph Dennie between 1801 and his death in 1812. Though events in Saint Domingue (and then Haiti) didn’t show up all that often, much of what I did find there made sense. Dennie was an ardent Federalist; when the Port Folio began he was reeling in the wake of Republican Thomas Jefferson’s election and the subsequent decline of his party’s fortunes. As time went on, Dennie developed an increasingly nasty and sardonic style of attack. Building on the scurrilous writings of James T. Callender, he peppered his pages with tidbits having to do with the President’s escapades with “Black Sall,” a woman we know as Sally Hemings. The point was to hold up what he expected people to see as sexual deviance as a way of illuminating Jefferson’s more general depravity and lack of principle. It was a venomous running gag.

And then, in March 1805, breaking into this recognizable, if distasteful, stuff, came something quirky. Dennie even suggested as much, entitling it a “curious work,” though I didn’t believe he was really mystified by it in the slightest. “It” was a “heroic epistle,” a poem purportedly found on a captured French frigate, written by Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines and addressed to Napoleon Bonaparte. I didn’t believe that; Dennie’s title and tone suggested this was all a joke. That, in fact, was what made me want to figure it out. This was a joke I hoped I could parse apart—a moment when Dennie was speaking to his readers indirectly, winking at them as he made points using premises and a logic that he could assume they all shared. Now that I’m on the other side of my project, I think, with a nod to Geertz, I’ve unraveled the wink.

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Click to view the Port Folio excerpt!

Dennie’s/Dessalines’s epistle, though in the form of a poem, was in fact an agile satire, one that was designed to cut in two ways. Dessalines was the lynchpin of both jabs. The Haitian leader’s florid style was meant to expose his affectations, lampooning the idea that his blood-drenched accomplishments and blighted land were the equivalents of European heroics. Readers were meant to balk at his self-described greatness, derived as it was from the recent “exterminating war” in Haiti, fueled by “negro vengeance” against “proud whites” and exemplified by scenes of tortured “infants wailing on the bloody spear.” This sanguine history, however, was the foundation of the poem’s message; with Dessalines’s topsy-turvy empire as assumed knowledge, its real target—Bonaparte, himself recently installed as emperor of France—could be skewered. “WE, JAQUES the first, send greeting to our brother,” the Haitian leader was made to proclaim, “For one great Emperor should greet another.” This fraternity was both figurative and literal. Both emperors were to be compared for their bloody paths to power, but Dessalines’s lines hinted that he and Bonaparte might also feasibly be related by blood. “To Afric’s burning clime I owe my birth,” Dessalines reminded Bonaparte, just as Corsica, “thy natal spot” had sprung “from Afric’s torrid coasts.” If this was a stretch, the poem’s “translator” wrote in a note, it showed that “the emperor Jaques … appears rather to wish to excite sympathy by similitude than by flattery.” Corsica, a “little Afric,” was a corrupted seat of exiles and human refuse, a point that revealed the true nature of the rise of one of its sons as leader of France. If the poetic Dessalines strained credibility to make his point, to the reader his logic was meant to be infallible. Haiti, after all, was also a corrupt and defiled place. The actual blackness of the one emperor served to reveal the figurative blackness of the other. Given Dennie’s purposes, the joke made perfect sense.

Of course, Jean-Jacques Dessalines was no joke, nor was this moment in American political culture lighthearted. Blackness in leadership was serious business. Among many white Americans, as Dennie’s writings about Jefferson exemplified, evoking it was the height of defamation. Throwing Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings and his Francophilia in his face was a one-two punch, a combination whose force came from a singular critique of Republicans as corrupt and unprincipled—as men whose defilement of the American Revolution’s heritage was proven by their relationship to the events in Haiti. The “epistle” didn’t make it into my book, but it does fit in with my eventual conclusions. By 1805 this sort of sweeping, blunt, and racially charged use of events in Haiti had out-shouted the myriad of other interpretive possibilities Saint Domingue had provided Americans watching over the past sixteen years and more. What was left was Dennie’s Haiti—a figure of savage black violence alone. Ironically, this was a vision of the Haitian nation his Jeffersonian opponents could agree on.

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