Translating Mercier in the Atlantic World: Avengers of the Future, Past, and Present

By Kristen Block

In a recent Senior Seminar on the Age of Revolutions at my former institution (Florida Atlantic University), I hoped to get students to explore sources that would allow them to think transnationally about the key issues relating to the turn of the nineteenth century.  We visited FAU’s Marvin & Sybil Weiner “Spirit of America” Collection and I chose something to demonstrate for them what it was like to do research on an item that showed Atlantic connections.  The collection holds a unique broadside that has always fascinated me.  It was an edict published for the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition in Mexico denouncing an anonymous book in French, specifically the edition published in London in 1776.  Inquisitors summarized this piece, L’An deux mille quatre cent quartante, rêve s’il en fut jamais [The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One], as “impious, reckless and blasphemous,” and denounced it for favoring deism and scorning the clergy and the divine right of kings.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 8.08.57 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 8.09.22 PM
Inquisitor General, “Nos Los Inquisidores Apostolicos contra la heretica pravedad…” [Madrid & México, 1778]. Marvin & Sybil Weiner Collection, Florida Atlantic University

But this tract had an even more interesting history than blasphemy or deism would suggest.  I discovered that The Year 2440 was first published in 1771 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, now recognized as a wildly prolific promoter and popularizer of Rousseau’s Enlightenment thought.  Like other French writers of the period, Mercier had to publish his utopian novel elsewhere in Europe anonymously to help avoid his own nation’s strict censorship laws.  French historian Robert Darnton has traced the book through at least 25 editions in French alone in the last decades of the eighteenth century. The Weiner Collection also included two versions of this book, which Marvin Weiner had found in lists of the Founding Fathers’ libraries: Jefferson owned a French edition, published in London in 1771, and Washington had the first edition translated to English by W. Hooper, M.D. (2 Vols., 1772).   

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 8.46.21 PM

Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s vision of the future was both utopian and prescriptive, one that seemed plausible within 700 years.  He believed man’s faith should be in Reason alone, which he argued would provide the enlightenment for a stable world, and harmony for all people (an implicit contrast to the suffering common under tyrannical regimes like absolutist Spain and France).  A benevolent society, it was true, depended on some reverence for the Supreme Being, but must be combined with intensive study of His spectacular natural Creation—from the stars above to the smallest of atoms that could be seen through a microscope. Women were not to take part in similar studies; their virtue was in the home (in this sense Mercier was a classic Rousseauian).

Initially, I hoped to show students how to trace the reception of Mercier’s rational Deism in translation and transatlantic context, since my students had learned about Christian objections to Jefferson’s 1800 campaign for president.  Furthermore, I was eager to see what happened within later English translations since two American editions came out in the mid-late 1790s [1] — just as several of Mercier’s predictions had come to pass about the people’s intolerance for monarchical tyranny.  The class had read about the Jacobins’ efforts to institute a Cult of Reason and then a Cult of the Supreme Being as part of their bloody dechristianization campaign.  I explained to students that oftentimes editors and translators changed texts in response to political or cultural developments, and I showed them how to consult electronic databases as I searched for other editions of Mercier’s novel.  But that was a dead end.  None of those American editions revealed any alterations or anti-deist commentary.

What I eventually came to see as the most salient concern about Mercier’s vision of the future was in the question of American slavery.  In one chapter depicting the year 2440, Mercier’s protagonist visited a future-historical hall of monuments dedicated “to justice.”  An array of statues there, the narrator explained, “represented the nations demanding pardon of Humanity for the cruel wounds they had given her during the last twenty centuries.”  It made sense that the Spaniards would ban Mercier’s book[2], for they were portrayed as evil incarnate:

Spain, still more criminal than her sisters, groaned at the thought of having covered the new continent [i.e. the Americas] with thirty-five millions of carcasses… so many wretches condemned to the mines… The statuary had represented several mutilated slaves, who, looking up to heaven, cried for vengeance.  We retired with terror; we seemed to hear their cries. The figure of Spain was composed of a marble veined with blood; and those frightful streaks are as indelible as the memory of her crimes.[3]

Such a description fits rather well with what the class had learned about Northern Europe’s vision of Spain through the lens of the Black Legend.

But I would have loved to know what Americans (especially those like Washington and Jefferson who owned Mercier’s novel) thought of the final statue in this hall of Justice, depicting not a European nation, but rather an impressive black man figured as the “Avenger of the New World.”

In going from this place, I observed toward the right, on a magnificent pedestal, the figure of a negro; his head was bare, his arm extended, his eye fierce, his attitude noble and commanding; round him were spread the broken relicks [sic] of twenty scepters; and at his feet I read these words: To the avenger of the new world…. So vast a number of slaves, oppressed by the most odious servitude, seemed but to wait his signal to become so many heroes…they poured forth the blood of all their tyrants; French, Spanish, English, Dutch, and Portuguese, all become a prey to the sword, to fire, and poison.  The soil of America drank with avidity that blood for which it had so long thirsted; and the bones of their ancestors, cowardly butchered, seemed to rise up and leap for joy.” … sooner or later, cruelty will be punished… Providence keeps in reserve such mighty souls, to send them upon the earth, that they may restore that equilibrium which the iniquity of ferocious ambition had destroyed.[4]

Barthe, Toussaint L Ouverture monument
Richmond Barthe at work on his sculpture of Toussaint l’Ouverture, 1950. Profile of the artist on “Art: Then and Now.”

The same passage appeared nearly complete in a common-place book owned by Thomas Thistlewood, a Jamaican overseer and slaveholder, which he entitled “A Prediction.”[5] Historians know that plantation owners throughout the Americas kept a wary eye on developments in St. Domingue/Haiti and feared a similar fate could befall other slave-majority regions.  As President, Thomas Jefferson supported the French embargo and non-recognition of Haiti following its declaration of independence in 1804.  This vision of the heroism and violence required to overthrow slavery and restore the world to equilibrium may explain why the 1799 Richmond edition of this novel sold so poorly.[6]

But Virginia’s and Jamaica’s planters may have approved of the new English translation of Mercier’s novel by a British woman who had lived in Paris (and who explicitly sympathized with radicals like Robespierre).  Published in London in 1797, her rendition of Mercier’s statues built to commemorate “justice,” changed just a single word—but making a dramatic alteration to the reader’s perspective on who should be commemorated in the future. Instead of an enslaved African taking his own freedom,

it was the figure of an AMERICAN raised upon a pedestal; his head was bare, his eyes expressed a haughty courage, his attitude was noble and commanding, and his arm was extended and pointing to the shattered remains of twenty sceptres which lay at his feet; over the pedestal this inscription was engraven: TO THE AVENGER OF THE NEW WORLD.[7]

Viewing this European philosophe’s utopian future from the perspective of those who witnessed American independence, Revolution and counter-revolution in France, and Haiti’s greatest moment of triumph, it is perhaps unsurprising that at the turn to the nineteenth century, only white American freedom fighters could be celebrated in print.

In this year’s commemoration of Black History Month, it behooves us to think about what other histories have been similarly erased or which are little known today (see the history of Yanga’s 1570 revolt, for example).  Who holds the power of remembrance in our nations and in our communities—and what will we do to proclaim our dreams for the future (like Richmond Barthe did with his sculpture of Toussaint Louverture)?  Mercier’s first edition of The Year 2440 featured an epigraph insightful still today: “Le temps présent est gros de l’avenir,” can be translated as “The present is pregnant with [i.e. full of] the future.”[8] Our present is pregnant with possibilities to come; it certainly remains full of the past.  

Kristen Block is Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She is the author of Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012). You contact her at kblock3@utk.edu or tweet her @DrKBlock.

Title Image:Gaspar Yanga and Blacks in Mexico: 1570 African Slave Revolt in Veracruz” 

[1] A reprint of Hooper’s translation came out in Philadelphia in 1795 (at that time the seat of the U.S. government), and in Richmond, VA, in 1799.

[2] Inquisitors also complained that the author had “defam[ed] the dignified memory of many Crowned Kings, especially that of Spain and the Royal House of Bourbon.”

[3] Hooper trans. 1772 Dublin ed., Vol. I, pp. 138

[4] Hooper trans. 1772 Dublin ed., Vol. I, pp.140-42.  Mercier followed news of abolitionist sentiment in America, and in the 1772 edition he commented on his hopes for a peaceful transition from slavery: “This hero, doubtless, would have spared those generous quakers [sic], who have lately given their slaves their liberty; a memorable and affecting epoch, at which I shed tears of joy, and that makes me detest those Christians who do not imitate them.” (1772 Hooper trans.., Vol. II, pp. 215-16; French 1771 London edition, p. 387).  By 1786, Mercier revised and expanded this note to confirm that he denounced actual slave rebellion.  Enslaved and embattled blacks in St. Domingue did not get the memo.

[5] April G. Shelford, “Pascal in Jamaica; or, The French Enlightenment in Translation.” Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 36 (2008): 73-74.

[6] Mr. Weiner’s care to keep auction notes with many of his collected books and manuscripts are invaluable for this kind of information.

[7] [Mercier], Astræa’s return; or, the halcyon days of France in the year 2440: a dream. Translated from the French, by Harriot Augusta Freeman (London, 1797), p. 93.  Freeman changed nothing else of substance from Mercier’s original wording in that passage, and it closely mirrors Hooper’s translation.

[8] Quote taken from Discourse on Metaphysics, by Gottfried Willhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716).

For further reading:

Darnton, Robert, ed. The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Hussey, Roland D. “Traces of French Enlightenment in Colonial Hispanic America.” Latin America and the Enlightenment. Ed. Arthur P. Whittaker. Ithaca, NY: Great Seal Books, 1961. Pp. 23-51.  

Marcellesi, Laure “Louis-Sébastien Mercier: Prophet, Abolitionist, Colonialist.” Studies in Eighteenth-century Culture 40 (2011): 1-27.  

Excerpts from the first edition of L’An 2440 published in Amsterdam can be found in Darnton’s Forbidden Best-Sellers; other editions consulted for this piece include:

  • [Mercier, Louis Sébastien.]  L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante. Rêve s’il en fût jamais. Londres [London], 1771.  [Weiner Collection, FAU]
  • [Mercier, Louis Sébastien.]  Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred: Translated from the French by W. Hooper, M.D. 2 vols. London, 1772.  [Weiner Collection, FAU] and online: (Vol. 1, 1772 Dublin ed.)  and (Vol. 2
  • [Mercier, Louis Sébastien.]  Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred: Translated from the French by W. Hooper, M.D. Philadelphia, [1795]. 
  • [Mercier, Louis Sébastien.]  Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred: Translated from the French by W. Hooper. Richmond, VA,, 1799. Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans Digital Edition. [only available to subscribers]
  • [Mercier, Louis Sébastien.]  Astræa’s return; or, the halcyon days of France in the year 2440: a dream. Translated from the French, by Harriot Augusta Freeman. London, 1797.  Eighteenth Century Collections Online [only available to subscribers].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s