Elizabeth Drinker’s Haitian Revolution

By James Alexander Dun

Elizabeth Drinker, a Quaker woman living in Philadelphia, heard stories from Saint Domingue.  She recorded some of them in her diary, a record she kept in various forms for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1758 and ending days before her death in 1807.  That regularity and timespan make Drinker’s diary required reading for many early American historians.  Especially after the publication of Eileen Forman Crane’s wonderfully edited edition in 1991, a wide array of eighteenth-century studies—whether of women in the Revolutionary era, medicine and scientific practices, reading, family structures, labor, poverty, early national politics, occupied Philadelphia, loyalism, and much else—have transformed Drinker’s words into evidence.  A Google Scholar search yields hundreds of hits.  Drinker’s seemingly indefatigable energies, plus the wealth and social prominence that ensured her records would be kept, have made her into something of a Forrest Gump-like figure in our literature.

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Elizabeth Drinker’s diaries, photo taken by James Alexander Dun

It was this quality that led me to Drinker’s diaries in an early moment of research for my recent book, a study of the understanding and use of the burgeoning Haitian Revolution in the contemporary American republic, entitled Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America.  While there were no “Dear Diary, here’s what I think about Haiti” moments, “St. Domingo” did of course crop up.  Readers of the book will see that I turned to Drinker at several points, moments when her recorded thoughts were useful in illustrating elements of the discourse around revolution, race, slavery, and violence that I was investigating.  What I’d like to do here is to reframe that treatment, keeping my eye on Elizabeth’s world, rather than Haiti’s emergence.  The result, I think, not only provides a sense of the ground my book covers, but also offers a different way of thinking through this “Age” of which the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions are meant to be a part.  (Readers of my essay in Andy Shankman’s 2014 edited volume The World of the Revolutionary American Republic can see yet another framing of this same question, one which is obviously on my mind.)

Elizabeth Drinker was in her middle-50s when accounts from Saint Domingue began to fill the newspapers that she read.  Over the rest of her life, as she and her husband Henry grew old, as she buried one of her children and fretted about the others, as she presided over weddings, welcomed grandchildren, and nursed neighbors, news from Saint Domingue was in the backdrop.  On Wednesday, September 21, 1791 she learned that slaves on the Plaine du Nord had revolted the month before.  In mid-August 1794 she copied down an account of a moment of violence at Fort Dauphin.  In January 1802 a newspaper article (incorrectly) telling of the death of Toussaint Louverture caught her eye.  Several months later she referenced Leclerc’s invasion and subsequently she transcribed a report of the “shocking doings” that it produced.  In and amongst these moments, her entries show her interacting with white and black refugees from the colony in Philadelphia, one of whom provided her with her first taste of ice cream.  When bouts of yellow fever struck the city during the summers after 1793, she wondered about connections between the colony and the disease.  She worried about reports of arson and intrigue in the late 1790s as rumors flew about invading armies of “French Negroes.”  It is a slim spate of mentions, and I suppose could suggest a limited sort of attention, but these stories also serve to indicate moments when accounts from Saint Domingue provided stimuli sharp enough to penetrate into Drinker’s daily life—she heard and read about them during her days and they stayed with her when she paused to sum those days up later on.

There is a disjunction, of course, between noting the Haitian Revolution and fathoming its meaning.  While events on Saint Domingue made up a noisy presence in the contemporary record—and eventually in Elizabeth Drinker’s diary—ultimately what we might term their Haitian qualities were silenced, to use Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s now-famous conception.  The claims to universal rights and the negation of slavery the Haitian Revolution came to embody were elided in American political discourse, a process that I argue offers a way to understand the shape and character of the American Revolution over time.  Tracing reactions to Haiti serves as a way to illuminate the frailty of American radicalism.  The calls for liberty and equality made in foundational American documents were blunted by white fear, revealing an equally essential commitment to property and a conception of republican citizenship bound up with whiteness.  African Americans were left espousing a Revolution that no longer signified, one whose political boundaries were “American,” but whose ideological implications were boundless.  To uncover Saint Domingue in this arc is to recover the means and signs of that Revolution’s devolution.  People of color incorporated Haiti as an idea into their strategies of resistance as they forged their lives in an increasingly hostile society.  Among elites, political exigencies superseded ideals, revealing an essential pragmatism and moderateness.  American antislavery evolved as a counterpoise, rather than a partner, to the “French” variety in Saint Domingue (let alone Haiti); the nation would not offer a single comprehensive answer to the problem of slavery.  Politics, not ideals, would condition American policy towards emergent Haiti.  John Adams treated with Toussaint Louverture as a way of attacking France; Thomas Jefferson’s shifting position on the Leclerc expedition involved calculations about acquiring Louisiana.  Measuring Haiti’s impact in the young American republic along these lines involves identifying and developing the meanings given to Haitian events and by demonstrating whose meanings mattered, how they were made relative to other ideas, and how, ultimately, Saint Domingue acted as a catalyst, one that accelerated trends and closed off alternate possibilities in the United States, reinforcing shifts that were already in motion.

Elizabeth Drinker helps illuminate this dynamic, but also adds a sense of its fluid and contingent nature.  The very presence of Saint Domingue in her record is itself a signal of the momentousness of developments there—a magnitude that is often dwarfed in the writings of more prominent figures.  As a Quaker, she was moderately antislavery and her attitudes and actions typify the ways in which Pennsylvanian—and especially Philadelphian—freedom were qualified during this period.  In these ways, then, Drinker’s record makes the Haitian Revolution, recovered and in context, an important rider to American developments.  Drinker’s diary, by its very nature, however, complicates any simple depiction of an American “reaction” to Saint Domingue.  In it, events unfold over time, as they did for the reading public in general; the changes they seem to represent are not monolithic, Haiti is not a foregone conclusion.

Furthermore, even as Drinker’s reactions to Saint Domingue fell in line with contemporary moderate Federalist and Quaker sensibilities (she is good evidence for those interested in the limits of American Revolutionary ideology) her diary shows that the changes she ascribed meaning to were not located in Saint Domingue.  While Elizabeth Drinker noted the Haitian Revolution—and partook of the commentary on it—she reacted to changes closer to home.  Her diary, which we have received as a single record, was actually several forms of composition.  The entries in this period constituted a new phase, consisting of longer and more numerous entries as Drinker became increasingly housebound and was focused on gathering information about her growing, worrisome, and far-flung family.  The traction of specific events on Saint Domingue in this unit is difficult to discern—a problem of studies of “impact” in the United States more generally.  What we can see is the presence of Saint Domingue’s disruptions—noted if not experienced as such—around other shifts within that household.  These disruptions Drinker did experience, and, if she failed to make the connection, others in her household may not have.  In the same period as Drinker was fretting over her biological family, for example, she was anxiously presiding over a new domestic unit: a household that included a sizable number of black children.  In weaving their stories into hers, a task I’m turning to in a new project, we will find stories of Haiti separate from those that Drinker heard and consumed—stories that suggest impact in terms of possibilities rather than reactions.  Taken together, these stories evoke an age of Revolution in which “American” and “Haitian” are modifiers, rather than proper nouns.

James Alexander (“Alec”) Dun is an early American historian and is the author of Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). His scholarly interests—in race and identity, radicalism and revolution, slavery and antislavery—lead him to focus particularly on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America. Those same interests, however, widen the boundaries of this “America” to include the Caribbean and, in some ways, the greater Atlantic basin as a whole. You can reach him at jamesdun@princeton.edu or tweet him @AlecDun1.

Title image: Vue de l’incendie de la ville du Cap Français, Arrivée le 21 Juin 1793. Vieux style : [estampe] / Peint d’après nature par J.L. Boquet ; Gravé par J.B. Chapuy [Photo edit by Bryan Banks]

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