Plotting Revolution, Part III: Histories of the Present

By Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

We live in the world that the age of revolutions created.  The institutions and the myths it originated still structure the political life of most of the world’s people. So when we tell the story of the revolutionary era, choosing one way or another to narrate it, we are also shaping the story we tell ourselves about politics in the present. Let me give two brief examples, from US and Haitian history, of how this works.

In the United States, one could begin with the abolitionists of the nineteenth century. As they debated how to fight the slave power, in both practical and ideological terms, they struggled mightily over how they wanted to narrate the relationship between the American Revolution and the institution of slavery. For William Lloyd Garrison and his allies, the story was a tragic one: the Constitution was a pact with the devil, a flawed document irrevocably stained by racism and the slave system. The only option was to cleanse it entirely. Frederick Douglass, on the other hand, favored a more romantic plot: the ideals of the founding era, he thought, stood apart from the racism of the era and its support for the system of slavery. He saw an ongoing struggle between good and evil, and in the nation’s founding documents he thought he had a powerful ground from which to critique the nation’s failings.[1]

American historians have worked in the long shadow of this debate ever since. For a good part of the twentieth century, scholars of the American Revolution saw the founding era very much in Douglass’s terms, as a contest between universal ideals and racism. American history took on the aspect of an epic romance: a long struggle, within the bounds of the nation, between its good and bad sides. Over the past decade, however, the consensus has shifted sharply in the direction of Garrison, towards seeing racism as not in competition with the higher ideals of the founding era, but as constitutive of them. This profoundly tragic plot is on view in Robert Parkinson’s recent monograph, which argues that American independence was forged around white people’s (largely imagined) fear of violence by enslaved and Native people.[2]

Which plot one chooses for the American Revolution is just as salient for thinking about political action today as it was in the nineteenth century. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the emotional and rhetorical power of the Douglassian plot in his celebrated 1963 speech on the National Mall. He called the Declaration of Independence a pure “promissory note,” which he demanded the U.S. government honor for its African American citizens. If one is persuaded by the tragic, Garrisonian emplotment of the revolutionary era, however, a different course of action suggests itself. The documents and ideals of the founding era, tainted as they are by racism and slavery, are hardly a useful cudgel. To take the Garrisonian emplotment seriously might mean calling for a new founding (perhaps a revolution?); or it could mean acting, as Garrison himself did, outside of the government’s purview.

Haiti offers another example of the tight connection between how we emplot revolutions and how we understand modern politics. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, serious histories of the Haitian Revolution plotted the revolution in epic terms, as a moral struggle of good against evil. This almost Manichean plot, which identified the Revolution unambiguously with the good and the right, served powerful political purposes. It first countered racist dismissals of Haitian sovereignty, and ultimately came to offer a powerful foundation for the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth.

Many more recent historians of the Haitian Revolution, however, have chosen a very different plot, one with wide swathes of grey ambiguity and more than a tinge of tragedy.  Scholarship by Doris Garraway, for instance, offers a story of the Revolution that seems to invoke Hamlet: a Revolution driven by a higher moral purpose undone by its own contradictions. Toussaint Louverture himself, in recent biographies, has lost some of his longstanding heroic lustre. These new plots present themselves not only as reflections on the past, but as ways of making sense of the nation’s present-day political impasse. Like the tragic plots of the American Revolution, they can also become the basis for a new political program.[3]

The affective and political work that our plot choices can do, in short, imposes a responsibility and creates an opportunity. It saddles us, as historians of the revolutionary era, with a responsibility to choose our plots with discernment and care. Yet it also gives us a chance—if we will take it—to help a troubled present hear more clearly the clarion voices of its revolutionary past.

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California.  His first book was Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution.  He is currently working on a cultural history of the age of revolution, circa 1760 to 1820s.

Title image: “Dessalines Ripping the White From the Flag,” by Madsen Mompremier, 1995.


[1] On the controversies over the Constitution in the abolitionist movement, see especially Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016), 476-477 and 494-495.

[2] See Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Published by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2016), 22.

[3] See Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (New York: Basic, 2016) and Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012).

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