Q&A with James Alexander Dun

dangerous-neighborsJames Alexander (Alec) Dun is an Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University. He has published articles in the William and Mary Quarterly and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, as well as a number of chapters in edited volumes on race and identity, radicalism and revolution, slavery and antislavery. His first book, Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), appeared last year. We are grateful that he took the time to answer some of our questions.

JUNTO: The impact of the Haitian Revolution on early America was long-overlooked by historians, but in the recent decade has received renewed attention. Why do you think it took so long for historians to make this connection? Considering recent work by Ashli White, Ada Ferrer, Matthew Clavin, Ronald Johnson, and others, what do you feel your book adds to this growing literature? What is left to be mined in the Haitian/American connection?

DUN: It’s a great group, and it is wonderful, and pretty humbling, to be a part of it! When I first started this project in 1999, it seemed like it was enough to simply ask if the events in Saint Domingue reverberated among the newly United States—beyond the diplomatic machinations and the antebellum slaveholders’ howls that Tim Matthewson and Alfred Hunt had told us about in the 1980s. Now, thanks to the Atlantic turn, we start with the idea of a world that is interconnected and the question has become how to measure and describe those reverberations. We’ve also, following scholars of slavery and cultural historians more generally, broadened the category of politics so as to include a wider range of people and activities. It would all be for naught, however, without the avalanche of incredible scholarship produced by historians of Haiti. They, more than anyone else, reformulated R.R. Palmer’s “Age” of Revolutions. Historians of the American Revolution had become used to asking questions about the relationship between the US and France, but this was still largely a Palmerian effort to suss out connections and distinctions in the realm of ideas and ideology. Once Haitianists brought the developments in Saint Domingue more fully to light, Haiti’s centrality became undeniable and its function inescapable. This embrace has allowed us to look for its ideational impact in ways that early investigators such as David Brion Davis and Winthrop Jordan hadn’t been able to explore, but also to appreciate its material presence anew.

Why did it all take so long? Well, I think we had to deal first with what Michel-Rolph Trouillot famously described as Haiti’s “silencing” in the historical record, and then, thanks to the shifts I just mentioned, had to come to realize that that “silencing” was reversible—that, in fact, Trouillot was wrong in describing the Revolution as “unthinkable” to contemporary observers. That’s what I hope my book accomplishes above all. Early on (pre-digitization!), I decided to try to capture every piece of information coming from (or written about) Saint Domingue in Philadelphia newspapers, something that eventually took the form of a database filled with thousands of transcribed reports. I’m actually glad that I had to type them all out, aching carpal tunnels notwithstanding, since the process made me confront the language being used more directly and, I hope, to imbibe its various currents and trends over the run of fifteen years or so that I read. Treated in combination with other sources, the discourse that I was able to uncover through this work was fluid and changing on the topic of Saint Domingue/Haiti. This was a Revolution that was very much “thought,” and that thinking took place as part of a common thinking through among Americans of their own recent Revolutionary past. That’s the process the book treats, showing how Americans “made” a Haitian Revolution over time, one that in important ways first evoked divergent domestic notions of the new polity and then put them to bed.

Much remains to be done! I did a lot of work in Philadelphia’s Custom House records, only a smidgen of which made it into the book. (It’s another big database, capturing every voyage between a Dominguan port and Philadelphia between the late 1780s and 1820 or so.) I did that research to figure out the mechanics of information flow over time—trying to see when various portions of the Dominguan landscape were “visible” elsewhere in an age where commercial connections were a precondition for information to move between geographically distant places. I’m currently working on ways to visually represent what I found online (and to save others from having to replicate the archival work I did). Besides doing similar research in the records from other ports, I think there’s lots that can be done to use this type of investigation to flesh out other kinds of connections in the period. I’ve made lists of consignees and merchants involved in this trade, and I bet their collective doings over time could be plumbed. I’ve seen hints of the experiences of American and foreign crew members, and would be interested to try to follow their experiences (especially those African Americans among them). Ashli White and François Furstenberg have told us a lot about Dominguan and French refugees, but I think they’d agree that there is still more to uncover in those stories, especially when they are taken further into the 19th century. My book sits on the American littoral, feeling for the tugs on the web that made up this world and showing what those movements produced in the US. Looking at these sorts of materials would produce studies that are “located” in Saint Domingue, or in the web itself.

JUNTO: After a couple decades where “Atlantic History” was the en-vogue concept, and historians rushed to find American connections to Europe, the year 2016 featured a number of works that emphasized the hemispheric entanglements of early America. Besides your work, books by Alan Taylor and Caitlin Fitz emphasized that the young American republic was very interested in and intertwined with its southern neighbors. What are some of the benefits of this new perspective? What elements of early America are better understood through a continental lens?

dunDUN: Yes, though historians of early American commerce didn’t miss the importance of the West Indian trade for American merchants, I do think the de facto “Atlantic” considered by American historians for a spell mostly followed an East-West axis. While that focus certainly has a lot of merits, Caribbean historians and historians of slavery have long traced trends and relationships that moved North-South, and I think the trend you note among historians of the early American republic offers the same benefit of perspective. In a sense, that perspective is the one argued for by historians of 17th and early 18th century America, who have long resisted any historiographical sensibility that assumes the Revolution as an endpoint. The continental frame helps dislodge that chronological teleology, pushing against the nation state as the primary unit of analysis and usually offering a whack against any sort of American exceptionalism. As a result, I think we better see the broad structural forces that undergird and define that space: migration, commerce, systems of labor, geography—and therefore are better able to gauge the causes and character of changes that take place in it (the role of ideology, of culture, of contingency).

JUNTO: Much of your book deals with newspaper coverage. A previous generation of scholars used this same source base for histories that focused on elite white males, yet your work epitomizes the historiographical emphasis on reconstructing lives typically outside that small demographic. How do you use newspapers to tell a much broader cultural history?

DUN: Here I’m standing on some broad shoulders. I was fortunate long ago to witness an Omohundro session in which Seth Cotlar and Trish Loughran, both in the early stages of book projects on the topic, discussed their ideas about newspapers and print culture. It was a head-spinning moment for me. Their subsequent work, in combination with that of David Waldstreicher, Jeffrey Pasley, Marcus Daniel, and others, shaped how I approached newspapers thereafter, making me think about the different types of information they contain and the varying signals those types can be used to hear. In the book, I talk about newspapers as “vessels,” containers of information related to the actual wooden vessels that ferried stories from Saint Domingue alongside their cargoes of sugar and coffee. No information is pristine or objective, but mariners’ tales and merchants’ letters were done with identifiable and mostly consistent intents, and so newspaper editors’ printing them can be read as a mindful act—as an evaluation of what they thought their readers wanted or needed to know. Tracing how that information traveled—how it became “news” that other editors reprinted because they saw it as worthy of their ink—was one measure of a wider interest in developments in Saint Domingue. The real fun, however, came when that news became a topic of debate, when it was related to and bound up within other discussions taking place in the papers. Besides indicating Saint Domingue’s capacity to resonate in contemporary American politics, these moments showed me that editors, and other politicos, thought it would do so—that the events there were charged enough that they believed they could be deployed to score points in their increasingly partisan battles. And, of course, the way developments there were used revealed particular battles of importance, to include the parameters of equal citizenry, the propriety of slavery in a republic, and the function of race in the polity. The vibrancy, the consistency, and the intensity of this presence convinced me that it was in fact a window onto a popular political discourse, one that I felt I could chart so as to show its changing arc over the period.

JUNTO: A major focus of your study is centered on evolving notions of race and slavery, which you argue when through distinct phases even during the early republic. How did perceptions of the Haitian Revolution simultaneously challenge, validate, and transform American racial ideas and the institution of slavery?

DUN: That’s right. While the violence and tumult taking place certainly caught Americans’ eyes, as I just hinted, the ardency of their gaze towards Saint Domingue came from the place’s capacity to resonate with domestic concerns. And, as a “French” place experiencing a “Revolution” that was inextricably bound up in racial issues, Americans couldn’t help but make the colony part of their debates over the fate of slavery, both around the globe and at home. In general, Saint Domingue played the role of an accelerant. What some witnesses embraced, others stiff-armed. For a time, this dynamic served to heighten and define opposing positions. The prospect of racial equality in Saint Domingue fueled emergent Republicans’ celebrations of a cosmopolitan sense of the rights of man, even as more conservative voices looked there to see the dangers of rampant Jacobinism. Massive slave violence spurred ruminations over black humanity and the justice of freedom struggles, but also fearful condemnations of insurgent savagery. The “French” policy of emancipation sparked a highpoint of acceptance of Revolutionary antislavery, but also a tendency to distinguish the North American context from the tumult going on in the Caribbean.

By the latter part of the decade, in fact, that tendency had ossified, making the colony less of a testing ground for principle than a convenient source of political digs at one’s opponents. Federalists touted Louverture’s rectitude as a way of hammering the French (and their American allies). Republicans, meanwhile, brayed over the Adams administration’s chumminess with blood-drenched insurgents. By 1800, those portrayals had played a role in facilitating a Jeffersonian political coalition that rejected any connections between the Revolution in Saint Domingue and that in the United States. After Haitian independence in 1804, a gothic image of Haiti, one that made the nation a metonym for black violence alone, predominated in American minds and mouths, white and black. In this way, the book is really arguing that not all revolutions were created equal. The winners in the battles to define the American Revolution—the character of the rupture, the nature of the emergent nation, and the meaning of those changes going forward—were victorious in part because of their success in creating a consensus around Saint Domingue/Haiti as an antithesis of the United States.

JUNTO: Philadelphia serves as the hinge upon which your story pivots. Why did you choose the City of Brotherly Love as your case study? How do you balance the desire to make the city both unique and representative for its broader nation?

DUN: I think, in a sense, Philadelphia itself provided that balance. Given my interests, it was an obvious place to sit my study. Not only was it the national and state capital for most of this period, it was the nation’s largest city and a commercial and cultural powerhouse. Most importantly, and relatedly, however, Philadelphia was host to a greater number of newspapers than any other city in the period. New York comes close, but even New York papers didn’t move information as far and as wide as those in Philadelphia. When information made it into print there, it exploded out across the nation. Even when stories arrived at other places first, they didn’t circulate extensively until they hit the capital. (Readex has been invaluable in demonstrating this sort of thing.) As I figured that out, I became increasingly comfortable in relying on the news in Philadelphia as a reasonable index for American writings on the topic more generally. At the same time, Philadelphia was also distinctive: its Quaker heritage, philanthropic and reforming reputation, its radical politics, these all made the issues I was most interested in surface more readily. It’s not that these issues didn’t surface elsewhere—muted discussions took place in portions of the South, for example—it’s that the discussions in Philadelphia evoked the arc I was seeing most clearly.

JUNTO: Do you plan to build on this work in your next project? What’s in store for fans of James Alexander Dun?

DUN: I’d be thrilled to have fans! Would they have matching t-shirts? In addition to working on the digital projects I mentioned before, right now I’m in the late stages of an article treating a group of African American children who were indented to a Quaker household in Philadelphia in the 1790s. It’s a trial balloon for a larger project that I’m just starting to research in earnest, one that I want to be a study of the changing topography of slavery in the 18th and early 19th centuries. After having spent a lot of time writing about what people thought and said in this period, I now want to write more about things that people did, specifically how and why they moved/migrated/ran once the North American mid-Atlantic offered various regimes of gradual emancipation. Whereas previous treatments have stressed gradual emancipation as a legal innovation, most often as either a way of pointing out the limits of American Revolutionary-era antislavery or as a marker of the Revolution’s impact, I want to focus on the indeterminacy of the status that gradual emancipation provided. So far, my findings emphasize the spectrum of unfree labor that existed and structured life for people of color in this period. Resistance activities did not cease once putative liberty was attainable. Manumission and man-stealing emerged as Janus-faced iterations of white responses to that fact. At the same time, gradual emancipation regimes (and the presence of Haiti) did alter the landscape, shaping the conditions for resistance by producing white allies and by adding to the spate of options available to individuals and groups as they looked to live their lives in and outside of slavery. Rather than a story of the creation of “the North,” this book I hope will pay close attention to these dynamics in order to recover the function of the mid-Atlantic as a space operating in relation to surrounding areas and the forms of slavery that endured there.

One comment on “Q&A with James Alexander Dun

  1. […] Monday, the Junto featured a Q&A I did with James Alexander Dun, who teaches history at Princeton University, about his new book: Dangerous Neighbors: Making the […]

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