Top positive review
55 people found this helpful
A clear window into the slavery-preservation motives of American expansionism
on January 7, 2011
Why bother reading about a slave revolt from 200 years ago? I grew up with the fable that American expansionism (i.e. Manifest Destiny) was motivated by a god-given duty to spread our nonviolent democratic institutions from sea to shining sea. Daniel Rasmussen's book makes a convincing connection between American expansionism and preserving the "Southern way of life," otherwise known as slavery-based agriculture. Rasmussen details the atrocities a priviliged class will go through to keep a lower class under control to their benefit. The New Orleans planters put down the rebellion violently, and they wrote the rebels into history as petty criminals for centuries. Meanwhile, violence was a necessary recourse for slaves whose freedom was supressed by violence, though the vision of the 1811 rebels was not fully realized until blacks' role in the Union's Civil War effort. These themes touched on by Rasmussen are eternally relevant.
Rasmussen pieces together a rich tale of the rebellion's mechanics despite sparse historical sources. We learn of the challenges faced by American diplomats trying to bring French aristocrats and Spanish Florida into the Union, and how a blind eye was turned to the potential for revolt. We learn about the cultural diversity of the slaves, including the origins of African military tactics that proved successful against American forces. We understand how the successful slave rebellion of Haiti influenced both the slaves and planters. We discover the heroic leader Charles Deslondes, a half-white who rebelled despite rising high within the hierarchy of slaves. His story reminds me of Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption.
The book's only weak paragraph comes when Rasmussen speculates why Deslondes rebelled despite his privilige. He hypothesizes about his mother's rape, his lovers' rape, slavedriver guilt, and jealousy. But he leaves out the simplest explanation: how agonizing is it to be so close to freedom yet not really free? There's no need for any further motive. Deslondes organized the rebellion because he could.
Harvard professor John Stauffer, in the Jan. 6 WSJ, has mischaracterized his student here as overreaching to make the 1811 Rebellion central to American history. Stauffer is correct in that American history wouldn't be much different had this rebellion never occurred. However, Rasmussen convincingly argues that the challenge of subjugating such powerful slaves was central to American history. His retelling of the 1811 rebellion is vivid evidence of what atrocities planters had to undertake to achieve this end.