After three years of construction New York’s first museum, the New-York Historical Society, will re-open fully on November 11, 2011 with the exhibition Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn, the first exhibition to relate the American, French and Haitian struggles as a single global narrative.
Spanning decades of enormous political and cultural changes, from the triumph of British imperial power in 1763 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Revolution! traces how an ideal of popular sovereignty, introduced through the American fight for independence, soon sparked more radical calls for a recognition of universal human rights, and set off attacks on both sides of the Atlantic against hereditary privilege and slavery. Among the unforeseen outcomes was an insurrection on the French possession of Saint-Domingue, leading to the world’s only successful slave revolt and the establishment in 1804 of the first nation founded on the principles of full freedom and equality for all, regardless of color.
“Just as the New-York Historical Society set new standards for American culture when it opened in 1804, Revolution! will break new ground for American history in 2011,” Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the Historical Society, said in a press statement announcing the new exhibit. “This trailblazing exhibition underscores how much our nation has always been an integral part of a much broader world, and how our city’s great cultural pantheon took shape against the backdrop of a sweeping play of historical forces on an international stage. As we established in our widely acclaimed exhibition on Nueva York, the history of our city has always implicated the history of the world.”
Richard Rabinowitz, founder and president of American History Workshop, serves as chief exhibition curator. Thomas Bender of New York University and Laurent Dubois of Duke University have served as the co-chief historians for Revolution!, drawing on the scholarship of an advisory committee of historians and specialists.
Following its presentation at the New-York Historical Society (November 11, 2011 – April 15, 2012), Revolution! will travel to venues in the U.K., France, and elsewhere in the United States. Educational materials and programs will be distributed internationally, including in Haiti.
The exhibition is made possible with grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) program and The Nathan Cummings Foundation.
On view in Revolution!
With texts and audio guides in English, French and Haitian Krèyol, the exhibition unfolds in galleries designed to evoke varied gathering places, such as a baroque palace, a portside tavern and a rural Haitian lakou: sites where people of the era felt and shared the “common wind” of political information and opinion. Within these galleries, visitors will encounter paintings, drawings and prints from collections in a dozen countries; historical documents, maps and manuscripts from the hands of participants in these revolutions; audiovisual presentations and interactive learning stations; and curriculum materials for students from kindergarten through graduate school.
Highlights among the three hundred objects in Revolution! include:
· the original Stamp Act, as it was passed by Parliament in 1765 setting off the riots that led to the American Revolution, on loan from the Parliamentary Archives, London, displayed for the first time outside the U.K.
· Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam (oil on canvas, 1752-58, by John Greenwood), the first genre painting in American art history, on loan from the Saint Louis Art Museum, illustrating the sort of tavern where discontent brewed in the Atlantic world, in an 18th-century version of “social networking”
· a first edition of Thomas Paine’s epoch-making pamphlet Common Sense (1776), from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
· an elegant mahogany desk from the first capitol of the United States, Federal Hall in lower Manhattan (c. 1788, New-York Historical Society): the first example of a legislator’s desk in Anglo-American history
· the “Africa Box” filled with craftworks and agricultural products from Africa (ca. 1785, on loan from the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, U.K.), used by Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in his lectures against slavery, and never before exhibited outside the U.K.
· Vue de l’incendie de la ville du Cap Français (1795, by J.B. Chapuy, Archives départementales de la Martinique), an example of the sort of engraving that brought impressions of the Haiti uprising to an international public
· Napoleon’s authorization to French negotiators to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States (1803, New-York Historical Society), as a direct consequence of the Haitian rebellion
· the only known surviving copy of the first printing of the Haitian Declaration of Independence (1804, National Archives, London), recently discovered and exhibited here to the public for the first time
· a wooden model of the slave ship Brookes, produced for the French revolutionary leader Mirabeau, intended to be used as a prop in the National Assembly’s debate on ending slavery in France (1789, Bibliothèque nationale de France)
· Thomas Jefferson’s copy of Notes on the State of Virginia, his only book, inscribed to the Abbé Morellet, and used by the latter to make the first French translation (1785, New York Public Library)
· a 2nd-century C.E. Roman marble bust of a young man wearing a Phrygian (or “liberty”) cap, which became an inspiration for one of the great symbols of the revolutionary era (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
· three superb vodou sculptures, produced by secret societies in Haiti that were established during the Haitian Revolution (early 20th century, La Fondation pour la Préservation, la Valorisation et la Production d’Oeuvres Culturelles Haïtiennes)
· Anne-Louis Girodet’s magnificent portrait of the great Saint-Domingue military and political leader Jean-Baptiste Belley, the “most important image of a black revolutionary” (1797, Musée National du Château de Versailles)
· a seven-foot-long “carcan” or leg-yoke, used to shackle five captives together, taken from a French slave ship (ca. 1800, Bibliothèque nationale de France)
· and many examples of the broadsides, pamphlets, and political and satirical cartoons that spread, and reflected, revolutionary fervor throughout the period
Plan of the Exhibition
Revolution! tells its story through the following main sections:
The Palace: Imperial Ambitions, Political Realities provides an overview of the Atlantic imperial world in 1763 at the moment when the British defeated French and Spanish forces in the first truly global conflict, the Seven Years War. This triumph came at a price, as the gallery illustrates with evidence of the material riches of the colonial possessions, and the high-level debates within the capital about the costs of exploiting them. Warfare and colonial government were expensive; yet greater taxation within the imperial homeland carried political risks. The leaders of Britain (like their imperial counterparts in Spain and Portugal) chose instead to impose new taxes and regulations on their colonies.
The Tavern: A World of Conspiracy and Connivance brings visitors into contact with the new public sphere of political argument that emerged in the world of the Atlantic’s maritime commerce, as broadsides, pamphlets and dockside murmurings circulated among a growing population of “masterless” people: men and women uprooted from their ancestral homes in Africa, Europe and the Americas. A seaport tavern in the Caribbean is the exhibition’s setting for the exchange of arguments, rumors, information and grievances that took place among colonial planters, royal officials, free people of color, fugitives, sailors, dockworkers and demimondaines. Their public chatter became an increasingly loud, dissonant and often corrosive counterpoint to the official pronouncements of palaces, ministries, cathedrals and courtrooms.
The Uncharted Upheaval in British North America traces the unforeseeable course of American rebellion from the protests against the Stamp Act to the aftermath of the War of Independence, showing these events less as a chronology of conflicts than as a set of “inventions.” Having begun by arguing for their traditional English rights within the empire, the colonists went on to construct universalist arguments for independence and a government based on popular sovereignty. Materials in the gallery illustrate the increasing political and cultural alienation of the colonists; the evolution of their colonial assemblies into wartime “committees of safety”; the formation of a military alliance with England’s imperial rival, France; and the postwar invention of self-government under the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution.
The British Campaign for the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade explores how the impact of the successful American rebellion—combined with the resistance of the enslaved aboard ships and within American plantations—set off a powerful impulse for reform in Great Britain, as the greatest slave-trading power on earth began the march toward emancipation. Materials in the gallery show how the anti-slavery forces used lectures, community meetings, marches, rallies, petitions to Parliament, the publication of propaganda images and personal testimonies—techniques of political mobilization that are now standard in the democratic world—to advance their cause. By 1807, the British had abolished the slave trade and assumed the role of maritime policemen in the Atlantic, aiming to cripple the human trafficking of Britain’s imperial rivals. This was the second great achievement of the revolutionary era.
Free and Equal: French and African Ideals Liberate the World’s Richest Colony takes the story of revolution to Paris—where the American example, and the cost to the royal treasury of assisting the Americans, contributed to the monarchy’s downfall—and to France’s own prize colony, Saint-Domingue, the western third of the island of Hispaniola. In the wake of 1789, the rich sugar planters of Saint-Domingue struck out for autonomy from France. Meanwhile, their mixed-race offspring, the often prosperous free people of color, responded to the new egalitarian ideals by calling for racial equality within economic classes; and the colony’s poor whites, hating both groups, agitated for the overthrow of all hierarchies. None of these forces wanted the abolition of slavery; but after more than two years of universal conflict, the ninety percent of Saint-Domingue that was African and enslaved rebelled, in summer 1791. At the heart of this chapter is Toussaint Louverture, the military genius, economic czar and law-giver of the rebellion. Its legacy included the total abolition of slavery by the Convention in 1794—the third great achievement of this revolutionary era—but also the ongoing resistance in Saint-Domingue, as ex-slaves chafed at Louverture’s orders for them to remain at their places of work.
The Second Haitian Revolution takes the story into the foothills and mountains of the island, where the formerly enslaved population stole away from the plantations and began creating a distinctive national identity. They melded the enormous diversity of their native African backgrounds into a single culture, through the development of a new form of spirituality (vodoun), a new national language (Krèyol) and a new form of household space and organization (the lakou).
The Triumph of Haitian Independence concludes this part of Revolution! with the story of Napoleon’s 1802 invasion of Saint-Domingue (with the goal of reinstituting slavery, threatening to kill off the existing adult African population and importing an entire new workforce from Africa) and the subsequent resistance. Although successful at first, the French army fell victim to yellow fever, the maroon insurgency in the mountains and their own government’s ineptitude. At the beginning of 1804, having driven the French out of Saint-Domingue, the victorious General Dessalines declared the independence of the second republic established in the Americas, the newly named nation of Haiti, concluding the first (and only) successful slave revolt in history and establishing the first nation to guarantee unconditional equality and emancipation in its constitution. This was the fourth great achievement of this era of revolution.
Legacies, the 19th century shows how the immediate consequences of this first Age of Revolution fell short of the dreams and sacrifices of the revolutionaries. The new Haitian state was quarantined by the imperial powers, with France extending recognition only after Haiti agreed to indemnify whites for the loss of their land and slaves—leaving the nation crippled by debt, and chronically unable to construct a workable political system. The British went on to abolish slavery in their West Indian possessions in the 1830s—but only after compensating slaveholders, and providing them with a new supply of indentured workers from Asia. As for the U.S., it ceased to be a fount of revolutionary activity after its purchase of the Louisiana Territory—a direct consequence of the Haitian revolution—turning inward to a project of continental expansion. (The question of extending slavery into western territories, ironically, would break apart the Union.) Despite these reversals, however, the events of 1776-1804 had implanted an ineradicable aspiration for democratic rights in the Atlantic world and beyond.
Legacies for our time carries the story of Revolution! into the 20th century, when the attainment of universal human rights came to be a global ideal, if certainly not an achieved reality. Dozens of colonial nations declared their independence from European powers, often in language adopted from Jefferson and Lafayette. Slavery, though persisting outside the law, became illegal everywhere. And in 1948, the United Nations brought forth the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which codified a new norm in human affairs: the fundamental entitlement of every person to a life of dignity, liberty and equality. This is the ultimate legacy of the half-century we call the Age of Revolution.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a full-color, illustrated catalogue edited by Thomas Bender, Laurent Dubois, and Richard Rabinowitz. The volume will feature ten essays by leading scholars: Thomas Bender; Laurent Dubois and Julius S. Scott (University of Michigan); Richard Rabinowitz; T. H. Breen (Northwestern University); Cathy Matson (University of Delaware); David Brion Davis (Yale University) and Peter P. Hinks; Robin Blackburn (New School University); Jeremy D. Popkin (University of Kentucky); Vincent Brown (Duke University); Rebecca J. Scott (University of Michigan) and Jean M. Hébrard (University of Michigan); and Jean Casimir (Université d’État, Haiti).
Education: School Programs
Curriculum materials for grades K through graduate school will include teacher lesson plans and student materials such as maps, copies of primary resources, life stories of exhibition protagonists and timelines. As with all major exhibitions, Museum educators from the Historical Society will conduct teacher training and onsite tours for school groups throughout the run of the exhibition. Teacher materials will also be accessible for download from the Revolution! website at no charge.
A series of evening programs at the Historical Society will feature some of the nation’s top historians, journalists and authors. These programs will be digitally recorded and posted as podcasts on various sites. In addition, the Historical Society will offer educational and community outreach programs for the Haitian-American community in New York and other venue cities, including visual and performing arts, oral history and citizenship education.
A joint scholarly conference with the John Carter Brown Library (Providence, RI) in March 2012 will convene post-secondary audiences and scholars of the subject.
Illustration: Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam (oil on canvas, 1752-58, by John Greenwood).