From Haiti to Harpers Ferry: John Brown's Raid and the Counterrevolution of Secession

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 9:20 AM
Edward A (Hyatt)
Matthew J. Clavin , University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL
In the winter of 1859, John Brown sat in a Charlestown, Virginia jail awaiting his execution. In a contemplative mood, the man who attempted to spark a slave insurrection throughout the southern United States shared with his jailer the motivations for his actions. Brown told the story of Toussaint Louverture, the former bondman who at the turn of the nineteenth century led a massive slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, which resulted in the birth of the second independent nation in the western hemisphere, Haiti. Brown read a biography of Louverture in his cell, and he insisted that the "San Domingan chief" ranked among history's greatest men. He reported that he had "read and reread all the literature he could find about L'Ouverture for a dozen years." He divulged additionally that "he patterned his life after the San Domingan and that he viewed his own death on the scaffold in the same light as the execution of L'Ouverture." John Brown's dream of a second Haitian Revolution was for most Americans a nightmare. Following the abolitionist invasion of Harpers Ferry, fear of a second Haitian Revolution turned to hysteria as writers, politicians, and ordinary men and women pondered the likelihood of racial Armageddon below the Mason-Dixon Line. Through an examination of the explosion of public memory of the Haitian Revolution in southern public culture in the aftermath of John Brown's raid, this essay finds that the Haitian Revolution played a critical role in both birthing the Confederacy and provoking the war. Convincing white southerners of a repetition of the "horrors of St. Domingo" on American soil if the slave states remained in the Union, secessionist speakers and writers rooted their political movement in the counterrevolutionary philosophy of the eighteenth century Atlantic world and at last achieved independence.