Freedom and Unfreedom in the Age of Revolution

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My research proposal, "Freedom and Unfreedom in the Age of Revolution," grows out of a question that in central to one of the courses I teach regularly at the University of Kentucky, "Europe and the World in the Age of the French Revolution." At the beginning of that course, I present students with two documents: the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" adopted by the French National Assembly in 1789 and a chart showing the number of African slaves brought to the New World every year, from the 1560s to the 1860s. The point is immediately obvious to the students: the years in which our modern concepts of liberty and equality were receiving their most eloquent formulations were also the years in which the trans-Atlantic slave trade reached its peak, its ascension interrupted only by the period's wars. Furthermore, the very legislators who were proclaiming the rights of man also, in many cases, explicitly endorsed the institution of slavery. From Thomas Jefferson to the French deputies who voted, in May 1791, to leave the future of slavery up to the white plantation-owners in the colonies, many leaders of the period's two great "democratic revolutions" managed to reconcile a devotion to the ideal of freedom with an acceptance of that ideal's most complete negation. The purpose of my project is not just to denounce the hypocrisy of the revolutionary era, but to put the behavior of its participants in context, and to try to understand the reasons that made highly intelligent intellectuals and politicians adopt positions that seem to us blatantly contradictory. One important aspect of the answer, as I try to show my students, is that the issue of slavery was only one of the many dimensions of complicated debates about the meaning of freedom during this period. It was simple for thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to announce that "man is born free," but Rousseau himself immediately proceeded to explain that "everywhere he is in chains," and that those chains or restrictions on freedom could in fact be justified and even understood as the consequences of freedom itself. Debates during the Enlightenment period raised fundamental issues about which human beings qualified for freedom. Another complex of issues, brought into dramatic relief by the period's revolutions, concerned the problem of moving from an "unfree" society to one based on principles of individual freedom, and a third set of issues grew out of the question of the relationship between political freedom and other aspects of people's lives, such as their relationships with employers and family members. My aspiration is to produce a historically contextualized examination of these issues that raises questions both about whether the thinkers and political reformers of the revolutionary era had, in fact, formulated a universalistic notion of human freedom and whether such a formulation is in fact possible. From the theorist Rousseau, who concluded that some individuals might have to be "forced to be free," to the black leader Toussaint Louverture, who indignantly rejected the first French offer of slave emancipation in Saint-Domingue in August 1793 and told revolutionary officials that he would continue to fight for "another Liberty, different from that which you tryants pretend to impose on us," the men and women involved in this period's debates continually came up against the contradictions built into the concept of freedom and the seriousness of the obstacles it had to confront. As the tentative list of chapters below indicates, my book will combine theoretical analyses of ideas about freedom with examinations of how individuals lived the notion of freedom during this period, and it will move between the level of public events and that of individual experience. It will also consider the changing scope of freedom in civil society as well as the expansion and restriction of the notion of citizenship. This project is obviously a longterm one, and I expect that its shape will evolve as I get into the work on it, but I see it as a natural outgrowth of the scholarly trajectory of my career up to now. My interest in these questions goes back to the first college class in which I encountered the debates raised by the French Revolution, a course on the history of political thought taught by neo-Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse that I took in the revolutionary year of 1968. Marcuse assigned us a book of Robespierre's speeches, telling us that we would learn much about the nature of freedom and the logic of revolutions, but he also made us read Burke's critique of the Revolution and delivered a memorable lecture on the French reactionaries de Maistre and Bonald. Sympathetic though I was to the radical protest movements of the period, I was fascinated to discover that there were intelligent people who rejected such "obvious" truths as the existence of human rights and the desirability of democracy. My first four scholarly books dealt with various aspects of the press in revolutionary France and Europe, one of the main media through which ideas of freedom were propagated, and required me to focus on some of the journalists who were at the center of these debates. In more recent years, I have turned my attention first to the development of autobiography, a form of individual expression which emerged as a distinct genre in the decades just prior to 1800, and then to the issue of slavery in the revolutionary era. The volume of first-person accounts of the Haitian Revolution that I published in 2007 (Facing Racial Revolution) brought my interest in autobiographical literature to the context of the revolutionary era. My most recent book, You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery, (2010) tried to explain, among other things, why the first official emancipation proclamations issued in Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti) in 1793 were rejected both by the colony's black slaves, who preferred to ally themselves with the Spanish empire, despite its support for slavery, and by the French Jacobins in Paris, who saw slave emancipation as a counterrevolutionary plot. I thus have a broad background in the thought and politics of the revolutionary era from which to begin my new work. In 2012-13, I will be on sabbatical from my position at the University of Kentucky. I am making plans to spend the winter semester of 2013 in Berlin and Paris. A fellowship from the NHC, where I spent a very stimulating year in 2000-01, would be very helpful in enabling me to begin the intensive reading and thought that this project will require.
Effective start/end date8/16/125/15/13


  • National Humanities Center: $50,000.00


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