Breaking the Silence: The Historiography of the Haitian Revolution

“Why am I just now learning about the Haitian Revolution, especially in a modern European history course? Is it really that significant?” She was a young student. Although I cannot fully remember, I think she was a freshman. I stared back at her desperately trying to pretend that I was not frantically searching my brain for a clear answer. The problem was not a lack of answers; on the contrary, the problem was an overflow of ideas. It was my first semester working as a teaching assistant for a course on the history of modern Europe. At this stage, I still thought that as the instructor, I was supposed to know everything and anything at any given moment. In these early days, my discussion sections felt like twice-weekly pop quizzes.

Returning to the young student, I cleared my throat, broke my silence, and insecurely delivered what I prayed was a satisfactory answer. Gazing at her inquisitive eyes and feeling the other student’s predatory stares, I explained how the Haitian Revolution is significant to our understanding of the French Revolution.[1] I continued: “The Haitian Revolution reveals the inconsistencies within the French Revolution.” Gaining a little bit more confidence, I turned the question back to my class exclaiming, “The Haitian Revolution makes us ask, ‘was the French Revolution about liberty and equality, or was it about private property?” I finished: “It makes us question the nature of revolutionary movements.”

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Revolutionary Style: A Review of Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion

For decades, scholars have attempted to capture the circumstances that led up to the French Revolution. In The Coming of the French Revolution, for instance, Georges Lefebvre explains the causes of the French Revolution with a socioeconomic interpretation. In particular, Lefebvre argues that the rising dominance of the bourgeoisie produced the political turmoil of the revolution.[1] In other works, scholars, such as Francois Furet, Robert Darnton, and Keith Michael Baker, underscore the importance of political ideologies and culture for understanding the causes of the revolution.[2] Still others historians, such as Timothy Tackett, contend that the ineptitude of the royal family also helped to bring about the war. Tackett, for example, insists that the salacious and careless actions of the royal family before and during the war undermined the public’s perception of the family as a symbol of sacred authority.[3]

Similar to Tackett’s analysis, Caroline Weber also draws attention to the significance of the royal family in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.[4] The central aim of Weber’s study is to show how Marie Antoinette used the appeal of court fashion to exert political power. Through a comparison of Marie Antoinette to her famous ancestor, Louis XIV, Weber argues that the queen “identified fashion as a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority, and sometimes mere survival.”[5] In all, Weber concludes that Marie Antoinette fought her political adversaries with style.

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