Following is a review of Dan Rasmussen's American Uprising The review was written by Dr. Robert Shurmer and appeared in Googreads. Rasmussen is a former student of mine, and Dr. Shurmer is a former colleague.
Acclaimed historian of colonial America, Jack P. Green, has called the South “a negative example of what America had to overcome before it could finally realize its true self.” For two centuries, the struggle to 'integrate' the South into a more 'progressive' and 'mainstream' American narrative has flummoxed scholars, politicians, and cultural theorists of all shades. The South still tends to confound those who are not a part of it. Dan Rasmussen’s new book American Uprising perhaps adds another strut to Greene’s argument by providing a glimpse into the complex, and problematic, relationships among slaves, landholders, merchants, politicians, soldiers, privateers, and rogues of every shade and political allegiance in the steamy swamplands of Louisiana during the early years of the American Republic. The story Dan tells is ostensibly about a little-known, but substantial slave revolt in 1811 that occurred on the Andry Plantation located on Louisiana's German Coast forty miles north of New Orleans. The insurrection that marched on New Orleans that year may have included up to five hundred slaves (actual numbers are disputed), but broke up fifteen miles from the city when it came up against a smaller, but better armed, force of planter militia. While the enduring impact of this particular uprising remains debatable, Rasmussen’s narrative provides the fodder for a much deeper story about the ‘Americanization’ of the Deep South.
Rasmussen possesses a knack for conjuring up the sights, sounds, colors, and flavors of early 19th-century New Orleans and placing his readers at the side of his protagonists, both planter and slave. The slave experience takes center stage here as Rasmussen attempts to piece together the world inhabited by the West Africans Kook and Quamana, the primary organizers of the uprising. From their arrival in the port of New Orleans in 1806 with some 1500 other slaves to their executions following the failed uprising, Kook and Quamana are contextualized into the history of the region. Dan displays real skill and art in making sense of a complex story. While the actions of Kook and Quamana and the slave perspective generally remain central to the story -- the rich broth that is essential to any good gumbo to use an apt analogy -- Rasmussen transcends the narrative event of 1811 by analyzing the big picture as much as the actions of a few men.
Indeed, Dan is at his best when his focus widens and he places the events surrounding the Andry Plantation in the wider context of American-Caribbean history. He writes convincingly of a new nation flexing its muscle for the first time, eschewing established channels of European diplomacy, and successfully flaunting international law, using God’s law instead to justify its self-serving actions in Florida and Louisiana. One example is Fulwar Skipwith’s cunning and illegal seizure of Baton Rouge and the killing of the Spanish garrison, an action that cleared the path for the United States to assume control, by presidential proclamation, of West Florida. Rasmussen is supremely aware of the multiplicity of historical ingredients in his narrative of the 1811 uprising. He writes of French, Spanish, Haitian, Creek, Miccosukee, Akan, and Asante -- all bound in complex economic interdependency, all rubbing shoulders with the newly dubbed Americans in the cosmopolitan port of New Orleans, all providing meaty chunks to the spicy broth carefully laid down with the stories of Kook, Quamana, and Andry.
Rasmussen ultimately raises the thorny question of what is ‘authentic history’ when he attempts to make something of the fact that no one has made much of the slave revolt on the Andy Plantation. "Why," asks Rasmussen, "has no one ever bothered to tell the story of the enslaved men who lost their lives fighting for their own freedom?" A pertinent question, though not entirely accurate (Howard Zinn is notably absent in Rasmussen's bibliography). In his discussion of the limited historiography on the 1811 uprising, Rasmussen uses some emotionally-packed words to malign (rightly so) not only prior scholarship, but to cast aspersions upon the 'uglier' side of the American story, that problematic part of our narrative that, pace Green, we had to overcome in order to realize our true self: Communist, Marxist, academia, White, Jewish, Nazi, racist, rebel and Confederate are all dredged up here. Such words, however, serve various masters in the broader narrative of America and form a political minefield that often inhibits serious historical dialogue.
"The South proxies for a variety of national pathologies," insists Thomas Schaller, professor of political science and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (Simon Schuster, 2008), and Southern history and modern politics rarely disengage easily. Dan Rasmussen deftly weaves a tale of something that is not so much the historical ‘winning’ of the Deep South as it is the absorption of it into the debate about who we are as a nation. "This is a story about American expansion and the foundations of American authority," states Rasmussen, as he rightly challenges us to "reckon with the politics of the enslaved." However, it appears uncertain at best that, as Rasmussen asserts, a cover up of the Andry uprising has been perpetuated for two centuries by bigoted, white, Southern elites for political ends, or that racist historians "conflated the idea of law with the idea of white supremacy." It is perhaps convenient to use the event to help exorcise those uncomfortable demons in the American psyche, but we would do well to avoid mixing contemporary polemics with history (if such a thing is possible). There persists an enduring perception in this country that the South is defined more by culture than geography, that Alabama or Louisiana (both voted for McCain in 2008), for example, are somehow more southern than Virginia (voted for O'Bama), that what is southern will forever be tied to its lard and greens cookery, to an attachment to evangelical religion, to an anti-scientific outlook, to militant and xenophobic patriotism, and ultimately to the 'peculiar institution' of slavery. As a nation, we are still trying to come to terms collectively with the issues of slavery, race, and immigration and what it ultimately means to be an American. Rasmussen gets it right: The events surrounding Andry Plantation in 1811 constitute something more than merely a Southern story, they make up rather an American one.
In the end, Dan tells a darn good story and is especially deft at showing the complex interplay of ethnicity, economics and politics in the Deep South in the early 19th century. Rasmussen succeeds in making his reader think twice about received traditions and historical identity, the mark of a good book and good historian indeed. Jacob Levenson of Columbia University has observed that for many Americans outside the region, the South will remain forever frozen in time as scenes from Birmingham and Selma are constantly re-hashed on PBS. Northerners, Levenson believes, seem "to treasure those black-and-white memories because they serve as symbols for what we'd like to think we're not." Rasmussen's new book adds to the debate about what we are. By bringing men such as Kook and Quamana to the forefront of his narrative, Dan ultimately reinforces the motto E pulribus unum!