Abolition and 1848: Where in the World Revolution Is William Wells Brown?
William Wells Brown is best known today as the fugitive slave who authored several firsts in African American literature. That reputation has been both a boon and a boundary. While it has provoked prodigious commentary on Brown’s indictment of slavery in the United States, it has largely obscured his placement of that critique within a broader picture of the Anglo-French Atlantic in the Age of Revolution. This dissertation restores some of that complex geography by locating Brown’s antebellum corpus within the context of U.S. abolition’s underdiscussed response to the European Revolutions of 1848. As a transatlantic traveler in France and the United Kingdom between 1849 and 1854, Brown narrowly missed the revolutions, but he saw firsthand the conservative counter-revolution that followed. His response was intertextual, international, and even inter-imperial. This dissertation traces the development of that response from its inception in a speech that Brown delivered to the Second International Peace Congress in Paris in 1849, through the panorama of American slavery that he presented to audiences in the United Kingdom in 1850, and to its efflorescence in the European travel narrative that he published in London in 1852. I argue that in those tours and texts Brown draws on the Christian anarchism that he learned as an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society in order to articulate the failures of Europe’s mid-century democratic revolutions as developmentally and etiologically intertwined with those of the English, American, and French Revolutions that preceded them. In Brown’s account, the root of those failures was that instead of eradicating the depredations of the aristocratic order, democratization had set them on a new footing by embracing cultural nationalism and expropriative violence. Against such a backdrop, Brown presents the revitalization of slavery in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a problem in which the fate of the French citizen and the free Briton were inseparable from that of the American slave.