A new look at one of the early moments of sociopolitical introspection in the United States has won this year’s Bancroft Dissertation Award. Ashli White, GSAS’03, visiting assistant professor of history, garnered the prize for her historical work A Flood of Impure Lava: Saint Dominguan Refugees in the United States, 1791-1820. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences sponsors the award, which includes $14,397 for publishing her dissertation.
White’s work on the American reception of refugees of the Saint Domingue revolution illuminates the cultural and political uncertainties of the early republic. The author demonstrates how the more than 15,000 white and black refugees in flight from the Western Hemisphere’s first successful slave revolution in Haiti stirred the imaginations and fears of Americans.
Finding themselves implicated in international politics, Americans -- confronted with slaves’ own capacity for political action -- were called on as a public to provide new kinds of relief. By examining the multifold ways in which the refugees from “Hayti” were represented and their claims debated, White opens a new window on Atlantic world politics, as well as American discussions of freedom, loyalty, social obligation and political responsibility.
“Ashli White’s dissertation is an example of the ‘Atlantic perspective’ that has been proving so fruitful in developing new insights into the history of the Western Hemisphere in the era from colonization through the early American republic,” said Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton Professor of History and sponsor of White’s dissertation. “She shows how attention to the revolution in Haiti and its consequences affect our understanding of American society in the 1790s and early 19th century. In examining reactions to Haitian refugees who came to the United States, she develops important new insights on immigration policy, race and divisions over slavery in the early republic.”
“Slaves and free colored people in Saint-Domingue pushed republican ideals to the radical conclusion that all men, regardless of race, are free, equal and entitled to the rights of citizens,” said White. “The refugees brought this bold assertion to Americans’ doorsteps, forcing residents to face the ambiguous legacies of their own recent revolution.”
White is lauded for her skills as a researcher, writer and teacher. As her dissertation demonstrates, she moves from a solid analysis of social history -- based on meticulous research using wills, census records, city directories and ship manifests -- to its larger implications for American debates over slavery and freedom.
In the early chapters of the thesis, White shows how people in Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans; and Baltimore, Maryland, as well as those in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, made sense of the sudden relocation of planters, slaves and freed persons. White explains that the very presence of the slaves and freed persons exposed the conditional nature of slavery as an institution, and the French Catholic identity of all the refugees also placed new demands on Americans for generalized charity, testing the protocols of religious pluralism in the early republic. The refugees reshaped propertied Americans’ sense of a larger and dangerously unstable political world impinging on the security of their own ports and plantations, White argues.
Her dissertation offers a detailed reading of the emergence of “French Negroes” as a new social type who were taken by white Americans as harbingers of rebellion, who in many instances remained loyal to their masters. White also looks at how African Americans reacted to the “French Negroes” and laid claim to the revolutionary promise of Saint-Domingue. Finally, she examines the unexpected impact of the arrival of thousands of Haitian refugees expelled from Cuba on Americans’ efforts to end the international slave trade in 1808.
In addition to Foner, the other members of White’s defense committee were Professors Elizabeth Blackmar, Winston James, Herbert Sloan and Ada Ferrer.
White currently teaches “The Age of the Atlantic Revolutions;” “Slavery in the Atlantic World, 1500-1888;” “American Beginnings;” and “Contemporary Civilization” at Columbia.
The Bancroft Dissertation Award is given annually for an outstanding dissertation in American History (including biography), diplomacy or international affairs. Nominations are made by the Ph.D. defense committee. The award carries with it a publication subsidy transferable to a press of the winner’s choice.