Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions

James MCCUNE SMITH   |   Toussaint L'OUVERTURE   |   Toussaint LOUVERTURE

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"THE FRUIT OF SLAVERY… THE CONSEQUENCE OF WITHHOLDING FROM MEN THEIR LIBERTY": RARE FIRST EDITION OF THE KEY 1841 LECTURE ON THE HAYTIEN REVOLUTION BY JAMES MCCUNE SMITH, ESTEEMED BY FREDERICK DOUGLASS AS A MAN "'WITHOUT RIVALS' AMONG BLACK LEADERS"

MCCUNE SMITH, James. A Lecture on the Haytien Revoltuions; With a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Delivered at the Stuyvesant Institute, (For the Benefit of the Colored Orphan Asylum,) February 26, 1841. New-York: Printed by Daniel Fanshaw, 1841. Slim octavo, modern blue cloth, gilt-stamped morocco spine label; pp. 28. $4800.

First edition of a landmark early history of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, delivered in 1841 by McCune Smith—"the African American tradition's first man of letters" (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)—chosen by his close friend Frederick Douglass to write the introduction to My Bondage and My Freedom, this work one of the few by McCune Smith to survive, here arguing, in effect, that the "racist mythology about Africans that was created to justify and perpetuate slavery… destroys the foundations of freedom," with frontispiece map of "Hayti or St Domingo."

To historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., James McCune Smith stands "as the African American tradition's first man of letters, its first intellectual and its first professional writer… he was one of the few black men or women before whom the great Frederick Douglass would bow" (Foreword in Stauffer, ed. Works, x-xi). To David Blight, of all those who have offered their interpretation of Douglass' autobiographies, "perhaps none has done so more incisively than the first, James McCune Smith, Douglass' good friend, ideological soul mate, and the man he asked to introduce My Bondage and My Freedom." Born a slave in New York City in 1813 and freed by the Emancipation Act of the State of NY in 1827, McCune Smith was "an intellectual prodigy… denied admission to medical schools, he journeyed to Glasgow, Scotland, where he achieved the BA, MA and MD degrees." On returning and meeting Douglass, "they struck up an extraordinary friendship… and shared a mutual respect for a life of the mind for black men… Douglass judged him 'without rivals' among black leaders" (Frederick Douglass, 256-57). Yet McCune Smith remains overshadowed by his contemporaries, in part because "he published no book during his lifetime… [and] his essays… were difficult to save and pass down." Now, however, the man who died barely six months after Lee's surrender, and long "felt that his work 'was not of today only but of centuries'… is finally beginning to rear himself above the waves of obscurity" (Stauffer, xvi, xxxiv; emphasis added).

At the 1838 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, where McCune Smith was the only black man to deliver a keynote address, he focused "on the Haitian Revolution…. [and] argued that, contrary to white abolitionist perceptions, black revolutionaries in the French colony of Saint Domingue were the first group to advocate an immediate end to slavery" (Stauffer, xxiii). That speech became the basis for this pivotal Lecture, where he "anticipated the efforts of 20th-century black radical intellectuals like C.L.R. James. In the talk… he set out to present a full, objective history of the revolution… [and] divided his history into three revolutions, the formation of the French Republic, the abolition of slavery, and the independence of Haiti, over which Toussaint Louverture was the 'presiding genius.' His signal achievement, McCune Smith wrote, was not just the abolition of slavery but also of the racial caste that had divided the island into white, mixed race and blacks" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 454). McCune Smith's purpose here is clear: "slavery is evil beyond question; yet the damage caused by slavery extends beyond fundamental deprivations of natural rights and violations of natural law. A racist mythology about Africans that was created to justify and perpetuate slavery… destroys the foundations of freedom" (O'Brien in Haitian Revolution, 204). First edition, only printing; bound without fragile wrappers. Sabin 82794. Blockson Afro-Americana. An Exhibition, 18.

Interior fresh with lightest scattered foxing. An exceptional near-fine copy. Of barely five works by McCune Smith ever at auction, only one copy of Lecture has been seen since 1982.

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