Reading Daniel Rasmussen's interesting if flawed account of a violent slave uprising in Louisiana in 1811, I found myself repeatedly recalling Samuel Johnson's dictum on women in the pulpit. The good doctor's words are totally incorrect, of course, but when one considers that the author of this book is all of 23 years old, they do seem to apply: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
As it happens, Rasmussen has done more things well than poorly, but the phenomenon of a person of his tender years writing and having published a serious work of history cannot go unnoticed. Perhaps it is unfair to Rasmussen to raise the matter, but his publisher's publicists have done so, as will, no doubt, others who review "American Uprising." The historians' guild is not an easy one to crack; that Rasmussen has done so only two years after reaching the age allowing him to raise a glass in his own honor is, in and of itself, rather remarkable.
The book itself is somewhat less so. Presumably researched and written during Rasmussen's undergraduate years at Harvard, from which he graduated festooned with honors in 2009, it is carefully researched, especially with regard to daily life on the early 19th-century sugar plantations of Louisiana, and its account of the slave rebellion is vivid and, considering the dearth of hard evidence, convincing. On the other hand, although he clearly is a gifted prose stylist, he has a taste for overwrought dramatization and foreshadowing, both of which could and should have been discouraged by his editors and academic mentors. He also dwells gratuitously and excessively on "how [America's] ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power," on what he calls this country's "hypocrisies, evils, and injustices," lending a shrill political cast to a narrative that should be able to stand on its own.
"With little attention from scholars," Rasmussen writes, "North America's largest antebellum slave revolt has languished in the footnotes of history for two hundred years. While historians jostled to write about Nat Turner, who had mobilized fewer than 100 slaves, this diverse band of Louisiana slaves has been remembered by only a few." Well, the dark recesses of history are crammed with untold stories that deserve serious scrutiny, but Rasmussen is right to regard it as strange that this particular story has gone virtually unnoticed. He believes that the blame lies with William C.C. Claiborne, appointed governor of the huge Louisiana Territory after its purchase from Napoleon in 1803. On the evidence presented by Rasmussen, Claiborne really does not seem to have been "distinctly lacking in qualifications," but he was an ardent advocate of the western expansion of the United States who "wrote the slave-rebels out of history, believing that all that was important was the rise of American power."
Whether this interpretation is based in historical fact or is merely a figment of Rasmussen's somewhat overheated imagination is unclear, but with rare exceptions historians have overlooked the events of January 1811 in the Louisiana sugar country. Though the slave army's ultimate goal was New Orleans, its uprising began in "one of the wealthiest and most fertile stretches of agricultural land in North America: Louisiana's famed German Coast." Originally settled by Germans but largely French by the early 19th century, the area was dominated by a small number of large plantations, all of them dependent on slave labor. Great rewards were gained by the plantation owners, but "at immense human cost." Rasmussen writes: