By Kristen Block
In a recent Senior Seminar on the Age of Revolutions at my former institution (Florida Atlantic University), I hoped to get students to explore sources that would allow them to think transnationally about the key issues relating to the turn of the nineteenth century. We visited FAU’s Marvin & Sybil Weiner “Spirit of America” Collection and I chose something to demonstrate for them what it was like to do research on an item that showed Atlantic connections. The collection holds a unique broadside that has always fascinated me. It was an edict published for the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition in Mexico denouncing an anonymous book in French, specifically the edition published in London in 1776. Inquisitors summarized this piece, L’An deux mille quatre cent quartante, rêve s’il en fut jamais [The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One], as “impious, reckless and blasphemous,” and denounced it for favoring deism and scorning the clergy and the divine right of kings.
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Inquisitor General, “Nos Los Inquisidores Apostolicos contra la heretica pravedad…” [Madrid & México, 1778]. Marvin & Sybil Weiner Collection, Florida Atlantic University
But this tract had an even more interesting history than blasphemy or deism would suggest. I discovered that The Year 2440 was first published in 1771 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, now recognized as a wildly prolific promoter and popularizer of Rousseau’s Enlightenment thought. Like other French writers of the period, Mercier had to publish his utopian novel elsewhere in Europe anonymously to help avoid his own nation’s strict censorship laws. French historian Robert Darnton has traced the book through at least 25 editions in French alone in the last decades of the eighteenth century. The Weiner Collection also included two versions of this book, which Marvin Weiner had found in lists of the Founding Fathers’ libraries: Jefferson owned a French edition, published in London in 1771, and Washington had the first edition translated to English by W. Hooper, M.D. (2 Vols., 1772).
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Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s vision of the future was both utopian and prescriptive, one that seemed plausible within 700 years. He believed man’s faith should be in Reason alone, which he argued would provide the enlightenment for a stable world, and harmony for all people (an implicit contrast to the suffering common under tyrannical regimes like absolutist Spain and France). A benevolent society, it was true, depended on some reverence for the Supreme Being, but must be combined with intensive study of His spectacular natural Creation—from the stars above to the smallest of atoms that could be seen through a microscope. Women were not to take part in similar studies; their virtue was in the home (in this sense Mercier was a classic Rousseauian).
Initially, I hoped to show students how to trace the reception of Mercier’s rational Deism in translation and transatlantic context, since my students had learned about Christian objections to Jefferson’s 1800 campaign for president. Furthermore, I was eager to see what happened within later English translations since two American editions came out in the mid-late 1790s  — just as several of Mercier’s predictions had come to pass about the people’s intolerance for monarchical tyranny. The class had read about the Jacobins’ efforts to institute a Cult of Reason and then a Cult of the Supreme Being as part of their bloody dechristianization campaign. I explained to students that oftentimes editors and translators changed texts in response to political or cultural developments, and I showed them how to consult electronic databases as I searched for other editions of Mercier’s novel. But that was a dead end. None of those American editions revealed any alterations or anti-deist commentary.
What I eventually came to see as the most salient concern about Mercier’s vision of the future was in the question of American slavery. In one chapter depicting the year 2440, Mercier’s protagonist visited a future-historical hall of monuments dedicated “to justice.” An array of statues there, the narrator explained, “represented the nations demanding pardon of Humanity for the cruel wounds they had given her during the last twenty centuries.” It made sense that the Spaniards would ban Mercier’s book, for they were portrayed as evil incarnate:
Spain, still more criminal than her sisters, groaned at the thought of having covered the new continent [i.e. the Americas] with thirty-five millions of carcasses… so many wretches condemned to the mines… The statuary had represented several mutilated slaves, who, looking up to heaven, cried for vengeance. We retired with terror; we seemed to hear their cries. The figure of Spain was composed of a marble veined with blood; and those frightful streaks are as indelible as the memory of her crimes.
Such a description fits rather well with what the class had learned about Northern Europe’s vision of Spain through the lens of the Black Legend.
But I would have loved to know what Americans (especially those like Washington and Jefferson who owned Mercier’s novel) thought of the final statue in this hall of Justice, depicting not a European nation, but rather an impressive black man figured as the “Avenger of the New World.”
In going from this place, I observed toward the right, on a magnificent pedestal, the figure of a negro; his head was bare, his arm extended, his eye fierce, his attitude noble and commanding; round him were spread the broken relicks [sic] of twenty scepters; and at his feet I read these words: To the avenger of the new world…. So vast a number of slaves, oppressed by the most odious servitude, seemed but to wait his signal to become so many heroes…they poured forth the blood of all their tyrants; French, Spanish, English, Dutch, and Portuguese, all become a prey to the sword, to fire, and poison. The soil of America drank with avidity that blood for which it had so long thirsted; and the bones of their ancestors, cowardly butchered, seemed to rise up and leap for joy.” … sooner or later, cruelty will be punished… Providence keeps in reserve such mighty souls, to send them upon the earth, that they may restore that equilibrium which the iniquity of ferocious ambition had destroyed.
Barthe, Toussaint L Ouverture monument
Richmond Barthe at work on his sculpture of Toussaint l’Ouverture, 1950. Profile of the artist on “Art: Then and Now.”
The same passage appeared nearly complete in a common-place book owned by Thomas Thistlewood, a Jamaican overseer and slaveholder, which he entitled “A Prediction.” Historians know that plantation owners throughout the Americas kept a wary eye on developments in St. Domingue/Haiti and feared a similar fate could befall other slave-majority regions. As President, Thomas Jefferson supported the French embargo and non-recognition of Haiti following its declaration of independence in 1804. This vision of the heroism and violence required to overthrow slavery and restore the world to equilibrium may explain why the 1799 Richmond edition of this novel sold so poorly.
But Virginia’s and Jamaica’s planters may have approved of the new English translation of Mercier’s novel by a British woman who had lived in Paris (and who explicitly sympathized with radicals like Robespierre). Published in London in 1797, her rendition of Mercier’s statues built to commemorate “justice,” changed just a single word—but making a dramatic alteration to the reader’s perspective on who should be commemorated in the future. Instead of an enslaved African taking his own freedom,
it was the figure of an AMERICAN raised upon a pedestal; his head was bare, his eyes expressed a haughty courage, his attitude was noble and commanding, and his arm was extended and pointing to the shattered remains of twenty sceptres which lay at his feet; over the pedestal this inscription was engraven: TO THE AVENGER OF THE NEW WORLD.
Viewing this European philosophe’s utopian future from the perspective of those who witnessed American independence, Revolution and counter-revolution in France, and Haiti’s greatest moment of triumph, it is perhaps unsurprising that at the turn to the nineteenth century, only white American freedom fighters could be celebrated in print.
In this year’s commemoration of Black History Month, it behooves us to think about what other histories have been similarly erased or which are little known today (see the history of Yanga’s 1570 revolt, for example). Who holds the power of remembrance in our nations and in our communities—and what will we do to proclaim our dreams for the future (like Richmond Barthe did with his sculpture of Toussaint Louverture)? Mercier’s first edition of The Year 2440 featured an epigraph insightful still today: “Le temps présent est gros de l’avenir,” can be translated as “The present is pregnant with [i.e. full of] the future.” Our present is pregnant with possibilities to come; it certainly remains full of the past.