Jean-Baptiste Belley, an important figure in the Haitian Revolution.

Last week, I visited the New-York Historical Society for the first time since its renovation. Even more so than before, the museum is an absolute must-see for any history buff living in or visiting the New York area. With its exciting exhibits and diverse collection, it is a great place to learn more about the history of both New York City and the United States.

What I’d especially like to discuss today is one of N-YHS’s current exhibits, titled Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn. The exhibit is focused on the American, French, and Haitian revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it is the first exhibit to present these three revolutions as “a single, global narrative.” It documents the various sources of dissatisfaction among the peoples of the Atlantic, dating back to the British victory in the French and Indian War, which brought Britain to the height of its imperial power in North America.

There are many objects of great interest on display, both from the N-YHS collection and other institutions in the U.S. and Europe. These include paintings and political cartoons, a first edition of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s “Africa box” used in his anti-slavery lectures, and even the original Stamp Act from 1765, on loan from the Parliamentary Archives in London.

These object come together to cover a wide range of topics important in the revolutionary era, including the role of coffeehouses and newspapers as catalysts of dissatisfaction and dissent, Enlightenment ideas that sparked the American Revolution, and the transition from the acceptance of monarchy to the new ideal of popular sovereignty.  The exhibit does a particularly good job of discussing how these revolutions and the raised new questions about the ethics of slavery and what the standards for human rights should be.

As a history buff, I was pleased to see how well Revolution! demonstrated the connections between these three revolutions and paid so much attention to the Haitian Revolution. The American and French Revolutions and how one influenced the other are covered numerous times in history classes at every level of education, but in all the history classes I’ve taken in my life, I don’t recall the revolution in Haiti being taught extensively, if it was even mentioned at all. I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Haiti and now feel inspired to do some reading about its revolution, which, I believe, was just as bold as the American and French ones that came before it.

The major events included in Revolution! are extraordinary enough on their own, but seeing how much these three countries influenced each other during this era makes them even more remarkable. The relatively new field of Atlantic history is not without its critics (almost nothing in academia is, I suppose), but it does the important work of highlighting how interconnected Europe, Africa, and the Americas were during the early modern era. To talk about one without talking about the others results in a failure to tell the story of that time in history as fully as possible. It was exciting to see a museum exhibit that shows such a good understanding of this concept.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn runs at the New-York Historical Society until April 15, 2012. You can learn more about this exhibit and others at the New-York Historical Society here. After my recent visit, I look forward to seeing what the Society has in store for us history buffs next.

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