The phrase “history is written by the victors” isn’t used in American Uprising: The Untold Story Of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, but it doesn’t need to be: The book is already soaking in it. Daniel Rasmussen sets out to describe an 1811 slave rebellion in the plantations surrounding New Orleans, a tale that has largely been ignored in American history. Along the way, he also gets into the New Orleans’ multicultural setting, the logistics of slave labor on sugar plantations, and the politics of American expansion.
The “untold story” part of the title gives Rasmussen the most problems. Actual documentation of the slave revolt, especially from the slaves’ perspectives, is virtually nonexistent. The victors didn’t write the history, they ignored it: William Claiborne, Louisiana’s governor, quickly designated the revolt as an act of criminality, not politics, and the rest of America and its historians followed suit. Rasmussen is forced to compensate with excessively flowery, sometimes confusing language, as well as with conjecture and by drawing parallels to better-documented rebellions. During the chapters dealing with the revolt itself, he frequently resorts to phrases like “he might have felt…” and “We don’t know what he said, but it may have been similar to what was said in another slave revolt in Cuba….”
Rasmussen is on firmer ground in the stellar sections dealing with a social and political profile of New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, but before official statehood. He deftly explains the complex French, Spanish, and British society of the white planters, as well as the mixture of slaves from America, Haiti, Kongo, and other parts of West Africa. The tension between the “Atlantic” culture of New Orleans and the political attempt to Americanize the area drives much of the book, and Rasmussen successfully argues that the violent suppression of black rebellion by powerful whites was a crucial part of that process. The unfortunate irony of American Uprising is that the whitewashing of history that makes its story so interesting is the same thing that holds it back as a narrative.