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Open Access Thesis

Document Type


Degree Program


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Master of Arts (M.A.)

Year Degree Awarded


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This thesis examines two crises that occurred in Philadelphia in the middle of the 1790s: the arrival of refugees from the revolution in the French West Indian colony of Saint-Domingue and the outbreak of yellow fever the followed their arrival. These crises are studied together in order to understand the challenges that they posed to the post-Revolutionary culture of sensibility and to the sympathetic construction of social order that drew upon this culture.

Philadelphians’ post-Revolutionary sentimental project – the reorganization of society along lines of fellow-feeling, benevolence, and emotional parity – was strained by the arrival of refugees from Saint-Domingue and by the outbreak of epidemic disease. Both of these events were opportunities to actuate sympathetic ideologies, and in both cases, action fell short of rhetoric. This thesis examines why this was the case.

Central to Philadelphians’ ambivalence in creating sympathetic social bonds was the presence of people of color – American and foreign – in the city. When asked to extend fellow-feeling to black Philadelphians and black Saint-Domingan refugees, white Philadelphians equivocated. The reorganization of society in the post-Revolutionary period had presumed emotional equality among Americans, but the issue of race repeatedly demonstrated weaknesses in the application of this ideology.

The crises examined within this work demonstrate the enduring appeal of sensibility in 1790s Philadelphia. They also demonstrate its weaknesses. As more and more groups use the language of sympathy and benevolence to voice their demands, sensibility faltered. This thesis builds upon a growing scholarship that examines the effect of the Haitian Revolution on the United States to argue that the arrival of refugees from that revolution to Philadelphia highlighted fundamental ambivalences and fault lines in the United States’ post-Revolutionary sentimental project.


First Advisor

Jennifer N Heuer

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