Rachel Waxman

  • Fellowship year:2019-2020
  • University: Johns Hopkins University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Early Modern Europe
  • Dissertation Title: The Political Economy of Sugar in the Age of Revolution
  • By the end of the eighteenth century, sugar had established itself as one of France's most important trade goods as well as an essential commodity in the life of many French consumers. My dissertation examines the politics of sugar distribution and consumption during the French Revolution, when a massive slave uprising in the French colony of Saint Domingue–France's so-called "sugar colony" and present-day Haiti–severely disrupted the sugar supply. This "supply shock" caused shortages and sent sugar prices soaring in the metropole, resulting in a series of consumer riots in Paris and other French cities. In response to the turmoil, government officials, consumers and merchants debated the causes of the sugar crisis and proposed a range of solutions–a process that was deeply informed by Revolutionary ideology and international trading practices.
    In my dissertation, I ask how problems of consumption and established patterns of global trade challenged the ideals of revolutionaries, and how their political economic ideology in turn impacted responses to commercial disruption. Placing revolutionary consumption in a global context, my research provides a new understanding of the interplay between revolutionary politics and the broader global economy. I argue that debates over sugar revealed deeper conflicts about the perceived purposes of the French Revolution. Through sugar, revolutionaries clashed over competing visions: was this a democratic revolution that promised prosperity for all "the people"? Or was it a liberal revolution that deregulated the economy and protected private property for elites and the middle classes? Discordant ideological commitments to free trade, the protection of property, and economic justice shaped the response of consumers, merchants, and officials in the aftermath of the sugar crisis. To debate sugar was to debate the purpose and aims of the Revolution itself.