Race, Revolution, and Robespierre
The Black Count:
By Tom Reiss
Crown, $27, 414 pp.
Review by David Forsmark
It sounds like one of those goofy Black History Month blog posts put out by an activist — hey, did you know the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo was really black … and his name was Alexandre Dumas?
The first thought that crossed my mind while reading The Black Count — the fascinating new book by Tom Reiss — was "why the heck hadn’t anyone written a major biography of General Alex Dumas before 2012?" This was immediately followed by “why the heck do we have Black History Month if it’s not going to uncover and publicize this man’s story?”
First, to avoid any confusion, the book’s subject is not the 19th century author who penned such adventure classics as The Three Musketeers, The Corsican Brothers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Rather, this is the tale of the writer’s father, who is not nearly as well known as he deserves to be.
Reiss, author of The Orientalist, presents the story of the son of a French aristocrat and a Dominican slave who rose through the ranks of the French army through feats of incredible valor, only to be betrayed by racist backlash. In the process, Reiss offers a unique look at the first modern-style totalitarian government to be born of revolution.
The Black Count begins in the slave-trading world of colonial France, an oddly hybrid system where French legal protections for people of mixed race clashed with perhaps the most brutal form of European-sponsored slavery in the New World.
Alex enters the historical record at the age of 14, when his father, a rebellious French nobleman who disappeared into the Haitian wilds with his slave mistress, returns after a years-long absence to reclaim his inheritance. Alex, however, is his father’s sole companion when they return to France; his mother and sisters were sold off by his father before the journey. Alex, in fact, was recorded as his father’s slave upon their return.
Alex, however, was brought up as a nobleman’s son and grew into an intellectually and physically imposing figure. Still, he entered the French army as an enlisted dragoon, rather than taking advantage of his titles.
He was such an impressive young man that, even though only a private, he married the daughter of his well-to-do landlord. It was a marriage that would last as a love match through distance, deprivation, political disfavor, and betrayal.
An avid believer in the stated egalitarian views of the French Revolution, Dumas was the kind of revolutionary who captured the imaginations of such American Founders as Thomas Jefferson. He distinguished himself in conflict and quickly moved up the ranks.
But even the man who should have been the propaganda poster boy for the proclaimed value of égalité was not immune from the Reign of Terror that eventually gripped France. Dumas’ refusal to engage in systematic and unnecessary brutality put him constantly under suspicion from the infamous Committee of Public Safety, and his well-connected superiors often were writing to assure Paris of Dumas’s fidelity to the Revolution.
But it was his brilliant service in the brutal campaign in the Alps that nearly earned him a visit to Madame Guillotine. After the Revolution, France invaded most of its neighbors to “liberate” their citizens. Dumas, who commanded the Army of the Alps, was constantly sent impossible and suicidal orders from the Committee about the speed with which he must attack the fortresses of the Piedmont.
Although he eventually succeeded against all odds, Alex was called back to Paris to face the Committee, generally the first step before losing one’s head. But before he could make his obligatory appearance, Robespierre was overthrown in a counter-revolution, and Dumas was spared… for the moment.
The fall of the Jacobins at first seemed to fulfill the promise of the Revolution, but it soon gave rise to Napoleon Bonaparte, who would combine revolutionary and patriotic rhetoric with a cult of personality that would serve as model for Hitler, Lenin, Mao, and other totalitarian dictators of the 20th century.
Dumas fell in and out of favor with the general, who appreciated his military skill but sometimes resented his charisma and the loyalty shown him by his troops. Napoleon wrote glowingly of one of Dumas’s most extraordinary feats, however, an act of heroism that led to a statue being erected in Paris of the only non-white general in France’s history.
Napoleon dubbed Dumas the Horatius of France after he single-handedly defeated a squadron of Austrian troops crossing a vital bridge over a river.
The general made Dumas the commander of his cavalry in the Army of Egypt, but Alex’s sharp tongue (often in the pursuit of good sense) caused him to fall out of favor again with the egomaniacal dictator. Napoleon abruptly abandoned the ill-fated Egyptian mission after a few years of occupation, when Admiral Nelson’s victory in the Nile made the French position untenable.
Dumas was forced to find his own way back to France, but the unseaworthy craft he and his men chartered forced them to land in the Kingdom of Naples, which they believed to be a friendly haven. Instead, Dumas was thrown into prison and left to languish while his health deteriorated, and Napoleon mysteriously made no effort to rescue him.
Interestingly, Naples felt safe from French retaliation largely because Lord Nelson’s torrid affair with the wife of a prominent citizen kept the Royal Navy close at hand, a distraction from duty that makes General Petraeus look pretty tame.
Dumas later wrote an account of his imprisonment that would form the basis for his son’s celebrated novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Nazis destroyed the statue of the Black Count during World War II, leaving no current monument in France to one of its great heroes. In an ironic and bitter denouement, Reiss notes that a determined historian attempted to create a new memorial for Dumas, but the effort was hijacked in the spirit of racial political correctness and devolved into a monument for all French slaves. What was to have been a celebration of great valor became a tribute to victimhood in the form of a giant pair of shackles.
Once again, French radicals denied Alex Dumas his rightful glory.
The Black Count is a fascinating and compelling read, though not as novelistic as many recent bestselling historical biographies. A meticulous researcher and historian, Reiss takes far less literary license than has become the norm. This leaves his subject still shrouded in mystery and somewhat remote.
However, history buffs will devour this unique look at a turbulent and violent time in European history, and its lessons about radicals and revolution still apply today.
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