The Haitian Revolution: The Successful Slave Revolt that Aided American Westward Expansion
Chaos and insurrection in Haiti was not exclusive to 2021. The 1790s and early 1800s saw a successful slave revolt on the island, with the United States as an interested party waiting in the wings.
The Haitian Slave Rebellion and eventual revolution of Haiti is a fascinating and complex aspect of late eighteenth/early nineteenth century history. An in-depth examination of the events of this era in Haiti is beyond the scope of this article. What this work instead aims to achieve is an examination of two of the major participants of the revolution as well as one American founder. This article thus intends to explore the rich ironies which existed between the Haitian revolution and the United States; ironies embedded in one of the revolution’s most important early champions (Toussaint Louverture), one of the most iconic figures who defined the final culmination of Haitian independence (Jean-Jacques Dessalines), and a slave-owning American president who himself feared slave rebellion (Thomas Jefferson).
A series of conflicts arose between 1791 and 1804 between enslaved Haitians and their colonial masters. European powers had subjugated the island and its indigenous population since Christopher Columbus first discovered it in 1492. A thirst for gold threw the native population into brutal enforced labor and the introduction of devastating diseases decimated the people of La Isla Espanola—The Spanish Island—later anglicized as Hispaniola. Sometime after the gold deposits of the island had been exploited, the French took control of the island, renamed Saint Domingue, as part of their victory over the Spanish. The French West Indies Corporation, however, had been working on the island since the seventeenth century.
African slaves had been imported to the island since the seventeenth century, and by the end of the eighteenth century there were approximately a half million slaves in St. Domingue. The slave population by 1789 dramatically outsized the population of the European colonists and the affranchis—free mulattoes [people of mixed African and European descent] and blacks. Slave life on the island was brutal. The culture and social hierarchy was strongly based on racial division, as well as divisions of class and gender. Malnutrition and even starvation was common among slaves. While innumerable slaves died under such conditions, antecedents of the revolution can be seen in the cases of some slaves escaping to the interior of the island where they then joined guerrilla forces against colonists. These ex-slaves who took up arms against the European masters were known as Maroons, and they were the disparate beginnings of a larger revolution that would come into being in the 1790s.
The 1790s saw reforms occur, such as the granting of citizenship to wealthier affranchis, but much of the European element ignored the new law, thus stoking further divisions between the affranchis and the European colonists. It was during these events that slaves began to rise in rebellion. Attempts to temper insurrection among the slaves by granting citizenship to all affranchis in 1792 was ineffective.
In the late 1790s Toussaint Louverture, a military leader and former slave, took control of several areas of land in Haiti. Toussaint proclaimed allegiance to the French while simultaneously pursuing his own aims. He gained enormous popular support. As noted by C.L.R. James, author of The Black Jacobins (1989), “[Toussaint’s] presence had that electrifying effect characteristic of great men of action.”Despite holding to certain ties with France, and naming himself Governor-General for Life in 1801, Louverture was an emancipating revolutionary who fought for the freedom of all slaves. His influence on his immediate comrades in arms and upon the slave class generally was immense. “If the army was the instrument of Toussaint’s power, the masses were its foundation and his power grew with his influence over them.”
In the midst of Toussaint’s growing reign and power, Napoleon Bonaparte sought to restore France’s direct influence upon Haiti. As Rebecca Scott observes, “The autonomy that Toussaint Louverture achieved for the colony, and his categorical assertion that abolition of slavery was definitive, rankled Napoleon Bonaparte, who was unaccustomed to this degree of challenge from a general under his authority.” Thus, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, to the island in an attempt to restore French dominance. Toussaint’s influence and reach at this stage was overwhelming, and it would not be a quick task to reassert French control. One person happy to see Napoleon with his hands tied up in these affairs was Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. “The war against Toussaint and his generals… would not be easy, and while it dragged on, French ambitions in Louisiana would have to wait,” observes Gordon Brown, author of Toussaint’s Clause (2005). Jefferson was concerned about French holdings in the Louisiana Territory and American access to the Mississippi River, despite his history of being a Francophile. He had begun to negotiate a plan for the purchase of Louisiana Territory to increase U.S. land in the west and remove Napoleonic influence from North America. Jefferson seemed to realize that, despite his own concerns of the way news of slave insurrection could impact the United States, including upon slaves on his own plantation, he saw how trouble in Haiti could be a benefit to the United States.
Toussaint battled against General Leclerc’s forces for months until agreeing to an armistice in May of 1802. Soon enough, however, France broke this promise and took Toussaint into custody. Toussaint was imprisoned in France and died on April 7, 1803. His legacy would live on in the minds of future Haitians as a sort of father of their country and would also come to be celebrated by black Americans in the United States. Bruce Dain, author of A Hideous Monster of the Mind (2002), observes that throughout “the nineteenth century African Americans would idolize Toussaint as a black George Washington.” Toussaint’s defeat could have been a decisive blow against the forces of revolution, but instead the movement next found its most determined champion, Jean-Jacque Dessalines.
Indeed, soon after Toussaint’s loss and capture, his chief lieutenant, Dessalines, “rallied all the different Haitians to fight an all-out war on the French and on any remaining white planters.” Dessalines and his forces were swift and plainly brutal. In contrast to Toussaint’s relatively moderate posture, militarily and philosophically—comparatively speaking—Dessalines’s approach to revolution was decidedly extreme. After his first slaughter of European colonists, “Dessalines issued a proclamation promising pardon to all who were in hiding. They came out, and were immediately killed.” There was a level of commitment, a level of ardent hunger for freedom, on the part of the Haitian revolutionaries that European military power could not contend with. As has been seen in history countless times over, native-born insurgencies maintain both home-turf advantage and the devoted passions of the people. “[I]n the words of an astonished Captain-General Leclerc, “[the Haitian revolutionaries] die with incredible fanaticism—they laugh at death; it is the same with women.”
Dessalines’s battles against the French in 1802 succeeded in staving off the French’s attempt to restore slavery in Haiti. Ultimately, Dessalines’s forces defeated the French, the viscount de Rochambeau surrendered, and France’s forces left Haiti, except for a small presence that maintained a small part of the island until 1809. Haiti achieved and officially announced its independence on January 1, 1804. Before the end of that year, in October of 1804, Dessalines took for himself the title of Emperor Jacque I.
There are a number of differences to explore between the role of Toussaint Louverture and that of Jean-Jacque Dessalines. Perhaps the most important distinction, aside from their divergent military strategies, was their approach to relations with France. “While Toussaint was willing to maintain a connection with France, Dessalines did everything possible to eliminate any vestiges of the white or French presence in the country.” This included the role of religion. Whereas Toussaint had authorized Haiti to be a Catholic nation in its first constitution, Dessalines “chose to leave the decision to each citizen.” Furthermore, Dessalines sought to remove the symbolism of European influence upon Haiti, tearing the “white from the tricolor flag that since 1793 had symbolized the union of whites, mulattos, and blacks in Saint-Domingue.” Codifying the reversal of white European dominance to black/native rule in the new independent nation, Dessalines inserted Article Twelve into the Haitian Constitution of 1805, the fourth constitution since the beginning of the revolution. Article Twelve states that “no whiteman of whatever nation he may be, shall put his foot on this territory with the title of master or proprietor, neither shall he in the future acquire any property therein.”
The manner in which Thomas Jefferson responded to, and thought of, the Haitian Revolution is fascinating. The relationship the revolution had to the growth of the United States is itself remarkable and filled with irony. Thomas Jefferson was himself, of course, a wealthy slave-owner. He was one of the wealthiest practitioners of the peculiar institution in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Made more complicated was Jefferson’s own misgivings about slavery, found in much of his writings, and his understanding that he himself benefited from it greatly. Despite the inconsistency between his views on the deplorable nature of slavery and his practice of it, his public pronouncements over doubts concerning the institution had disappeared by the time he took office as third president of the United States in 1801. “Before the uprising [in Haiti], Jefferson had authored a draft constitution for Virginia, which would have undermined slavery by declaring free all slave children born in the state after December 31, 1800… [However, by] the beginning of his presidency, he had already resolved… that he had to govern defenders of slavery as well as antislavery advocates.”
Jefferson’s role as a slaveholder and his views about race informed his response to the events in Haiti. He not only feared that the insurrection in Haiti would lead to one in his own country, but it also underscored Jefferson’s view that whites and blacks would be unable to peacefully coexist. He firmly believed that “blacks and whites could not live together peaceably on the basis of equality.”Thus, his earlier arguments for the need to eventually end the practice of slavery was dependent upon the recognition that freed blacks should be deported to their own country; a view held by many in the Virginia dynasty, including Jefferson’s successors, James Madison and James Monroe. This is important to note because it illustrates that Jefferson not only feared slave rebellion in the United States, on his own plantation and elsewhere, but also did not believe that any post-emancipation era could include racial coexistence.
Due to these flaws in Jefferson’s thinking, he was incapable of allowing himself to see the Haitian Revolution as a fulfillment—indeed, a manifestation, of the same Enlightenment philosophy of individual dignity and right to self-government which had informed the American Revolution. If Jefferson had viewed both revolutions with this same lens, he would have recognized the Haitians as fellow brethren. However, because he held strong feelings for France and because he was a slave-owner who could not bring himself to see blacks as equals, cognitive dissonance won out. “[O]nly the Haitian revolution of 1791 – 1804 pushed the universalism of natural rights to its ultimate fulfilment in actualizing human freedom by overthrowing slavery, [and] not in the western metaphorical sense of political oppression or subservience.”
Because Jefferson was incapable of recognizing the Haitians to be champions of the same cause which had informed the American Revolution (that of liberty), he saw them instead as a threat. Jefferson’s predecessors, George Washington (himself, a slave-owner) and John Adams had supported the Haitian rebels “as a check to the French in the New World and also to keep up trade with St. Domingue, the United States’ second largest trading partner.” Washington and Adams, however, were not the fans of France that Jefferson had been, despite France’s enormous contribution to the U.S. side of the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s. Washington and Adams were capable of seeing post-revolutionary France as an entirely separate entity from that of the rule of King Louis XVI in a way that Jefferson seemed to have trouble with. Although Napoleonic France had drifted far from the Enlightenment ideals of its own revolution which began in 1789, Jefferson’s Francophilia appeared to distort this reality. Because of this, during the Toussaint era of the Haitian revolution, when Jefferson first assumed the presidency, he “broke off relations with the Toussaint government… He also offered to help Napoleon Bonaparte, who moved against Toussaint in 1802, subdue the rebels.”
Jefferson must have soon recognized that France’s problems in Haiti could be a boon to the expansion of the United States on the North American continent. His exploitation of the event in lobbying for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory just as French forces were in the most heated throes of conflict against the Haitian rebels reveals the genius acumen of Jefferson’s geopolitics. What is further illuminating about this, however, was Jefferson’s desire not to help France even after the Louisiana Purchase had been finalized. Thus, Jefferson’s initial desire to help the French against the rebels was almost immediately replaced with an impulse to avoid aiding the French in any way. “By July 3  … completion of the negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase had reached the president; but, even though the French threat to New Orleans was past, he offered no last minute assistance to save the Leclerc expedition from destruction.”
There is more than a little irony in that Jefferson, a wealthy slave-owner, and the United States—which included a substantial slave society in the early nineteenth century—benefited from the fruits of a successful slave insurrection. It is further ironic that the rebellion was against France, the United States’ most important ally during the American Revolution. The relationship between the events of the Haitian Revolution and the growth of the United States was emblematic of the contradictory nature of Jefferson himself. Somehow, despite Jefferson’s wanton desire to ignore the cause of the Haitian rebels, he became one of the most significant heirs of their success, as did the United States. This occurred not because of Jefferson’s devotion to Enlightenment principles, but because of the contingent nature of history. Jefferson’s ultimate fidelity to the slave system of his country contributed to the rampant westward expansion that followed. This expansion soon included the Lewis and Clark expedition and the growing fight over the expansion of slavery itself in the ensuing decades. “Since the outbreak of the uprising, Jefferson had opposed the slave revolution, but it seems that neither his racial fears and phobias nor his enlightened ideas were as important to his policies as was his continued identification with the interests and culture of the planters of Virginia.”
As for Haiti, independence did not bring with it prosperity or stability. Emperor Jean-Jacque I was assassinated in October of 1806 while he was attempting to suppress a revolt among mulattos. Henry Christophe, who had himself been a prominent member of the revolution under Dessalines, took control of the kingdom in the north while, soon after, Alexandre Sabes Petion took power over the southern region. Christophe established his own system of nobility and sought more power. He established himself king in the Kingdom of Haiti in the northern region in 1811. He later committed suicide to avoid a coup. Petion promoted democracy and sought to establish Haiti as a republic. He was elected President of the southern Republic of Haiti in 1807. Later, fearing a lack of power and wanting to solidify his rule, he declared himself President for Life in 1816 and suspended the legislature in 1818. That same year, he died of yellow fever.
Haiti would continue to see political instability, violence, and rampant cases of disease and other natural disasters up to modern times. Unfortunately, neither slave rebellion nor independence brought the kind of permanency, health, and wealth to Haiti that would be seen in other areas of the Americas in the nineteenth century and beyond. This was due to a combination of leaders who defaulted to autocratic rule, the continued exploitation of natural resources by foreign corporations, and constant health epidemics that decimated the population. It is profound to consider that the most significant beneficiary of the Haitian slave rebellion may not have been the Haitian people, but the United States.
Brown, Gordon S. Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Dain, Bruce. A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Fick, Carolyn E. “The Haitian Revolution and the Limits of Freedom: Defining Citizenship in the Revolutionary Era.” Social History 32, no. 4 (November, 2007), 394-414. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25594165.
Gaffield, Julia. “Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801-1807. Journal of Social History 41, no. 1 (Fall, 2007): 81-103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25096441.
Garrigus, John D. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1989.
Matthewson, Tim. “Jefferson and Haiti.” The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995): 209-248. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2211576.
--------------------- “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 140, no. 1 (March, 1996): 22-48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/987274.
Scott, Rebecca J. “Paper Thin: Freedom and Re-enslavement in the Diaspora of the Haitian Revolution.” Law and History Review 29, no. 4 (November 2011): 1061-1087. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23064122.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1989), 147.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1989), 151.
 Rebecca J. Scott, “Paper Thin: Freedom and Re-enslavement in the Diaspora of the Haitian Revolution,” Law and History Review 29, no. 4 (November 2011), 1066.
 Gordon S. Brown, Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 208.
 Bruce Dain, A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 87.
 Ibid., 86.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1989), 373.
 Tim Matthewson, “Jefferson and Haiti”, The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995), 230.
 Julia Gaffield, “Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801-1807, Journal of Social History 41, no. 1 (Fall, 2007), 89.
 Ibid., 92.
 John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 310.
 Julia Gaffield, “Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801-1807,” Journal of Social History 41, no. 1 (Fall, 2007), 89.
 Tim Matthewson, “Jefferson and Haiti,” The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995), 212.
 Tim Matthewson, “Jefferson and Haiti,” The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995), 244.
 Carolyn E. Fick, “The Haitian Revolution and the Limits of Freedom: Defining Citizenship in the Revolutionary Era,” Social History 32, no. 4 (November, 2007), 395.
 Bruce Dain, A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 85.
 Ibid., 86.
Tim Matthewson, “Jefferson and Haiti,” The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995), 231.
 Tim Matthewson, “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 140, no. 1 (March, 1996), 37.