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The Haitian Revolution and Classical Liberalism

The impacts of the slave revolt in Haiti on liberalism, and many other aspects of power.

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By Mason Mohon | HAITI

The period between the late 18th and early 19th century was an enlightenment of classical liberal ideas and even revolutions. The Haitian slaves were no exception to this movement. The spread of revolutionary ideas caused the slaves of Haiti to take up the ideals of liberty and freedom, causing a shockwave of economic, social, and political changes worldwide.

At this time in world history, slavery was not only prominent but extremely racial. Socially, it was unacceptable to see individuals of African descent as equals. Jean-Marie d’Augy was the white president of the colonial assembly in Saint-Domingue in 1790 when he uttered the words, “We have not brought half a million slaves from the coast of Africa to make them into French citizens.” Jean-Marie’s words reflected the attitude of many Frenchmen in the Haitian colonies and plantations at the time. Many of them believed that the only acceptable position for a black man was a slave. Eventually, the slaves and black men rose up. The college world history textbook Worlds Together, Worlds Apart published in 2002 talks of a slave ritual. This ritual was the incitement of rebellion when many black men and slaves met in the forest in 1791 and performed a voodoo ritual, led by tall black priests. At the time, the chosen supreme leader of the rebellion was Boukman, and all the ritual partakers willing to rebel swore to follow him unquestionably. Although Toussaint L’Ouverture eventually took up the mantle of rebellion, the rebels were successful. Up until 1802, they lived in relative freedom, until Napoleon and his forces attempted to re-establish slavery. The effect was not what the French expected, inciting the Africans to an even greater rebellion. The former slaves were once again victorious, seeing as that they already had rebellion experience and were not susceptible to the diseases most of the French army caught. But ultimately what caused the French defeat was demoralization. The social order of the black men went from one of submission to one of self-governance. L’Ouverture’s legacy lasted too, with William Wordsworth saying in his 1888 poem that Toussaint “left behind powers that will work for [him]… There’s not a breathing of the common wind that will forget [him].” The social legacy left behind by the slaves was one that would not be easily forgotten, and was surely a step for the liberal ideas of personal autonomy and freedom.

While the social impact of this revolution was good for the now freedmen, the fear of black revolt was felt all the way into the independent American colonies. Professor of History Douglas Egerton discussed in a PBS interview in the 1990’s how Thomas Jefferson felt about the slave revolts, looking into how Jefferson was afraid of the ability for slaves to rise up against the masters. Of course, the Haitian economy was already in trouble because of the sharp downturn of massive industries resting on the backs of slaves, but the action of the United States Congress in 1806 did not help their case whatsoever. In 1806 Congress cut off trade with Haiti, which in Egerton’s words “decimated the already very weak Haitian economy.” Before the slave revolts, sugar was the number one export of Saint Domingue, and it would be expected for sugar shortages to be felt across European countries relying on new world sugar.

Furthermore, the Haitian revolution caused a few political changes. Of course, with the upbringing of classical liberal ideas came a political change internationally. Already had the French and American revolutions happened, and although to different extents, both revolutions stood for freedom. Yet before the revolutions, King Louis XIV passed the “black code” in 1685, putting many restrictions on slaves, yet at the same time saying freedmen had the same rights as if they were born free. As discussed earlier, this angered many French colonists, giving black men the same rights as themselves. The next step towards freedom was taken with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen established in 1789. It stated that the aim of every political body should be to protect individual unalienable rights, yet it did not, at this point, apply to slaves. This lack of application was unacceptable, which was why the slaves revolted as discussed earlier, and why Jean Jacques Dessalines established Haiti’s independence in 1804 with the Proclamation of Haiti’s Independence by the General in Chief. In the document, he swore, “to die rather than to live under it’s [The French] domination.” The resounding statements of anti-slavery and freedom hit many parts of the world and began to have an effect all over the new world. In the proclamation, Dessalines said that they would begin to liberate other colonies of oppressive imperial control and free many more slaves. David Geggus, a historian, discussed how slave owners were terrified by the Haitian example of freedom and feared their own slaves would rise up. Several plots and insurrections were caused by the slave revolt in Saint Domingue, and slaveholders and imperialists would have to come to the stark realization that the days of slavery were now limited.

Classical liberal, anti-slavery, and enlightenment ideals spread throughout the world due to the Haitian revolution and continued resilience, and the economic, social, and political effects were caused worldwide.

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