The Age of Revolution: Founding Fathers Dreamed of Uprisings, Except in Haiti
July 1, 2001
AMERICANS celebrate the Fourth of July Americana-style, much like the way the nation thinks about the revolution it commemorates. The rituals of family picnics, parades, fairs, fireworks, stories of midnight rides and tea parties reinforce a sense of the Revolution's Americanness: singular, exceptional, unrelated to any history beyond the territory that would become the United States. Yet when Americans isolate the Revolution, they diminish it. It becomes parochial.
For the American Revolution initiated an age of democratic revolutions in the 18th century. It shares the Atlantic stage with the French and Haitian revolutions that followed. While each uprising has its own character and results, the course and significance of each depends, in part, on the larger history they shared.
There is a general awareness of the French Revolution and its relation to the American uprising. By contrast, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 is rarely mentioned in discussions of this age of revolution. Yet it was present in the imaginations of the founding fathers and played a large role in the American project of nation-making.
Consider one curiosity of the American Revolution: enthusiasm for revolution waned rather quickly in the new nation. No doubt the establishment of stable government with the Constitution and the successful transfer of power in 1800 were factors. In addition, historians cite the example of the French Revolution, particularly its hostility to religion and disintegration into the Terror. That, too, is plausible.
Yet Haiti is surely part of this story. Could it be that after 1791 the specter of a revolution of slaves against white masters — a revolution led by a former slave, Toussaint Louverture, who claimed for the former slaves a universal human right to freedom and citizenship — made Americans cool to revolution?
Thomas Jefferson, who readily accepted violence as the price of freedom in France, was not so relaxed about the black revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue — as Haiti was called until its formal independence in 1804.
Timothy Pickering, the irascible Federalist who served in the cabinets of both George Washington and John Adams, took note. How, Pickering demanded of Jefferson, could he praise the French Revolution and refuse support for the rebels on Saint-Domingue because they were "guilty" of having a "skin not colored like our own"?
Jefferson's difficulty was not unique. This revolution of black slaves claiming universal rights was, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian anthropologist, has argued, unthinkable. Thus it was silenced.
The silence continues. But it is in the interest of Americans to break it. Doing so will enrich the understanding of the epochal meanings of the American Revolution. Just as Jefferson's noble words in the Declaration of Independence crystallized a new way of thinking, so, too, do the actions of those Africans in the Caribbean who produced the largest slave rebellion in history.
Yet Jefferson, who had no sympathy for the Haitian revolution, owed to it the most important achievement of his presidency. The purchase of Louisiana, which set the United States on course to become a continent-wide nation, became a possibility because the French defeat in Haiti encouraged Napoleon to sell Louisiana at a bargain price.
The Haitian Revolution also played a part in heightening the divisions between the Adams Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans. Though their positions were complex and shifting — driven by the ever-changing Atlantic diplomacy caused by the contest between Britain and Napoleonic France — it is fair to say that Adams and the Federalists were generally sympathetic to Toussaint's hopes for Saint-Domingue, while Jefferson was consistently less so. This division contributed to the tensions that resulted in the invention of the American system of political parties, something not anticipated in the Constitution.
The Adams administration was in fact quite friendly to Toussaint. Adams appointed a consul general in 1799, instructing him to emphasize friendship as well as trade. He even suggested that the consul informally assure Toussaint that the United States was not opposed to independence and recognition.
Jefferson also welcomed trade, but close relations between the two societies worried him. In a letter to James Monroe, he speculated that the insurrectionary violence on Saint-Domingue probably forecast the future in the United States. Too much contact, he feared, might advance that day. With trade, he wrote to James Madison in 1799, "we may expect . . . black crews, & super cargoes & missionaries thence into the Southern states." It was an unwelcome prospect and, for Southern planters, disturbing. The contagion of freedom, they insisted, must be quarantined on Saint-Domingue.
Jefferson's refusal to recognize the independence of Haiti in 1804 was emulated by Madison and Monroe, the Virginians who succeeded him. When, in the 1820's, the issue was again debated in the Senate, Southern senators refused to acknowledge a nation formed by black slaves who rebelled against white slaveholders. "Our policy with regard to Haiti is plain," insisted Senator Robert V. Hayne of South Carolina. "We never can acknowledge her independence." It was not until 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, that the Lincoln administration finally recognized Haiti.
Black Americans have long recognized the relevance of the Haitian Revolution. Gabriel Prosser, who led a slave conspiracy in 1800, and Denmark Vesey, who organized another in 1822, both well knew what had happened in Haiti. Much later, in 1893, soon after returning from his service as American minister to Haiti, Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became a prominent writer and reformer, celebrated the Haitian Revolution for advancing "the cause of liberty and human equality throughout the world."
Even if, as he recognized, there was much to criticize in Haiti's history, he was right in his call for all Americans to include Haiti in the revolutionary heritage of the 18th century.
When we consider the American Revolution in this broader way, it becomes larger and richer. American history is embedded in a complex and continuing history that has redefined human rights, freedom and citizenship.
The founding fathers contributed much to that history, as did the other 18th century Atlantic revolutions. Yet it is the message Haiti carried during the age of democratic revolution, the aspiration for equality across the color line, that remains the necessary hope of the unfinished American revolution.
Thomas Bender is University Professor of the Humanities at New York University, where he teaches American history.