America’s Long Journey: Haiti and the nightmare of slave revolt

The fear of slave revolt was ever present in the minds of everyone living in slave-owning territory. Rich or poor, whites living among large numbers of blacks apparently never rested easy. Read through the pro-slavery speeches and literature of the times, and you see one recurrent theme – abolition would mean servile rebellion, race war, and perhaps extermination of the white race throughout the South. Freedom for black men and women must, inevitably, produce another Haiti.

But, come 1865, what did we see? What actually did happen when abolition came to the South? Not only did Northern whites sympathize with the black slaves, they made abolition the law of the land. Not only were the slaves freed; the federal government armed them, and gave them the protection of the uniform and the flag! Not only were the slaves released from their condition of servitude, but their former masters were – for the moment — laid low, politically powerless, economically broken. And what happened? Extermination? Race war? All the nightmare horrors that troubled the sleep of the South through so many decades?

Of course not. We, living so far in their future, know that none of this happened. As it turned out, what slaves wanted was not revenge, but – freedom. Having acquired their freedom, by their own sacrifices and the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of white soldiers, they then set about figuring out how to live their new lives. But nobody knew it was going to turn out that way. For six decades, white Southerners lived in the shadow of a nightmare.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, French Hispaniola (called Saint-Domingue) was the richest and most profitable French possession, wealthy from growing sugar. Sugar depended on extensive manual labor, and that labor came from African slaves. But the white planters who sat at the top of the social structure knew they were also sitting at the top of a volcano. According to 1789 figures, the last reliable statistics available, 450,000 enslaved blacks outnumbered whites and free people of color combined (32,000 and 28,000, respectively) by a margin of ten to one. Chronically terrified, the establishment was not shy about using violence to maintain control.

But then came the French Revolution, and in May 1791, the new French government granted citizenship to wealthy free people of color in the colony. The plantation owners refused to comply. The slaves began to hear the grands blancs talking of declaring independence from France, and of course they realized that independence would mean that the plantation owners would be free to operate as they pleased. On the night of 21 August 1791, the slaves rose in revolt, and in ten days took control of the entire Northern Province. Within weeks, the slaves, now numbering 100,000, had killed 4,000 whites and burned or destroyed hundreds of plantations. By 1792, the rebels controlled a third of the island.

Beginning in 1791, white refugees from slave insurrections fled to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Charleston, bringing their stories with them. American slaveholders commiserated with the exiled French planters, and drew their own comparisons, especially when, in 1807, Haiti expelled or murdered remaining French whites. The government banned slave owners from bringing Haitian slaves with them, for fear that domestic slaves, hearing of the successful slave revolt in Haiti, would themselves revolt. Anti-slavery advocates favored the insurgent slaves.

Hearing of the revolt, the Legislative Assembly in France promptly granted civil and political rights to free men of color in the colonies – and dispatched 6,000 French soldiers. But then, another complication. In 1793, France declared war on Great Britain. By August 1793, there were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island.

In February, 1794, France abolished slavery and granted all black men civil and political rights, but it was far too late. Under the military leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti defeated Napoleon. That is, an army led by Bonaparte’s brother-in-law General Charles Leclerc was decimated by yellow fever and destroyed by the insurgents.

(It is probable that we obtained the Louisiana territory from Napoleon only because Leclerc’s army in Haiti was lost. With that army gone, and Leclerc himself dead, there was no way to occupy New Orleans, or threaten the United States, or maintain either colony against England when war resumed. So, Napoleon sold Louisiana rather than have the British take it away from him.)

Although L’Ouverture was tricked into captivity and death in France, the French cause on the island was finished. Haiti, as the island nation was now to be called, gained formal independence in 1804. Haiti’s war began as a slave revolt and became intertwined with a war of empires. The situation in Haiti in no way resembled that in any part of the United States. Nonetheless, the specter of a successful slave revolt was powerful.

This slave-revolt-turned-revolution rebellion was never successfully emulated, but, in seeming to confirm the reality of a persistent nightmare, it had had consequences far larger than the compass of that unhappy island. Increasingly southerners bases their politics and their social institutions on fear. But America, it eventually turned out, was not Haiti. All those decades of nightmare had been just that, nightmare. Life after slavery was going to be hard, for North and South, black and white alike, though hard for each in different ways. But it was a continuation of something begun by the Declaration of Independence, not the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It took place in a country inspired and shaped by Washington and Jefferson, not Robespierre and Napoleon, and that made all the difference.


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