Haitian Revolution

The 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution eliminated the reasoning of gradual abolitionism and the justifications for providing compensation to slaveholders. This prominent revolution created a new and unique nation that adopted a tradition of protest, particularly amongst African Americans. The tradition of protest originated from the Age of Revolution, which was strengthened and militarised by the revolution in Saint Domingue. The Haitian slave rebels altered the abolitionist movement on a global scale. Haitian slave rebels and the hypocritical aftermath of the American Revolution, in regards to the treatment of African Americans, made blacks realise that they needed to physically fight for their liberty. The revolution in Haiti was the symbol of independence for blacks across America, in contrast to the American Revolution. This brought radical black activism to the forefront of the abolitionist movement, as the Haitian slave rebels influenced African Americans. This chapter will argue and explore how the Haitian Revolution changed the American abolitionist movement. It will show that without black resistance, the abolitionist movement that took place in a society ruled by white Americans would not have taken the route it did that led to the emancipation of African Americans during the nineteenth century. Although, to explore this topic and argument in depth, the chapter will not only focus on the Haitian Revolution, but also the Age of Revolution that inspired African Americans to radicalise their activism, and it will examine the petitions issued by blacks to demonstrate that a tradition of protest began amongst African Americans long before the nineteenth century white abolitionist movement. Hence, showing that blacks were not only a significant part of the abolitionist movement, but they also shaped its path from the inspiration they drew from the Haitian Revolution before white activists like Garrison were given the sole credit for leading and altering the movement.

In contrast to the American Revolution, the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution was more of an ideological inspiration for black abolitionists that influenced them to call for an immediate eradication of slavery in America. Manisha Sinha argues that the only “example of immediatism before the 1830s was the Haitian Revolution,” and the “black roots of immediatism can be traced to the slave rebellions of this era as well as to free black militancy.” It was a prominent event that helped alter the American abolitionist movement and illustrated the crucial role of blacks in eradicating slavery. In his Haytian Papers, Prince Saunders, who was a promoter of the relocation of African Americans to Haiti, related ‘the traits of bravery and heroism’ and ‘martial valour’ of the ‘Haytian people’ who ‘chose death over slavery.’ This had a powerful ideological impact on African Americans as the Saint Domingue slave insurrection demonstrated that there was a certain pride in risking your life for a greater cause. It militarised the outlook blacks had on the abolition movement, as they began to favour an immediate end to slavery. Moreover, notwithstanding the significant impact of Garrisonian moral suasion on black abolitionists during the 1830s, black activists used the metaphor of revolution to explain and excuse the notion of slave insurrections. Therefore, the Haitian Revolution exercised an immense amount of power over African Americans’ ideas and their abolitionist tactics. This is evident in John Browne Russwurm’s 1826 ‘The Conditions and Prospects of Hayti’ speech, where he argued that it was necessary for the Haitians to use violence to gain their freedom, as they were compelled to do so. Whenever one’s liberty was compromised, they would inevitably resist. Therefore, for African Americans, as well the Haitian slaves, violence was incorporated in the movement as it was seen as a necessary tactic to defeat the powerful institution of slavery. Moreover, the 1838 article, ‘Immediate Emancipation’ in The Colored American used the Haitian Revolution to caution Americans of the hazards of maintaining slavery. It states, “Slavery, and not emancipation, is the danger. Whoever sleeps over oppression, sleeps over a volcano, which may pour out its very tide at any hour, and bury him in ruins. Let slaveholders read the history of St. Domingo, and tremble.” Adversaries of slavery, therefore, contended that slavery’s brutal and dehumanising effect left Haiti’s slaves with no choice but to revolt against the institution. This made abolition a practical movement and cautioned America that they could experience a similar fate by permitting the enslavement of humans to prosper and develop. Hence, the violence of the Haitian Revolution and the ideas of equality that resulted from the uprising pushed Americans to pursue a more radical and immediate abolition of slavery.

The Haitian Revolution resulted in the formation of the first black republic in the western hemisphere. Therefore, it is not surprising that there was a high level of hope and morale amongst African Americans that made them look towards Haiti for support and strength in taking control of their oppressed state in society. For example, Prince Hall exclusively mentioned the slave insurrection in Saint Domingue to encourage black militant abolitionism. Hall used his 1797 address to encourage blacks across America. It inspired black to pursue militant abolitionism. Thereby, altering the abolitionist movement significantly from shifting the focus on gradualism to more militant immediatism. Therefore, the Haitian Revolution played a significant role in African Americans’ outlook of abolitionism and global change for blacks across the Atlantic. Similarly, Sinha contends that the “history of abolition begins with those who resisted slavery at its inception.” It was the enslaved and their brave acts of resistance against their oppressors that inspired abolitionists to support their struggle to end the horrific yet powerful institution of slavery.

As evident in Frederick Douglass’s speech, ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” black abolitionists vehemently challenged the principles and legacy of the new American Republic. Douglass’s statement, “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” confronted the limitations of the Declaration of Independence on the topic of liberty and equality, as he pointed out the continued inequality, degradation, and the lack of rights African Americans faced. This speech was incredibly direct and brutally honest, which showed that African Americans had started to become more confident in their public denunciation of America’s hypocritical values. Douglass’s speech exposed the reality that slavery was not a benevolent institution and that the enslaved were not content. Therefore, this rejects the view that black activists simply adopted white abolitionists’ ideas and had accommodating tendencies. They were not afraid to confront and challenge the mainstream idea of revolution proposed by white Americans. For instance, the prominent black abolitionist, David Ruggles, was distinct in his tactics when contrasted to white abolitionists. Ruggles was renowned for conducting the Underground Railroad, which was where many abolitionists helped fugitive slaves escape to the North. Graham Russell Gao Hodges argues that Ruggles’ “practical abolitionism appealed to ordinary blacks in New York City and to whites in upstate New York and New England who felt that slave catchers and kidnappers threatened their own ideals of personal liberty.” The black abolitionist had influenced many Northerners to aid the enslaved in their struggle for freedom. Therefore, it is illogical to contend that African Americans simply followed white abolitionists’ strategies. Moreover, black activists significantly differentiated themselves from the mainstream gradualist movement. For instance, Douglass looked to the Haitian Revolution, instead of the American Revolution to celebrate true liberty and independence. Haiti stood as a symbol of struggle for true independence, as men fought to death for the equal rights for all, which unlike the American Revolution, included the enslaved. Hence, many African Americans followed Douglass in celebrating the Haiti’s independence day rather than the Fourth of July. Such events also influenced African Americans to adopt the Haitian slave rebels’ tactics to fight for freedom as well as their values and ideals, rather than adopting the way of the patriots from the American Revolution. Douglass emphasised the importance of the Haitian independence for African Americans, which in turn led to his nineteenth century audience to gain more knowledge on the radical and brave history of their racial brethren in Saint Domingue. It inspired them to celebrate the Haitian independence and motivated them to use the same methods to abolish slavery in the States.

The significant impact of Haiti on the abolition of slavery in America and the radical nature of antislavery was shown through the largest American slave revolt, in regards to participants, which took place in Louisiana that was led by a Haitian slave called Charles Deslondes in 1811. Eugene D. Genovese estimated that Deslondes, who was “inspired by the Haitian Revolution, led between three hundred and five hundred [armed] slaves in the rebellion.” It is noteworthy that a significant amount of these slaves had also participated in the Haitian Revolution. Thereby, showing that after the influx of Haitian slaveholders and their slaves to American ports, there was a known danger of the enslaved refugees spreading rumours and influencing African Americans to violently challenge the oppressive institution of slavery similar to how the Haitian slave rebels did. They carried with them radical thoughts and behavior that many American slaveholders deeply feared would contaminate the South. These fears came to be true as many slave insurrections erupted throughout the South. The large number of participants in the insurrection showed that African American slaves and those Northern activists that supported these rebellions have begun to, or developed their tactics to a more radical and militant approach to eliminate slavery. The physical presence of Haitian slave rebels in America had ultimately altered the American abolitionist movement, as African Americans throughout both the North and South began to call for an immediate end to slavery through any violent means. Similarly, Stanley Harrold argues the Haitian Revolution and its race warfare had a profound influence on the Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822 and Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, which also affected American abolitionism. Harrold stated that the memory of Haiti made slave rebels like Walker to assure African Americans that “God would raise up a black warrior to ‘deliver you through from your deplorable and wretched condition under the Christians of America.’” This had in turn inspired both abolitionists and slave rebels to use violence to end slavery, and to depart from gradualism.

Despite the growing interest in the Haitian Revolution, scholars have been slow to analyse its global implications. In contrast, Matthew Clavin argues the revolution in Saint Domingue had a significant impact on the course of American slavery and its abolition than indicated in studies. From this perspective, Clavin explains how the recollection of Haitians attaining their liberty had influenced the extended sectional debate over slavery and racial identities. American abolitionists used the example of the Saint Domingue Revolution and the actions of its revolutionaries to form a more equal, and racially tolerant society post-emancipation. Clavin shows how there were two depictions of the Haitian Revolution that influenced Americans on their outlook on the emancipation of slaves. Southern white slaveholders promoted the view that the bloodthirsty Haitian slave rebels murdered white men and children and raped their poor wives. In contrast, African Americans and Northern white abolitionists portrayed the Haitian Revolution as a moment of bravery, as they contended the Haitians only sought to fight for the freedom that was presented by the revolutions occurring globally, such as the battle for independence offered by the American and French Revolutions. Clavin puts forth the idea that the heroic and brave tale of the Haitian Revolution aided figures such as Williams Wells Brown in radicalising the American abolitionist movement. Moreover, the militant abolitionist incidents that occurred in America, such as John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 was inspired by the violent uprising in Saint Domingue. Therefore, demonstrating the significance of the Haitian Revolution in altering the American abolitionist movement. Similarly, Alfred Hunt argued that the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Louverture, “helped change the course of the history of the Americas and the map of the United States.” Toussaint’s image of an African leader confronting and heroically challenging his oppressors had offered African Americans a model for black manhood and fearless black masculinity that persuaded them to pursue his choice of actions against their American oppressors. Also, Northern white abolitionists had used Toussaint’s belief in Christianity and commitment to family as a strategy to convince white Americans that African Americans deserved social acceptance. As a result, the Haitian Revolution and its activists had profoundly shaped and altered the American abolitionist movement as its success in overthrowing a dominant institution and establishing an African society had influenced both African American and white Northern abolitionists to promote and adopt their immediatist tactics into the mainstream use of gradualism.

The Age of Revolution ignited the desire for African Americans to physically fight and struggle for their freedom. As argued by Stephen Kantrowitz, “As inheritors of the ideological legacy of the American Revolution, [black activists] believed that freedom belonged only to those willing to seize it.” Despite African Americans labeling themselves as true followers of the law, they delivered strident and militant challenges to inegalitarian laws and slaveholders. African American activists changed the abolitionist movement, as they were radical and violent people who comprehended that liberty and citizenship had to be won. The new American Republic and the creation of its Constitution radicalised African American thoughts and influenced them to fight for their freedom. The Constitution alongside the newfound freedom for America during the 1780s meant, for African Americans, that the slave’s right to freedom overshadowed the slaveholder’s right to property. Addressing ‘Those Who Keep Slaves and Uphold the Practice,’ Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, reinforce this when they stated, ‘You…have been and are our great oppressors’ and indicated that America, similar to Egypt, would be wrecked as a result of its ‘oppression of the poor slaves’ by God, ‘the protector and avenger of slaves.’ Such strong religious beliefs ignited from the Age of Revolution developed the loyalty of African Americans to pursuing a radical abolition of slavery. Jones and Allen cautioned that, though the enslaved seemed satisfied with their situation, ‘the dreadful insurrections they have made, when opportunity has offered, is enough to convince a reasonable man, that great uneasiness and not contentment, is the inhabitant of their hearts.’ Thus, showing that African Americans took physical control of their discontented situation rather than simply relying on white abolitionists to change their degraded position in society. Their rebellious physical act of resistance was influenced by the revolutions taking place during the eighteenth century, and the actions of prominent revolutionary black leaders like Toussaint Louverture, rather than Northern white gradualists. Moreover, Manisha Sinha emphasises the importance of the Age of Revolution in influencing blacks to alter abolitionism by arguing that black abolitionists “gave birth to an alternative tradition of political radicalism in grappling with the heritage of revolutionary republicanism in early America.” African Americans formed a dissenting belief system that displayed the shortcomings of the ideals the new American Republic valued and they revealed the hypocrisy of America in maintaining slavery. Sinha showed how African Americans who used “the trope of revolution by alluding not to the American Revolution but to the Haitian Revolution and slave rebellion” invoked this tradition of protest. They did not perceive the ‘hypocritical’ American Revolution to be a fight for true liberty and equality. Rather, they valued the principles of the Haitian Revolution. In their struggle against racial slavery, African American abolitionists altered the movement, as they yearned to reinvent the notion of revolution and inspire new meanings for it through pamphlets, freedom petitions and speeches on the abolition of the slave trade.

The radical nature of abolitionism began during the revolutionary era when African Americans started to condemn the nation of its hypocrisy through black freedom petitions. This altered the movement dramatically as those who signed such petitions agreed that radical action was necessary to overthrow the institution of slavery. Thus, many departed from gradualism. Written in the New England states by various groups of those that were enslaved, these petitions were crucial to the change in the abolitionist movement, as they demanded an immediate end to slavery. This shows that black activists in the 1700s had taken charge of the movement long before the prominent Northern, nineteenth-century white abolitionists. Thereby, demonstrating the central role and importance of African American in altering this significant racial struggle. These early petitions held a revolutionary rhetoric that was never seen before, as they were vocal in their demand for an immediate abolition of slavery. This was a stark contrast to the gradualism that was adopted by a majority of abolitionists, in particular the Northern whites that earlier historians had given unfair sole credit to for leading the movement. These petitions demonstrated how blacks began to acquire a unique radicalism in their struggle against slavery. For instance, a 1779 freedom petition submitted by slaves to the New Hampshire state legislature declared that “the God of nature gave [us] life and freedom, upon the terms of the most perfect equality with other men; The freedom is an inherent right of the human species.” Similarly, a 1773 ‘Petition of many Slaves’ in Massachusetts displayed the growing frustration and anger of the slaves, as they vividly emphasised the point to General Court that they “had every Day of their Lives imbittered with this most intollerable Reflection. That, let their Behaviour be what it will, neither they, nor their Children to all Generations, shall ever be able to do, or possess and enjoy any Thing, no, not even Life itself, but in a Manner as the Beasts that perish. We have no Property! We have no Wives! No Children! We have no City! No Country!” Sinha argues that the petitions “for black freedom reveal that from the start African Americans did not hesitate to voice the severity of their situation and question the revolutionary professions of American patriots.” Hence, blacks were amongst the first to alter the abolitionist movement as they did not believe in granting compensation to oppressive slaveholders, and these petitions pointed out the hypocrisy of America, and the idea of the revolutionary struggle. They showed the duplicity of America, and in particular of those abolitionists that supported gradualism, as they were willing to grant compensation to those who stole the God-given freedom from Africans. Therefore, the Haitian Revolution was the perfect event for African Americans to turn to for symbolic reference of the use of radicalism and violence in successfully defeating the oppressive and hypocritical slaveholders. The revolution in Saint Domingue that fought for the immediate freedom of the enslaved was exactly what the petitioners were demanding. The use of petitions and the revolutionary language that was evident through black demand for immediate abolition shows that black activists of the eighteenth century were already radical in their antislavery thought. However, the Haitian Revolution inspired African American petitioners to pursue a militant approach to abolitionism that altered the movement.

It is evident through the radical language of the petitions that African Americans played an active and crucial role in the movement, perhaps even more so than many white abolitionists. However, Sinha argues, “Historians have yet to fully appreciate the alternative and radical nature of black abolitionism,” as many continue to “portray black abolitionists not so much as ‘counter hegemons’ but as ‘co-fabricators’ of northern political culture.” Hence, indicating that black activists adopted conventional values and concepts to form a black tradition of protest. In contrast to scholars like Sinha and Benjamin Quarles, nationalist scholars have critiqued the antebellum black activism for having assimilationist tendencies. They argue antebellum black thought did not have any grassroots for nationalist movements. Therefore, perceiving the black abolitionist tradition as primarily a branch of middle-class conservatism. Yet, Sinha emphasises the point that “‘assimilation,’ and ‘appropriation’ hardly do justice to the African American ideological engagement with the modern revolutionary thought.” Sinha challenges this traditional perspective by pointing out that revolutionary thought, as also argued by David Brion Davis, offered the initial widespread confrontation of the presence and continuation of slavery in the New Atlantic World. This is evident in the radical overthrow of the institution of slavery in Haiti by the slave rebels, and the mass support they gained from African American activists. Sinha noted how black activists were not only the first to develop an inclusive appraisement of slavery during the 1700s, but they were also the first in critiquing the American Revolutionary tradition. Moreover, black activists continued to develop the tradition of protest and incorporate a significant amount of belligerency in their ideas. The importance of such African Americans in altering the movement was evident when the prominent white abolitionist, Garrison, incorporated the radical immediatism and adamancy of blacks into his abolitionist tactics, despite rejecting the idea of pursuing violence to end slavery. Further, African Americans altered the abolitionist movement as they began to use the metaphor of revolution to assert their notions of liberty, and they contended for far more than the hypocritical ideologies put forth by the American Revolution. African American activists vehemently argued for and promoted abolitionists to fight for the same independence that the former Haitian slaves forcefully gained. This was a significant moment in the history of black activism as well as the antebellum abolitionist movement as the revolutionary notion turned out to be the foundation of a radical black tradition of protest that led to black abolitionists leaving the gradualist approach to the problem of slavery.

The Haitian Revolution played a significant role in shaping the ideology and strategies of the abolitionist movement. The violent overthrow of slavery in Saint Domingue by the slave rebels influenced African American abolitionists and slaves to pursue a militant and immediate abolition of slavery. It forced black activists, such as Frederick Douglass, to reconsider and redefine the meaning of democracy in America and human rights. More importantly, the Haitian Revolution altered the American abolitionist movement significantly during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as it created a metaphor of revolution amongst African American slaves and abolitionists. The idea of revolution that was ignited by Haitian slave rebels proposed a tradition of black protest globally that led to a considerable amount of activists departing the mainstream gradualist approach to abolition. Moreover, the stark difference between the treatment and value of blacks in society in the aftermath of the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution helped African Americans see which nation demonstrated true liberty. The American abolitionist movement was developed from the awareness of the duplicity of American politics. It led to black abolitionists following the role of global black leaders, like Toussaint and Jean Jacques Dessalines, and commanding the movement to become radical during the nineteenth century. Historians have proved this by illustrating the tools African American abolitionists used in the move for change, such as black freedom petitions, newspaper articles, pamphlets, poetry, violence, the law and many more methods. Henceforth, African Americans played a central role in altering abolitionism, as they were the pioneers in incorporating a radical immediatism to abolition through their demanding petitions and insurrections. Moreover, the important role of blacks in abolishing slavery is evident in the dramatic success of Haitian slave rebels defeating their oppressors. This was a remarkable event that significantly inspired and motivated African Americans to become active in the movement long before prominent white abolitionists such as Garrison, and to forcefully fight for their freedom.

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