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#1943: Douglas Egerton on Toussaint Louverture, Jefferson and the Haitian Revolution (fwd)

From: Max Blanchet <MaxBlanchet@worldnet.att.net>

Part 1: 1450-1750 Part 2: 1750-1805 <--Part 3: 1791-1831 Part 4:
Narrative | Resource Bank | Teacher's Guide

Modern Voices

Douglas Egerton on the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and
Jefferson Resource Bank Contents

Q: What was the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Americans, black and 
white? How did Americans percieve Toussaint? What did Jefferson think
about Haiti?

A: All of the American newspapers covered events in Saint Domingue, in a
great deal of detail. All Americans understood what was happening there. 
It wasn't that the revolution in Saint Domingue taught mainland slaves 
to be rebellious or to resist their bondage. They had always done so,
typically as individuals who stole themselves and ran away sometimes in 
small groups who tried to get to the frontier and build maroon colonies 
and rebuild African societies.

But the revolutionaries in Saint Domingue, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, 
were not trying to pull down the power of their absentee masters, but
join those masters on an equal footing in the Atlantic world. And the
revolt in Haiti reminded American slaves, who were still enthusiastic
about the promise of 1776, that not only could liberty be theirs if they 
were brave enough to try for it, but that equality with the master class 
might be theirs if they were brave enough to try. For black Americans, 
this was a terribly exciting moment, a moment of great inspiration. And 
for the southern planter class, it was a moment of enormous terror.
The planter class was scared of [L'Ouverture], but had no doubts that he 
knew exactly how to get what he wanted. His name, L'Ouverture, is a name 
that his soldiers applied to him. It meant this was a man who always
found his opening. In the southern white mind, Toussaint L'Ouverture was 
a terrifying but very competent figure. He was often depicted in
southern newspapers as sort of a black Napoleon, somebody who could
always find his opening, somebody who would always be successful in
battle. There was no doubt in the white mind that they were dealing with 
a very fierce and very dangerous foe.

Although it's quite clear that Toussaint was deeply inspired by events 
both in France and the United States, and some of his chief lieutenants 
had in fact been on the American mainland with the French army during
the American Revolution, Jefferson was always the first to deny any sort 
of revolutionary heritage to people other than whites of European

Jefferson was terrified of what was happening in Saint Domingue. He
referred to Toussaint's army as cannibals. His fear was that black
Americans, like Gabriel, would be inspired by what they saw taking place 
just off the shore of America. And he spent virtually his entire career 
trying to shut down any contact, and therefore any movement of
information, between the American mainland and the Caribbean island.
He called upon Congress to abolish trade between the United States and 
what after 1804 was the independent country of Haiti. He argued that
France believed it still owned the island. In short, he denied that
Haitian revolutionaries had the same right to independence and autonomy 
that he claimed for American patriots. And consequently, in 1805 and
finally in 1806, trade was formally shut down between the United States 
and Haiti, which decimated the already very weak Haitian economy. And of 
course, Jefferson then argued this was an example of what happens when 
Africans are allowed to govern themselves: economic devastation, caused 
in large part by his own economic policies.

Douglas A. Egerton
Professor of History
Le Moyne College

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