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8515: The Age of Revolution: Founding Fathers Dreamed of Uprisings, Except in Haiti (fwd)

From: Dan Craig <dgcraig@att.net>

The Age of Revolution: Founding Fathers Dreamed of Uprisings, Except in


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

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

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

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

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

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. 


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