So far as I know, only one statue of Toussaint Louverture, leader of Haitian slave revolution, stands on U.S. soil. You can find it in Miami, in the Little Haiti neighborhood. It overlooks a neat but tiny park, the only plot of ground named after Toussaint in this country. Nearby is the only American public institution to bear his name—an elementary school.
The contrast with our extravagant memorialization of Toussaint’s contemporary and fellow French speaker, the Marquis de Lafayette, could not be more striking. A statue of Lafayette stands across from the White House, in the large, beautiful Lafayette Square, and scores of other Lafayette tributes dot the American landscape. Not only have we erected monuments to him in major metropolises (three in New York City alone), but we have named cities and towns after him, as well as counties, streets, parks, warships, high schools, and at least one college.
Yet the disparity in the American reputations of these two men is misleading. For although Lafayette fought heroically in our War of Independence, and Toussaint never set foot in the United States, it was Toussaint who had the greater impact, direct and indirect, on American history—greater, in fact, than that of any other foreign leader. We exalt the glamorous white aristocrat and forget the brilliant black slave because we fundamentally and willfully misunderstand our own past.
Wherever men and women have been held in slavery, they have risen in revolt. Yet only in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue, as Haiti was then known, on the western end of the island of Hispaniola, did slaves succeed in permanently replacing their masters as rulers. Again, slaves throughout history have fought to win freedom for themselves, but the revolutionaries of Saint Domingue demanded something new: to end slavery itself. Toussaint played a decisive role in making the Saint Domingue uprising both unique and epochal.
Saint Domingue, “the Pearl of the Antilles,” produced much of the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe. Here lived, in 1790, some 40,000 whites, split between the fabulously rich plantation families, or grand blancs, and the resentful remainder, or petit blancs. Alongside the whites, but in a caste below them, lived 30,000 free people of mixed race, the gens de couleur, mostly descendants of white male planters and their black female slaves. Many were well educated and rich, owning large slave plantations themselves, and they dominated the militia. A company of them fought alongside French forces in the American Revolution, and one of them, Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, would become a celebrated military commander in revolutionary France and the père of Alexander Dumas, père. Yet the blancs subjected the gens de couleur to legal discrimination, which after 1770 became increasingly harsh. At the bottom of the social order toiled half a million black slaves—over two-thirds as many slaves as in the entire United States at the time, but crammed into a territory the size of Maryland. Most of them were native Africans. They worked under such terrible conditions that their population could be sustained only by massive importation of fresh captives across the Atlantic. Toussaint, the child of African-born slaves, had been born into this cruel country around 1740—possibly, as his name suggests, on All Souls’ Day.
By the mid-1770s, he had proven himself so useful to the manager of the huge Bréda sugar plantation on which he worked that the manager, in gratitude, legally emancipated him, a boon few Saint Domingue slaves received. Toussaint á Bréda, as he called himself, went on to prosper. He eventually owned a farm, leased coffee plantations, and even possessed a few slaves (he is known to have freed at least one of them). Although his native tongue was Kreyòl, the French-African patois common among slaves, he became fluent in continental French. At some point, he learned to read and write, making him among the tiny minority of literate blacks in the colony. He may even have been well read (some scholars believe that he studied Machiavelli and Epictetus), and circumstantial evidence indicates that he was a Mason, meaning that the mostly white lodge in Le Cap Français (now Le Cap Haitien), the largest, wealthiest town in the colony, had accepted him as a member.
Toussaint appears to have been respected in his neighborhood, but he was unknown to the world in July 1789, when a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille. Soon unrest in the metropole spread to its Caribbean outpost, with the mostly royalist grand blancs battling the mostly republican petit blancs, and both savagely suppressing the gens de couleur, who were demanding égalité and fraternité. But they were all playing a game of matches on a keg of black powder. In August 1791, it exploded. A group of charismatic slaves, most conspicuous among them Dutty Boukman, a priest in the Vudon faith popular among the enslaved masses, led tens of thousands of bondsmen to rise. They massacred whites indiscriminately and pillaged and burned hundreds of plantations.
No clear evidence indicates that Toussaint helped plan the outbreak. He seems to have taken no part in the racial killings and is known to have helped send white friends to safety abroad. But he then joined one of the slave armies. He served initially as its médecine général (he was skilled in veterinary and human folk healing) and as advisor to its illiterate commander, but he was quickly promoted to the rank of maréhal. Soon most of the original leaders of the revolt were either, like Boukman, killed in battle, or discredited by their cruelty or incompetence, yet Toussaint’s following steadily grew. Initially, he seems to have hoped to end the conflict with a compromise, in which the masters would agree, among other things, to respect existing but widely ignored royal regulations protecting slave laborers. By 1792, however, he had become a convert to abolitionism, probably because he realized that his troops would reject any leader who sought to maintain slavery.
The French administrators of the colony came to the same realization. On August 29, 1793, the chief representative in Le Cap of the new French Republic (King Louis XVIII had been beheaded six months earlier), Commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, issued the first of a series of emancipation proclamations. That same day, Toussaint, still in rebellion against France and commanding a fortress in the mountains, issued a counter proclamation, urging blacks to seize their own freedom. At the same time, he announced a new identity: “Je suis Toussaint Louverture. ... Je veux que la liberté et l'égalité règnent à Saint Domingue. Je travaille à les faire exister. Unissez-vous à nous, frères, et combattez avec nous pour la même cause” (“I am Toussaint Louverture … I want liberty and equality to reign in Saint Domingue. I am working to make this happen. Unite with us, brothers, and fight along with us for the same cause”).
The name Toussaint had chosen for himself may have been a Vudon reference. Although a devout Catholic, with a Catholic given name, he was quite familiar with the religion of the black majority, and “l’ouverture” may be an allusion or even an invocation of the spirit Papa Legba, humble yet powerful master of gates and crossroads, whom worshipers address at the beginning of Vudon rituals to open the gate to the spirit world: “Atibon Legba, ouvri bayi pou’ moi. ”
Only after Sonthonax’s proclamations had been affirmed by the Jacobin regime in Paris, which in 1794 abolished slavery throughout the French colonies, did Toussaint declare himself a loyal servant of the Republic. But he did not lay down his arms, nor did the French want him to do so. They appointed him a brigadier general, because they needed his help countering external threats from Spain and Britain and quelling internal conflict between revolutionary factions. Expertly maneuvering his way through a dangerous, constantly mutating political landscape of bewildering complexity, he triumphed over his foreign enemies and domestic rivals. To achieve his goals he could be devious and even ruthless, but he never wavered in his commitments to emancipation, racial cooperation, and rebuilding the colonial economy, which had been devastated by the conflict. By 1797, Sonthonax had appointed him commander of all French military forces in Saint Domingue and Governor-General. Sonthonax thought he was winning a powerful ally, but Touissaint soon compelled the commissioner to return to Paris. Toussaint now ruled the colony in both name and fact, the first internationally-recognized black leader of modern times. In power, one of his major initiatives was to forge an alliance with the United States.
Toussaint needed U.S. help to keep in balance the contradictory policies he felt compelled to pursue. Well aware that many in Paris wanted to re-impose slavery on Saint Domingue, as a way to restore the river of revenue, now reduced to a trickle, that the colony had once provided the home government, he sought to revive the plantation economy without slavery. He encouraged former white managers to return to their estates and drafted almost the entire black population into the army, ordering them, for the good of the nation, to grow sugar and coffee again. Former slaves understandably resented this policy, and some resisted it, but production began to revive, and Toussaint looked to the U.S. as a potential market.
Toussaint also felt he had to pursue an independent foreign policy without declaring independence. After he defeated a British invasion, for example, he negotiated a comprehensive peace treaty with the British commander, even though Britain and France were at war. Yet he knew that proclaiming a formal break with France might provoke a French military response, and that France was for a time too preoccupied with wars in Europe to interfere with his plans. Finally, Toussaint could dangle the prospect of Saint Domingue independence before the U.S. government, to entice them to help him.
The United States had won its own independence in 1782 and, as the other revolutionary republican government in the Americas, seemed a plausible ally. Moreover, in 1797, just as Toussaint became Governor-General, President George Washington, a slaveholder who had wanted nothing to do with the black revolution, was succeeded by the antislavery John Adams, who was open to a change of policy. The U.S. was engaged in a cold war with Britain and a Quasi-War with France, and in Adams’s view, it needed whatever friends it could get. When Toussaint sent a representative—a white merchant from Le Cap with a black wife, herself also a merchant—to Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital, Adams received him at the President’s House on High Street.
The Adams administration and the Toussaint government eventually worked out an arrangement. Toussaint opened Saint Domingue ports to American merchants, who began doing a booming business there—among other things, selling Toussaint’s army badly needed armaments—and in return, the U.S. sent a squadron of warships to help him, among them the formidable USS Constitution (later famous as “Old Ironsides”). In a remarkable episode, when André Rigaud, a leader of the gens de couleur, launched a revolt against Toussaint in 1799, these American naval vessels helped Toussaint put it down.
The U.S. encouraged Toussaint to make two other bold moves. One was to take over the eastern part of Hispaniola, the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, which Spain had ceded to France in 1795, but which Paris had not authorized Toussaint to seize. He did so anyway in 1800, unifying the island for the first time. The other move was to summon a constitutional convention, which reorganized the colonial government and formally declared Toussaint governor for life. The U.S. saw these moves as steps towards Saint Domingue independence, but Toussaint still hoped to maintain his French connection.
Soon, however, Toussaint’s intricate weave of policies unraveled. First, in 1800, Adams lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson, who always claimed to hate slavery in theory, but never demonstrated this in his daily practice as a major slaveholder. Jefferson cut off military assistance to Saint Domingue. Even worse for Toussaint, Napoleon Bonaparte had by this point consolidated power in France and had quelled the military threat from other continental powers. Not only could he turn his attention to colonial affairs, he had troops available to enforce his policies. Napoleon seems have regarded Toussaint as both an insubordinate officer, scheming to lead Saint Domingue to independence, and an uppity black man. According to an old story, he took umbrage when he received a message from his Governor-General, addressed to “le premier des Blancs” from “le premier des Noirs.” More importantly, Napoleon had become convinced that restoring the profitability of the French Caribbean colonies meant reestablishing slavery there, and Toussaint stood in his way. Napoleon decided to crush him.
In 1802, he sent two thirds of the French navy to Saint Domingue, under the command of his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, to do the job. The resulting war erased the economic recovery Toussaint had effected, and in the end, the expedition boasted only one notable achievement. Under circumstances still mysterious, but certainly involving trickery, Leclerc’s men captured Toussaint. He was brought to France, where Napoleon ordered him placed in solitary confinement in a fortress near the Jura Mountains. Locked in a dark, dank cell, Toussaint wrote a long defense of his administration, which some have called the most important “slave narrative” in French. He then spent a miserable winter, his first after sixty-odd years of tropical life, cut off from all contact with friends and family, and died on April 7, 1803.
Back in his homeland, the French discovered that removing Toussaint from the scene did not mean victory. As Toussaint himself reportedly said when arrested, “En me renversant, on n’a abbatu à Saint Domingue que le tronc de l’abre de liberté des Nègres; il repoussera par les racines par qu’elles sont profondes et nombreuses” (“In overthrowing me, they have only felled in Saint Domingue the trunk of the tree of liberty for blacks; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are deep and many”). The French tried to terrify the population into submission, committing appalling atrocities, to no avail. Meanwhile, yellow fever devastated French forces, and in November 1803, they lost a decisive battle with troops led by Toussaint’s former lieutenant (who may also have been, many years before, his slave) Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
At this point, the invaders gave up. Of the more than 30,000 sailors and marines who had sailed from France, only 7,000 returned home. Among the dead were 20 French generals, Leclerc himself among them. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared Saint Domingue an independent nation and re-christened it with its ancient Arawak name, “Haiti.”
Napoleon’s self-inflicted catastrophe produced a massive windfall for the United States. He had just reacquired, from Spain, the former French colony of Louisiana, with the aim of building a new French empire in America, centered on Saint Domingue. Now, exclaiming, “Maudit sucre, maudit café, maudites colonies” (“Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies”), he unloaded the vast territory to the Americans, a development we celebrate today as President Jefferson’s greatest achievement, the Louisiana Purchase.
This expansion of U.S. territory helped produce a great historical irony. In the late 18th century, rapidly expanding industrial textile production in England created a huge demand for cotton, while Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, patented 1794, sufficiently lowered the cost of cleaning seeds from short grain cotton, the only variety that would grow in most of the South, to make it a profitable crop. Now the Louisiana Purchase placed the fertile lands of the Mississippi valley, perfect for cotton cultivation, under the control of the U.S. government, which was increasingly committed to the protection and expansion of slavery. In this way, Toussaint’s successful war of slave liberation helped make possible the emergence of the United States as a slave empire.
The characterization holds despite slavery being gradually abolished in the states of the northeast and never established in the states of the mid-west. By 1860, nearly four million slaves lived in southern states—millions more than in the second largest slaveholding nation of modern times, Brazil, and comparable to the number in the ancient Roman Empire. Slaves constituted a majority of the population in South Carolina and Mississippi, and nearly half the population in several other states. In 1860, the total value of human chattel was approximately 3 billion dollars (nearly 10 trillion today)—more than all investments in American manufacturing and railroads combined, plus all American bank capital.
The 385,000 slave owners numbered among the richest and most politically influential Americans. Eight of the first twelve U.S. Presidents were slaveholders, and the only presidents before the Civil War to be reelected were slaveholders. Twice, in the presidential elections of 1832 and 1844, both major parties nominated slaveholding candidates. Between 1801 and 1860, around half (sometimes more than half) of U.S. Senators owned slaves, as did both long-serving Chief Justices of the Supreme Court during these years. Slavery flourished in Washington, DC, with one of the largest slave markets in the country operating within sight of the U.S. capitol building, and federal legislation protected the rights of slaveholders. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, for example, established a federal slave-catching bureaucracy, to help slaveholders reclaim their human property that had escaped to the free states. Meanwhile, under the influence of slavery, a policy of white supremacy took hold nationally. In 1790, just 3 of the original 13 states restricted the vote to whites only, but by 1855, the figure was 24 out of 30. Every state that entered the Union after 1792 forbade black voting (except Maine, admitted in 1819), and between 1799 and 1838, eight states that had allowed black voting, banned it. In 1857, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in its Dred Scott decision, that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect,” it was merely stating a widely-held belief.
The brief U.S. alliance with Toussaint effected by John Adams was nearly forgotten. From the time of the Jefferson administration forward, the American government pretended that Haiti did not exist. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 white slaveholding refugees from Saint Domingue resettled in the U.S., mostly in the South. Their tales of black revolutionary atrocities (unencumbered by the inconvenient truth of accompanying white atrocities) circulated widely and were passed down through slaveholding families like heirlooms. Most American whites came to view the Haitian revolution with horror and vilify Toussaint. But American blacks, and some whites, continued to admire him, and his example would help inspire them to bring down the “Slave Power.”
American slaveholders tried to keep their slaves from learning about Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution, but their efforts proved futile. Despite laws and customs forbidding anyone from teaching slaves to read, not a few slaves learned to do so, and reports and references to Haiti appeared frequently in American newspapers. Again, many slaveholders who had fled Haiti and resettled in the South brought with them slaves who would never forget what they had witnessed and experienced. As late as the Civil War, an abolitionist working with the Union army in South Carolina found an old man, brought as a slave from Haiti nearly sixty years earlier, who still boasted of having served as a teenager in Toussaint’s army and could perform the military drill he had been taught. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the most important slave revolts in U.S. history were led by literate slaves and took place where the most Haitian refugees had settled—Virginia, Louisiana, and South Carolina.
In Virginia, on a rainy night in August 1800, just as Toussaint neared the height of his power in Saint Domingue, and in the midst of the bitter presidential election between Adams and Jefferson, reports swept Richmond, the state capital, that slaves in the vicinity had armed themselves and were gathering to march on the town. At the last moment, a few of the conspirators had gotten cold feet and alerted the authorities, who were able to thwart the plot.
“Gabriel’s Rebellion” was not only the first major slave revolt in the new United States, but the first modern slave revolt in North America. A large uprising in colonial New York City, in 1714, seems to have been simply a violent protest against poor working conditions, while the Stono Rebellion in colonial South Carolina, in 1739, was led by recent arrivals from Africa trying to escape into the wilderness. By contrast, Gabriel intended to kill the Virginia governor, Jefferson’s ally James Munroe, seize control of the state, and abolish slavery.
Various evidence indicates that Gabriel had been influenced by Toussaint’s example. He seems to have believed that white non-slaveholders sympathetic to the French Revolution would side with him, claimed that two white Frenchmen were giving him military advice, and issued orders to his followers not kill Frenchmen. Many alarmed whites certainly saw connections between what had happened in Virginia and what was happening in Saint Domingue. Jefferson’s enemies even attacked him for his well-known admiration for the French Republic, arguing that false French ideals led inevitably to servile insurrection.
Echoes of Toussaint’s revolution can be heard in all subsequent major U.S. slave revolts. In 1811, hundreds of slaves in Louisiana took up arms, some dressed in stolen French military uniforms, and marched on New Orleans, burning sugar plantations and killing whites along the way, until they were defeated in a battle with white militia. A key leader of this uprising, by some measures the largest in U.S. history, was Charles Deslondes, a Haitian who had been brought to Louisiana by his refugee master.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey, an emancipated black artisan and church deacon in South Carolina, who as a young man had spent time in Le Cap, organized slaves and free blacks to kill whites in Charleston, burn the town, seize ships in the harbor and escape to Haiti, but informers betrayed him. Vesey reportedly had organized a company of slaves born in Saint Domingue to help him and had even sent secret letters to the president of Haiti concerning his plans.
In 1831, in Southhampton County, Virginia, the slave preacher Nat Turner incited scores of slaves to go from plantation to plantation, in apparent imitation of the Haitian rebels of 1791, massacring all whites they encountered. They killed nearly sixty before they were stopped. Not long afterward, a strange letter arrived in Southhampton, purportedly written by a former Virginia slave who had escaped to Boston. The unknown author (he signed the letter with a pseudonym, “Nero”) warned whites that the Turner killings were merely a sign of things to come. Cells of slave revolutionaries, he announced, were at that moment plotting rebellion across the South, while others were being trained in Haiti: “May the genius of Tousaint [sic] stimulate them to unremitting exertion.” Historians debate whether this letter was a hoax. No such slave conspiracy has been discovered, and if it did exist, why would a supporter publicize it? Many in Virginia, however, including the governor, apparently took the threat very seriously, indicating if nothing else how vividly Toussaint haunted white southerners’ nightmares. For American abolitionists, by contrast, Toussaint inspired their dreams.
There had been antislavery activists in the United States, white and black, since the Revolution, and they could boast of some significant achievements, notably the abolition of slavery in various northern states and the banning of slave importation from Africa, accomplished in 1807. An organized “abolitionist” movement, however, dedicated to “immediate emancipation” of southern slaves and winning full citizenship for all blacks, only emerged around 1830. In the slave states, abolitionism was seen as incendiary and in effect outlawed, and even in the free states, it was deeply unpopular in its early years, with abolitionists frequently forced to face down enraged white mobs. Yet persecution seemed only to win abolitionism more converts, and antislavery sentiment, combined with growing sectional resentment in the North against southern dominance over national affairs, eventually became a powerful political force.
Interracial cooperation lay at the heart of the abolitionist movement. Although the membership of most abolitionist organizations was overwhelmingly white, blacks were overrepresented in them compared to their tiny share of the free state population (nearly 90% of American blacks were southern slaves, and even a majority of free blacks lived in the South). Black and white abolitionists did not always see eye to eye, but they all admired Toussaint.
Abolitionists pointed to Toussaint’s revolution as a warning of what would happen in the South if it did not emancipate its slaves. David Walker, a free black Bostonian from South Carolina, who had probably known and may have conspired with Denmark Vesey, made the point with characteristic bluntness in his incendiary Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, a seminal abolitionist text published in 1829. If whites, he declared, refused to free their slaves, they would eventually and inevitably face bloody insurrection, pointing as proof to Haiti, “the glory of blacks and terror of tyrants”—a case Walker thought powerful enough “to convince the most avaricious and stupid of wretches” of the truth of what he was saying. Abolitionists, both black and white, would reiterate this point for the next thirty years. If any distinction could be drawn between how black and white abolitionists regarded Haiti, it was that some of the former, finding their opportunities in the U.S. limited by pervasive white racism, considered emigrating to what was, for decades, the only black-governed modern nation. In the mid-1820s, around 6,000 American blacks tried to resettle there, enticed by a promise of land from the Haitian government. Although they discovered that it could not fulfill its pledges and most eventually returned home, the attraction of Haiti for African-Americans remained high. A renewed Haitian emigration movement was launched in 1859 and was just catching fire when disrupted by the U.S. Civil War.
Meanwhile, abolitionists held up the example of Toussaint as refutation of racist claims that blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to whites. The great white abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips used Toussaint this way in one of his most celebrated lectures, “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” which he first delivered in 1857. “My sketch,” he told his mostly “Anglo-Saxon” audiences, “is at once a biography and an argument—a biography ... of a Negro soldier and statesman, which I offer you as an argument in behalf of the race from which he sprung. I am about to compare and weigh races indeed, I am engaged tonight in what you will think the absurd effort to convince you that the Negro race, instead of being that object of pity or contempt which we usually consider it, is entitled, judged by the facts of history, to a place close by the side of the Saxon.” He went on to argue that Toussaint had proven himself a greater leader than either Napoleon or George Washington—the greatest leader, in fact, in all history.
Phillips, perhaps owing to his own sensitivities, or recognizing those of his listeners, emphasized Toussaint’s generous treatment of whites. Black abolitionists who wrote about Toussaint—such as James McCune Smith, the New York physician and public intellectual, who gave a widely-noticed lecture on the Haitian revolution in 1841, or William Wells Brown, the escaped slave and man of letters, who wrote repeatedly about Toussaint and Haiti—emphasized instead Toussaint’s absolute self-assurance in asserting his authority over whites, which they evidently found inspiring. Another difference between them and Phillips concerned Haitian revolutionary violence towards whites, which Phillips downplayed. Notably, while celebrating the Haitian triumph over the French, he chose not to mention that Dessalines, after declaring Haitian independence, oversaw the massacre of thousands of whites still living there. McCune Smith and Wells Brown were less squeamish, reflecting an attitude common among free blacks that enslavement represented an existential threat to be resisted by any means necessary. Both conceded that what Dessalines did was cruel, but argued that in the context of a people resisting re-enslavement, his actions were understandable and perhaps even justifiable. Phillips, McCune Smith, and Wells Brown all agreed, however, that slaves in the South had both the right and justification to rebel. This was, in fact, the implicit point of Phillips’s Toussaint talk. As one reviewer wrote, “Without mentioning American slavery by name, [Phillips] so constantly kept it before his hearers that none could fail to see the moral of his lecture.”
John Brown was a white abolitionist who not only supported slave rebellions in theory, but decided to make one actually happen. In October 1859, the “old man” (he was then 59) invaded western Virginia with small interracial force. In a surprise night attack, they captured the federal military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, with the aim of distributing the weapons stored there to the slaves. Brown and his followers were all passionate admirers of Toussaint. Brown himself had studied the Haitian revolution intensively and thought he could reenact it the Alleghenies, while one of his men, Francis Jackson Meriam of Massachusetts, had traveled to Haiti in the months prior to the Harper’s Ferry raid and had brought back a portrait of Toussaint as a relic.
Brown’s raid turned out to be a military disaster that became an antislavery propaganda victory. Virginia and Maryland militia and federal troops quickly surrounded and destroyed Brown’s “army.” Brown was wounded and arrested, then quickly tried, convicted of murder, inciting insurrection, and treason against Virginia, and sentenced to hang. Yet his bravery in captivity, his eloquent defense of his actions in court, his willingness to die for the freedom of the slave, transformed him, by the time he ascended the gallows in December 1859, into an antislavery martyr. The white South grew terrified that white northerners would now tolerate, or even welcome, a slave uprising. Civil war loomed.
The climatic period of Toussaint’s influence of the United States began less than a year after Brown’s execution, when Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the new, antislavery Republican Party, won the presidential election of 1860. His victory provoked a radical reaction in the South, where Republicans had received few votes, and in many states none at all. Southern states began declaring that they had seceded from the Union and soon proclaimed their own nation, the Confederate States of America. An extraordinarily influential pro-secession pamphlet (it became a massive best-seller in the months immediately preceding and following Lincoln’s election, and many buyers followed the recommendation on its title page to “Read and send to your neighbor”), summed up the secessionists’ case in its title: The South Alone Should Govern the South, and African Slavery Should Be Controlled by Those Only, Who Are Friendly to It.
The white southern reaction to Lincoln’s election strikes some modern commentators as extreme to the point of delusion, but they fail to appreciate the inherent radicalism of the Republican agenda and the depth of white southern fear that the South might become another Haiti. They point out, for example, that Lincoln was no abolitionist. Although pledged to prevent the creation of new slave states, he repeatedly affirmed his belief that Congress had no constitutional authority to abolish slavery in the states. Yet white southerners took no comfort from his concession, because even most radical abolitionists agreed with Lincoln’s on this point. Some, like Phillips, denounced the constitution as a “proslavery compact” and refused to recognize its authority, but others developed a program designed, despite constitutional restrictions, to break the control of the “Slave Power” over the federal government. Their ideas, as southerners well knew, had become the ideological foundation of the Republican platform.
Probably the most important Republican leader to inject abolitionist thought into the political mainstream was Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts, who had a personal connection to the Haitian Revolution. Sumner’s epochal senate speech of 1853, Freedom National; Slavery Sectional, synthesized constitutional arguments that abolitionists had been developing for years: because the Constitution “contains no power to make a slave or uphold a system of slavery … all national legislation upholding Slavery must be unconstitutional.” The implications of this doctrine, as Sumner spelled them out, were immense—that the Fugitive Slave Act was void, that slavery could never exist in federal territories, so no new slave states were possible, and that the thousands of men and women held as slaves in the District of Columbia were in fact free. Sumner’s tie to Haiti came through his father, who had traveled to Le Cap in 1798, during the period of the Adams-Toussaint rapprochement. The young man had been invited to a banquet with leaders of the slave revolution and had offered them a toast: “Liberty, Equality, and Happiness, to all men!” For the rest of his life, he would be a champion of black equality, as would his son after him.
The memory of Toussaint and his revolution, meanwhile, profoundly shaped white southerners’ response to the prospect of Republican rule. In their speeches, editorials, and even their private correspondence and diaries, they almost always referred to Lincoln’s party as the “Black Republicans.” This ominous nickname played on the familiar term “Red Republicans,” used to refer to the red-cap wearing radicals of the French Revolution, and so associated opposition to slavery with state-sponsored Terror. Yet it also alluded to the Haitian Revolution, because the “black republican” southerners knew best was Toussaint.
Secessionists predicted, as did one writing in 1860 for the leading southern journal, De Bow’s Review, that “Black Republicanism ...would be governed alone by a blind rage in the subversion of the social, political and industrial systems of the South,” and Black Republican policies would reproduce there “the beastly horrors of the French Revolution in St. Domingo.” More specifically, as the author of The South Alone Should Govern the South alleged in another best-selling secessionist pamphlet, The Doom of Slavery in the Union: Its Safety Out of It, the Black Republicans would send “emissaries amongst our slaves,” new John Browns, “to excite them to insurrection and bloodshed, to burn down our towns and buildings of agriculture, to destroy our property and lay waste, our crops.” Immediately after making this terrifying prediction, however, the author felt compelled to contradict himself and deny that slave revolts were in fact a serious threat. A proslavery apologist, he was committed to the claim that southern blacks were perfectly happy in bondage. Yet his anxiety about insurrection and bloodshed indicated that he did not, in his heart, really believe it. He had good reason to be skeptical, as events would prove.
The Confederate rebellion, launched to preserve slavery, ironically resulted its overthrow. As in Saint Domingue, U.S. slavery was undone partly by government policy—Sonthonax’s emancipation proclamations (1793) and the French abolition law (1794) were precedents for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (ratified 1865)—but more fundamentally by the insistence of the slaves themselves that they must be free. At the start of the American conflict, the northern press was filled with predictions that a Haitian-like uprising would soon erupt in the South. In fact, the uprising took a different form, with hundreds of thousands of slaves emancipating themselves by fleeing their Confederate masters and seeking refuge behind Union army lines (and many more attempting to do so). Once Lincoln decided, in the winter of 1862-63, to lift a decades-old military restriction against the recruitment of black troops, 180,000 of them, mostly former slaves, joined the Union army. Blacks constituted up to 10% of the Union fighting force and played a critical role in the Confederate defeat. And here again can be seen Toussaint’s influence, which appears everywhere in the history of black Union soldiery.
Lincoln’s administration had resisted calls for black recruitment until more than a year into the war largely because key northern white military and political leaders opposed it, arguing that blacks would make poor soldiers. Abolitionists had responded with a campaign to change northern white public opinion on this point, and no tool proved more effective in their arsenal than Wendell Phillips’s lecture on “Toussaint L’Ouverture.” Phillips now transformed it into a paean to black military genius, embodied in Toussaint. Phillips gave his lecture scores of times across the North, including to a huge gathering at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, in 1862, attended by Republican members of Congress and President Lincoln’s own secretary, John Hay. When abolitionist agitation finally bore fruit, and Lincoln lifted the restriction against black troops, Phillips’s home state quickly organized one of the first and most famous black regiments, the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth. In May 1863, when its men marched through Boston to the ship that would carry them to the southern battlefields, they paid tribute to the impact of Phillips and his Toussaint lecture by adding a detour to their route so that they could parade proudly past his front door.
Black troops and the whites who fought with them commonly looked to Toussaint’s example for inspiration. One of earliest black regiments, the First South Carolina Volunteers, organized even before the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth, and made up of former slaves, was commanded by a white abolitionist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson; a historian of slave revolts and a great admirer of Toussaint (who proudly, although perhaps inaccurately, claimed that his grandfather had sold guns to Toussaint’s army in 1799), Higginson had secretly helped funnel money and weapons to John Brown, so that he could start another Haitian revolution in Virginia. Meanwhile, one of the soldiers in the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth was Toussaint L’Ouverture Delany, son of the American abolitionist and early pan-Africanist Martin Delany (who himself joined the Union army and would become the highest ranking black officer in the war, with the rank of major). Again, when the Fifty-Fourth fought its first major engagement, a heroic if unsuccessful assault on the Confederate fortress of Fort Wagner in South Carolina, the company that took the lead in the attack called itself the “Toussaint Guards.”
As Union policy during the war shifted towards complete emancipation, public pressure grew to acknowledge, finally and officially, the existence of the Haitian Republic. In 1862, shortly before Lincoln issued his preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, and at the urging of Sumner, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Congress passed legislation authorizing Lincoln to exchange ambassadors with Haiti. In December 1864, just two months before Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment, the two nations signed their first treaty, of commerce and friendship.
Unfortunately, Haitian-Americans relations would not stay cordial. Between 1915 and 1934, U.S. Marines even occupied Haiti. The troops, and the writers accompanying them, brought home sensationalized accounts of Haitian folklore that introduced the concept of the “zombie” into American pop culture. Today, however, Americans are far more likely to dress as a zombie for Halloween than remember the Haitian occupation. Just as most Americans have chosen to forget this shameful imperialist episode, so we have chosen to forget our national debt to Toussaint Louverture.
Americans like to think of themselves as the good guys of history, which is one reason we heap honors on the memory of Lafayette. He has become the symbol of Franco-American alliances, not only during the Revolution, but in the First and Second World Wars, which Americans claimed, at least, to fight in the name of freedom and democracy for all peoples everywhere. Toussaint represents a very different American past, one in which slavery was the central story and most white Americans were the bad guys. Americans, especially white ones, would prefer to forget this history and so have consigned Toussaint’s public memory to a corner—or, more precisely, to a little park in Miami.
Nonetheless, the burning question of how Americans should remember slavery always smolders and sometimes flairs. It flared a few months ago, when a self-proclaimed white supremacist, fond of displaying the Confederate flag, gunned down nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina—a congregation founded, not incidentally, by Toussaint’s admirer, the rebel Denmark Vesey. The atrocity provoked popular indignation so powerful that it overcame, at least temporarily, the persistent refusal of whites in the South to recognize the Confederate flag as a proslavery symbol. The South Carolina legislature, which for years had insisted on flying a Confederate flag in front of the statehouse, hastily voted to move it to a less conspicuous location.
Yet demoting proslavery symbols is less than half the public memory work that Americans need to do regarding slavery. Astonishingly, only one major U.S. museum is devoted to slavery—the Whitney Plantation Museum, which opened just this year in Louisiana. An eminent historian has observed that if Germany had opened a museum devoted to American slavery decades before it opened its first museum devoted to the Holocaust, we would think the Germans were hiding something. Americans have done the reverse, because we are hiding something, and we hiding it from ourselves.
Let us imagine, then, giving the public memory of Toussaint its due. Perhaps we could place a statue of him near the Lafayette statue in the park opposite the White House. Doing so would be a just rebuke to one of the other statues there, of the Comte de Rochambeau. Americans remember him for commanding French forces allied with the U.S. in the Revolutionary War, but he later commanded the French expedition against Saint Domingue, taking over after Leclerc’s death, and was directly responsible for some of the worst French atrocities in that conflict.
A Toussaint statue could also be placed at the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, to remind us that our oldest commissioned warship once fought on behalf of his slave revolutionaries. The Haitian contribution to the Louisiana Purchase, meanwhile, could be recognized by dotting Toussaint monuments across the West, perhaps near each of the many sites honoring Lewis and Clarke, celebrated explorers of the Louisiana Territory.
Other Toussaint monuments could erected on the sites of the major U.S. slave revolts. Two of these have only recently received significant public recognition. In 2014, a dignified statue of Denmark Vesey was unveiled in Charleston, near the Emanuel AME Church, while in Louisiana, visitors exit the new Whitney Plantation Museum through a sobering tribute to the 1811 rebels, which portrays their grisly fate after defeat: 63 ceramic severed heads, planted on poles. But in Virginia, only a small park plaque commemorates Gabriel’s Rebellion, and no museum, monument, or even plaque yet commemorates Nat Turner’s uprising.
Toussaint statues might be placed near the monuments of some of the Americans he inspired. One could go next to the engine house at Harper’s Ferry, now part of a national park, where John Brown’s little force made its last stand, or near the unmarked spot, now a residential back yard, where he was hanged. Another statue could be placed in the Boston Public Garden, near where statues of his admirers Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner stand, or on the Boston Common, near the magnificent Saint-Gaudens bas-relief on Beacon Street, commemorating the Massachusetts Fifty Fourth Regiment. A representation of Toussaint could also overlook the site in South Carolina, now partly submerged by the sea, where the Toussaint Guards charged Fort Wagner.
If Americans would build these and other monuments to Toussaint, if we named streets, and schools, and even towns and cities for him, we might better remember our terrible slave empire and how it was overthrown. We would then be forced to confront and perhaps finally overcome the racism and systematic racial injustice that are its poisonous legacies.
DEAN GRODZINS is Research Associate at the Harvard Business School and Visiting Scholar at Harvard Business School. He is the author of American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism.