Letter to the Leaders of the French Revolution, 1797
Toussaint L’Ouverture, born a slave in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (later named Haiti), was well educated and skilled in military matters and politics. Saint-Domingue had a population of 500,000 black slaves, 40,000 white French settlers, and about 30,000 free people of color (meaning they had African ancestors and were born as free people) and freed people of color (meaning they had been set free from slavery). Many of the free people of color had both African and European ancestors, and some of them owned slaves themselves. Inspired by the French Revolution, the white settlers tried to win self-government from France, and free people of color tried to win representation for themselves. Slaves took over the language of freedom to demand an end to slavery and independence. Civil war then erupted, which the black majority won, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. In 1797, fearful the leaders of France would try to retake Haiti and white planters would try to re-establish slavery on the island, L’Ouverture wrote this letter to the leaders of the Directory, the French government at that time, expressing the will of the African-Haitian population and their desire to remain free and unenslaved. What Enlightenment ideas does L’Ouverture express? How does he appeal to the revolutionary ideals of white Frenchmen?
San Domingo: Saint-Domingue
In the 1790s abolition of slavery was a radical concept, even though it followed logically from Enlightenment thought and the principles of freedom and equality. The significance of the Haitian Revolution is the process by which the first two revolutions transformed the spread of Enlightenment ideas, broadening their reach and inspiring groups (such as slaves) to apply the rhetoric of freedom to their own situations. Stress to students the expanding meanings of freedom and equality, and the population differences among the United States, France, and Haiti that created distinct contexts that then affected the course of the revolutions. Students may struggle with understanding L’Ouverture’s rhetorical strategy, beginning on line 4, of refusing to believe that the leaders won’t live up to revolutionary ideals. The “Decree” mentioned here is the 1793 abolition of slavery by the National Convention, a semi-radical French revolutionary government. Napoleon restored slavery in 1802 and tried to win back the island colony. The Haitians won that struggle and remained independent.
…Do they think that men who have been able to enjoy the blessing of liberty will calmly see it snatched away? They supported their chains only so long as they did not know any condition of life more happy than that of slavery. But today, when they have left it, if they had a thousand lives they would sacrifice them all rather than be forced into slavery again. But no, the same hand which has broken our chains will not enslave us anew. France will not revoke her principles; she will not withdraw from us the greatest of her benefits. She will protect us against all our enemies; she will not permit her … morality to be perverted, those principles which do her most honor to be destroyed, her most beautiful achievement to be degraded, and her Decree … which so honors humanity to be revoked. But if to re-establish slaves in San Domingo, this was done, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible; we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it…