Revolutionary Ideology: The Threat and Promise of Haiti

By Davide Carozza

Note: This blog post dovetails with Hannah Rogers’ piece here.

The photograph above shows a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette, dated June 16, 1791. Both the photograph and a full transcript of the letter are courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Jefferson addresses Lafayette as an old friend: the latter was a major-general under George Washington during the American Revolution and also a key figure in the French Revolution, which he saw as an ideological continuation of the struggle for American independence. In the letter, Jefferson asks Lafayette about the Haitian Revolution:

What are you doing for your colonies? They will be lost if not more effectually succoured. Indeed no future efforts you can make will ever be able to reduce the blacks. All that can be done in my opinion will be to compound with them as has been done formerly in Jamaica. We have been less zealous in aiding them, lest your government should feel any jealousy on our account. But in truth, we as sincerely wish their restoration, and their connection with you, as you do yourselves. We are satisfied that neither your justice nor their distresses will ever again permit their being forced to seek at dear & distant markets those first necessaries of life which they may have at cheaper markets placed by nature at their door.

The letter links three revolutions that occurred at essentially the same historical moment and that arguably shared the same revolutionary spirit. Yet Thomas Jefferson, who in 1791, and as late as 1799, was calling for the gradual emancipation of US slaves in his private correspondence[i],  expresses almost no sympathy for the Haitian struggle.  Instead, he justifies in pragmatic and economic terms the continued rule of the French government over the colony. Upon the outbreak of violence in Haiti in 1791 President Washington immediately sent aid to the white government, and Jefferson wrote this letter while Secretary of State. So, in one sense, he was bound by his official position when composing this letter. But even when he became President, Jefferson had a back and forth policy regarding Haiti that always put US security issues and economic interests ahead of the right to liberty. At various time he played both sides of the struggle, marking the revolution as a practical issue more than a moral one. It’s jarring considering Jefferson once penned these lines, part of his accusations against King George III, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

The two sentiments are not as inconsistent as they initially seem, at least within the racist environment of Jefferson’s time. According to the official organization of Monticello, Jefferson believed “that blacks were racially inferior and ‘as incapable as children’,” and part of his emancipation scheme called for the deportation of freed American slaves. He added “that slavery was like holding ‘a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.’” Jefferson felt that so long as slaves or former slaves remained in America, war was the inevitable outcome: either “a large-scale race war” if slaves were emancipated, or “a civil war that would destroy the union” if they remained enslaved. He was, ultimately, right in his second prediction. But the incredible thing is that the same man who gave the world the phrase “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” couldn’t imagine a third possibility. That is, he couldn’t fully embrace the very words he wrote. In his accusations against King George III he stresses that it is “MEN” who are being “bought & sold,” and it is “Men” who are created equal. But whatever form this equality takes, it nevertheless includes for Jefferson the inferiority of Africans.

Dipesh Chakrabarty draws a distinction between two ways of understanding history, which he calls History 1 and History 2. History 1 is a narrative of the Enlightenment, founded on reason and an assumption of human progress. And while this assumption of progress ostensibly includes a rejection of intolerance, Enlightenment thinking is also fundamentally hierarchical. David Hardiman, summarizing the argument in his review of Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, says that societies that don’t share in Enlightenment beliefs “are considered ‘backward’ and ‘undeveloped’—an inferior ‘Other’.” The tension between the Enlightenment’s supposedly progressive views and its hierarchical impulse mirrors that in Jefferson’s writing. In other words, the ideology of History 1 allowed Jefferson to make the claim “all Men are created equal,” but it also allowed him to view Africans as “incapable as children.” History 2, on the other hand, is the history of the subaltern, which challenges the reductive narrative of progress that History 1 assumes. This distinction helps us understand the nature of the Haitian Revolution. The slave revolt in Haiti refused to wait for the Enlightenment model of history, which had gestured toward the possibility of equality, to refine its ideology to the point of truly embracing that equality. History 1 put the terms of equality on the table; History 2 refused to wait for that vision to be fulfilled.

In many ways, Chakrabarty’s insight helps make sense of the extraordinarily complex nature of the Haitian Revolution. Dessalines sent a letter to Jefferson just before Haiti declared its independence hoping to strengthen ties with the US. Jefferson ignored the letter because of Dessalines’ policy of exterminating the French and US fears of the slave revolt expanding.[ii] Making moral claims about violence is always difficult, but it seems especially so given the Haitian context. When the revolutionaries of the country couldn’t even depend, at least consistently, on the support of nations and governments trumpeting principles of freedom and equality, they were left with few options. In a clash between History 1 and History 2, and here I speak for myself, not Chakrabarty, it is difficult to sort out precisely where ethical responsibilities lie. Thus, for example, the markedly different positions of L’Ouverture and Dessalines, including Dessalines’ brief defection from L’Ouverture and then his quick return. These complications arose precisely because those who should have been staunch allies of the Haitian struggle were only intermittent ones, or, even worse, only posed as such. Time and again, it wasn’t possible to know what others would do or whether they could be trusted. It wasn’t possible to know if they would live up to the ideals they nominally espoused, or if they would ultimately sacrifice them to economic or practical concerns. The Haitian Revolution was always simultaneously a threat and a promise: the threat of violence begetting always more violence, the promise of Enlightenment ideals truly realized, even if through bloodshed. In the end, it represents the explosion of energy generated the moment an untenable ideology fractures.


[i] I draw this fact from page 23 of the Tim Matthewson article I link to, which is unfortunately mangled in the free PDF above. It is also available through JSTOR for those who have access.

[ii] Again from Matthewson, page 24.

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