Saint Louverture

Originally published in the March 2017 issue of First Things.

Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life
by Philippe Girard
Hachette, 352 pages, $24.06

The Virginia planter and Fire-Eater Edmund Ruffin, who in 1865 blew his brains out rather than live under Yankee rule, called Toussaint Louverture “the only truly great man yet known of the negro race.” In his assessment of the man, if not the race, he was joined by William Wordsworth, Frederick Douglass, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. At a time when most slaves in French Saint-Domingue were illiterate, Louverture was well-read enough to accuse his rivals of practicing “Machiavellism” and Napoleon of hounding him as the Romans hounded Hannibal. He was a more impressive figure than our own Founding Fathers in at least three respects: He had been a slave for most of his life; he was a famously devout Christian; and his accomplishment remains unmatched to this day, for the Haitian Revolution is still the only successful slave revolt in history. And yet few Americans know his name.

The neglect of the Haitian Revolution cries out for explanation, and of course some have blamed racism. One anthropologist has claimed that the idea of black slaves seizing their own freedom has been for reactionary white historians “unthinkable.” In fact, it was the abolitionists who first scrubbed Haiti from the record. What they needed was a real-world example of emancipation leading to peace and prosperity, as their speculative arguments insisted it would, and this Haiti most definitely was not. William Wilberforce wrote to an ally in 1817 that it would be “better to keep Haiti in the background till it is better able to stand on its own legs”—a delicate way of referring to the country’s total collapse into blood-soaked anarchy. Haiti constituted a massive blow to the empirical (if not the moral) case for abolition. To compound the tragedy, it might well have become everything that Wilberforce and his friends desired, if only Louverture had lived . . .

Read the rest at First Things.