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.
Defenders of slavery in the French sugar colonies did not claim for the system any paternalistic benevolence, the way its defenders in the American south did. The sweltering Caribbean bred no such high-mindedness. The white planters’ case rested on two points, both of them practical. The first was that emancipation would inaugurate a general massacre. The second was that it would be the end of productive agriculture on the islands, the particular needs of sugar cultivation being sadly incompatible with a free labor market. Most abolitionists dismissed the first argument (or, like Brissot, said that it was no more than what slave-drivers deserved) and were indifferent to the second. As Philippe Girard shows in his fine new biography, Louverture accepted the basic validity of both concerns and made it his mission to disprove them, not just in theory but also in practice.
He was, first of all, the only rebel general to whom white families could safely surrender once the Haitian slave revolt began in 1791. The French Revolution had thrown the island into a state of political uncertainty, but uncertainty did not teeter into chaos for two years. The initial conflict was a three-way fight between royalists and republicans among the white population (40,000) and the free mulattos or gens de couleur (35,000), some of whom were already aiming at independence. Each faction threatened to raise the slaves (460,000) against their enemies, but no one was reckless enough to do it until a 28-year-old Jacobin named Sonthonax arrived from France with orders to establish himself as commissioner in the name of the National Assembly. (“I am white but I have the soul of a black man,” Sonthonax once told Louverture.) He distributed arms to the slaves, with the predictable result that the war degenerated into a savage guerilla free-for-all. General Louverture was one of the few exceptions. He kept his troops drilled and disciplined, even as success inundated him with new recruits. It was known by all that when Louverture offered terms of surrender or safe conduct, he kept his promises and could make his men keep them, too.
His labor policy was more remarkable still, for this great champion of emancipation, when he established himself as governor, reintroduced slavery in all but name. Toussaint had read Abbé Raynal’s history of the West Indies and he knew that the reason Saint-Domingue was wealthy and important was sugar. There are two facts of sugar cultivation that cannot be avoided. The first is its economies of scale—nothing smaller than a plantation is sustainable. The second is that the full growing cycle takes more than a year, and several points of the process are extremely time-sensitive. A single lost day at the wrong time can ruin an entire crop. The planters therefore demanded a guarantee of labor supply over the long term, enforceable by compulsion if necessary. This Louverture gave them.
The labor regulations he issued in October 1800 required all former slaves to return to their plantations, on penalty of being shot like deserting soldiers. He also forbade them from relocating without permission. Chains and the whip were banned, but other forms of physical coercion were widespread. Later, Louverture banned the sale of plots under 160 acres, to prevent freedmen from following their instinct to revert to small-scale subsistence farming, which would (and, after his death, did) reduce the Haitian economy to a nullity. Louverture could not afford the disappearance of his country’s tax base, and devoting the best sugar-farming land in the world to subsistence plots would have been the agricultural equivalent of building a McDonald’s on top of the Kimberly mine. More important, prosperity would set a precedent. As Louverture explained to a crowd of field laborers who had grown restive under his labor code, “We would prove to the entire universe that Saint Domingue could recover all its riches with the work of free hands.”
* * * * *
Accepting the validity of the planters’ two worries, massacre and poverty, is more than most modern historians can bring themselves to do. Unlike Louverture, they have portrayed subsistence farming as a legitimate—even a more ecologically benign—alternative to commercial agriculture, rather than as the economic calamity it was. They describe the invasion of Haiti by English, Spanish, and Napoleonic forces as a racist conspiracy to throttle the world’s first black republic, not as the natural consequence of being a small and valuable island with no means of supporting a permanent army (this is the point of belonging to an empire). They claim that reports of rebel barbarism are overblown (Laurent Dubois has said this repeatedly), although historian Jeremy Popkin has found that many eyewitness accounts “are corroborated by other documents.” These accounts record, among other atrocities, human heads hanging from trees, churches turned into rape dungeons, and babies impaled on pikes used as battle standards.
The worst offender is C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian Marxist whose leftist classic The Black Jacobins is well-researched and well-beloved but still false for all that. He asserts, for instance, that the reason Louverture’s successor Dessalines exterminated Haiti’s remnant white population in 1804 was that a British agent named Hugh Cathcart told him he could have a trade deal “only when the last of the whites had fallen under the axe.” Anti-French feeling did not run quite that high even under Pitt. Records show that Cathcart actually told Dessalines that Britain wanted to see the émigré planters’ property restored. In his three-act play Toussaint Louverture, performed in 1936 with Paul Robeson in the starring role, James outrageously has him die with the cry on his lips, “Oh, Dessalines! Dessalines! You were right after all!” This is the same Dessalines who made a flag for the new republic by ripping the white from the French tricolor, and who made good his metaphor with a genocide.
James’s dogmatic Marxism and indifference to white suffering (“for these there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink”) add up to Black Jacobins’ wicked thesis that the Haitian Revolution was inevitable and therefore not a tragedy. “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives,” he wrote—not, one senses, with much regret. This is the version of the Haitian revolution that has made Louverture an object of veneration among trendy neo-Marxists and failed grad students. The hot new socialist quarterly Jacobin has a portrait of Louverture as its logo. Their design editor has explained that he wanted to associate the magazine with the ethic of slave resistance, not just the revolt but also the pre-war period when “slaves had effectively instituted their own policy of poisoning damn-near everything that breathed … master, the mistress and the rest of the f—ing plantation Brady Bunch.” Setting aside its historical accuracy (poisoning was not epidemic), this gleeful embrace of revolutionary violence has nothing to do with Toussaint Louverture. A man who refused to endorse killing civilians in the midst of a guerrilla war should not be a mascot for people who joke about killing them in peacetime.
James also has his theatrical Toussaint character take part in a vodou ceremony during which the houngan symbolically rips a crucifix from a chain around his neck and throws it away, the most false image of any in the play since the real Louverture was renowned for his Catholic piety. On his old plantation’s 152-person slave register, he was the only one described as “devout.” As governor general, he insisted that his subordinates make honest wives of their concubines, made Catholicism the official religion, forbade divorce, and on one occasion placed his handkerchief on a woman’s décolletage, telling her, “Modesty should be the endowment of your sex.” Even after he cast his lot with the Jacobin regime, he would celebrate military victories with a Te Deum. And, of course, there is no better proof of his moral greatness than his magnanimity toward the planters—not just personally but as a policy enforced throughout his command—when vengefulness was so common and easily indulged.
Philippe Girard records all this because he is a more scrupulous historian than James was. Indeed, he is just the sort of even-handed writer to tell a fraught story like Haiti’s fairly. He is also impressively up to date in the latest scholarship, which is more important than you might think for a biographer whose subject died over two centuries ago. It was only in 1977 that archivists discovered that, as a free man, Toussaint had owned slaves. If Girard has any weakness, it is a susceptibility to modern liberal clichés. For instance, he blames the first generation of Haitian leaders for not doing more to build the country’s industrial base, when they had enough trouble managing basic tasks like keeping roads from being swallowed up by jungle. On the other hand, his narrative of Louverture’s tragic end—lured across the Atlantic by Napoleon and then locked away to die in a stone fortress in the Jura without so much as a trial—is told with more pathos than the average academic historian could manage.
Girard hammers again and again his theme that Louverture was enigmatic, contradictory, hard to “pin down” or “make sense of.” It is true that the documentary material about his life is thin, not an uncommon obstacle in the Caribbean, a rough climate for print archives even in countries that haven’t spent two centuries mired in anarchy. But Louverture was clear and consistent in his principles. He wanted freedom and prosperity for the people of Saint-Domingue, and to deliver them in an honorable and Christian way. These goals he never altered or renounced. Contra James, he did not die shouting that Dessalines had been vindicated. He died asserting his right, as a French officer, to wear a uniform instead of prison fatigues. Louverture held many views modern progressives find hard to endorse: his loyalty to the empire, his defense of the plantation system, his willingness to forgive former slaveowners. But if we cannot reconcile those beliefs with his status as a hero and a liberator, the deficiency lies with us and not with the nearest thing the Age of Revolutions produced to a saint.