A Second Haitian Revolution: John Brown, Toussaint Louverture, and the Making of the American Civil War

Article excerpt

"One of the most extraordinary men of a time when so many extraordinary men appeared." (1) The French historian Alphonse Beauchamp, who wrote these words in the Universal Biography at the opening of the nineteenth century as a series of democratic revolutions in Europe and throughout the Americas came to an end, did not intend them for George Washington, the Virginia planter who led Britain's thirteen North American colonies to independence. Nor did he intend them for Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican soldier who brought order out of the chaos of the French Revolution and conquered Europe, or Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan aristocrat who ended Spanish rule throughout much of Latin America. They referred instead to Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the black general and former bondman who led an army of rebel slaves to victory over their former masters as well as the armies of France, England, and Spain at the end of the eighteenth century in the Saint-Domingue or Haitian Revolution. (2) It may come as a revelation that Beauchamp was not alone in his assessment. While today it is difficult to find people who revere the black slaves who centuries ago killed whites to be free, in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, men and women throughout the Atlantic world celebrated Louverture as a Great Man, a slave who compared favorably to other Great Men of the Age of Revolution.

Americans in the new republic resisted this enlightened interpretation of history. Louverture's greatness conflicted with their collective memory of the Haitian Revolution. They remembered that the slave revolt that began in 1791 in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue led to thirteen years of bloodshed between nearly a half-million black slaves; tens of thousands of mulattoes; and French, English, and Spanish colonists and soldiers--that when the revolution came to an end in 1804, black leaders declared national independence, gave their new nation the name used by the island's indigenous Taino inhabitants, Haiti, and ordered the massacre of nearly every white man, woman, and child remaining in the territory. The events in Haiti had a profound impact on the American mind; they were a constant reminder of the possible outcome of any society built on the bedrock of slavery. It should come as no surprise, then, that in the 1850s when the sectional conflict between northerners and southerners grew violent and war over slavery seemed imminent, public memory of the Haitian Revolution surged. In public speeches and printed texts, southern secessionists and northern unionists conjured disturbing images of the horrors of St. Domingo in an effort to secure public policy committed to maintaining the status quo regarding the institution of slavery. Both groups warned that with the end of slavery the United States would experience a racial apocalypse like that which took place in Haiti a half century before.

African Americans and their radical white allies put the memory of the Haitian Revolution to a different use. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, they joined the transatlantic commemoration of Louverture and in lectures, books, articles, pamphlets, and illustrations offered him to an American audience as a symbol of the virtue and potential of the black race. In addition to challenging the widespread belief in white supremacy, these abolitionists placed great emphasis on Louverture's character for another reason: to calm widespread fears of slave insurrection. By stressing his compassion and integrity at the expense of his militancy, abolitionists tried to soften the rock hard image of this indomitable black warrior. The strategy worked, for Louverture remained an antislavery icon among even the most conservative social reformers decades after his death. The convergence of European and American abolitionism around the memory of Haiti's preeminent founding father proved resilient. It was, however, only temporary.

An analysis of abolitionist oral, print, and visual culture reveals that in the decade before the Civil War, African Americans and their radical white allies transformed Louverture into a symbol of black masculinity and violence, which they deployed to bring about the destruction of the status quo. …