Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution


At the end of the eighteenth century, a massive slave revolt rocked French Saint Domingue, the most profitable European colony in the Americas. Under the leadership of the charismatic former slave François Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a disciplined and determined republican army, consisting almost entirely of rebel slaves, defeated all of its rivals and restored peace to the embattled territory. The slave uprising that we now refer to as the Haitian Revolution concluded on January 1, 1804, with the establishment of Haiti, the first "black republic" in the Western Hemisphere.

The Haitian Revolution cast a long shadow over the Atlantic world. In the United States, according to Matthew J. Clavin, there emerged two competing narratives that vied for the revolution's legacy. One emphasized vengeful African slaves committing unspeakable acts of violence against white men, women, and children. The other was the story of an enslaved people who, under the leadership of Louverture, vanquished their oppressors in an effort to eradicate slavery and build a new nation.

Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War examines the significance of these competing narratives in American society on the eve of and during the Civil War. Clavin argues that, at the height of the longstanding conflict between North and South, Louverture and the Haitian Revolution were resonant, polarizing symbols, which antislavery and proslavery groups exploited both to provoke a violent confrontation and to determine the fate of slavery in the United States. In public orations and printed texts, African Americans and their white allies insisted that the Civil War was a second Haitian Revolution, a bloody conflict in which thousands of armed bondmen, "American Toussaints," would redeem the republic by securing the abolition of slavery and proving the equality of the black race. Southern secessionists and northern anti-abolitionists responded by launching a cultural counterrevolution to prevent a second Haitian Revolution from taking place.


“The role which the great Negro Toussaint, called L’Ouverture, played
in the history of the United States has seldom been fully appreciated.”

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade
to the United States of America
, 1638–1870

ON 18 MARCH 1862, as the first year of the American Civil War drew to a close, New England abolitionist Wendell Phillips entered the lecture hall of the Smithsonian Institution, the largest auditorium in Washington, D.C., and before a capacity crowd of some two thousand spectators delivered an oration entitled, “Toussaint L’Ouverture.” In the lengthy address, Phillips recounted the incredible story of one of the central figures of the Haitian Revolution, a massive slave insurrection that began at the close of the eighteenth century when bondpeople in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue revolted and embarked on a war of attrition with their former white masters as well as the armies of France, England, and Spain. It was “a chapter of bloody history,” Phillips began, “a war of races and a war of nations.” Louverture was a fifty-year-old slave of African descent, a literate coachman and “village doctor” who at the start of the insurrection secured the safe passage of his master and mistress to the United States. But he soon joined the rebellion and promptly rose to command a massive army of rebel slaves that for nearly a decade defeated all its rivals. French officials ultimately arrested the “General-in-Chief” and sent him to die in a cold French prison before he could see the results of his hard-fought military victories—the permanent abolition . . .

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