As American as the Haitian Revolution

Anthony Meucci. ​​​<em>Pierre Toussaint</em> <em>(ca. 1781-1853)</em>​, ca. 1825​.​ New-York Historical Society.
Anthony Meucci. ​​​Pierre Toussaint (ca. 1781-1853)​, ca. 1825​.​ New-York Historical Society.

The political culture of the United States, and indeed the world, has been in an uproar over reports that Haitians have been declared undesirable immigrants to this country by American elected officials, including the president.

Are the Haitian people truly incompatible with the ideas, and ideals, of the United States?

Upon reading these reports, my thoughts went back to November 2011, when the New-York Historical Society opened an exhibition about the three 18th-century political upheavals out of which the modern Atlantic world was “reborn.” The stories of two of these revolutions—in the United States and France—are part of the popular culture. The history of the third—in Haiti—was virtually unknown to our visitors.

And yet, as our exhibition argued, it was the Haitian revolution—as much, if not more than the American and French revolutions—that inspired the ideals of liberty and equality that we now value. It was the complex and diverse black Haitian population—victorious in the only successful slave revolt in history—that helped encourage the cause of freedom in the United States. Images and descriptions of the revolution in Haiti made slavery, for many Americans, intellectually incompatible with notions of modern progress.

Again and again, as our exhibition showed, the opponents of the Haitian Revolution, using the fiercest of methods, sought to divert the St.-Dominguan people from self-determination. (In 1804, when General Dessalines declared independence from France, he chose Haiti, an old Amerindian name, to denominate the island formerly known as St. Domingue.) The last and harshest of these measures came in 1802 with Napoleon’s disastrous launching of a French expeditionary force under his brother-in-law LeClerc to reconquer St.-Domingue and re-establish slavery. Within a year the French had been defeated—in part by yellow fever, in part by the betrayal of black generals, but in large measure by the indomitable resistance of the black populace.

The birth of the Haitian nation, our exhibition showed, marked the concluding phase of one era of colonialism—the link of plantation agriculture, maritime commerce, and African slavery that had begun with Columbus’s establishment of Spanish authority on Hispaniola three centuries earlier. But it also had the most profound consequences for our own United States. As a result of the success of the Haitian revolution, Napoleon abandoned his dream of a lucrative New World empire and sold Louisiana to the U.S. For the United States, the Louisiana Purchase was momentous: It signaled both the likely expansion of slave-holding into new territories and the emergence of the United States as a continental power. The area purchased in 1803 would, in the end, turn out to be the contested ground between free and slave states in the 1840s and 1850s.

Thomas Jefferson’s administration quarantined the new nation of Haiti. For the United States, or at least for the Republicans and later the Democrats who held power for most of the next six decades, fear of the contagion of slave revolt outweighed hopes for the spread of Haiti’s revolutionary ideals. Only in 1863 was it possible for the Lincoln administration, acting after Southerners had seceded from the Union, to recognize the Haitian government officially.

In the wake of the Haitian revolution, the world looked very different. Here, in New York, the city’s demographic mix came to include an early Haitian community, as slave owners came to escape the island’s unrest and brought enslaved workers with them. (Slavery did not end in New York until 1827.) Some members of that community emerged as significant players in the city’s cultural and economic scene. Pierre Toussaint was brought to the city by a Haitian slave-owning family. He became a storied hairdresser in New York, so successful that he was able to purchase his freedom, as well as the freedom of other enslaved Haitian New Yorkers. Toussaint’s portrait (above), together with the portraits of his wife and his niece, are in the collection of the New-York Historical Society and were on view in our exhibition.

The New-York Historical Society itself was reborn in 2011, following a major renovation of our building, which was one of the reasons why we felt compelled that year to tell the story of the Haitian revolution. I wish we could tell it again today. Understanding the Haitian revolution as central to our own U.S. history, and to the rebirth of the 18th-century’s world order, might give us a more balanced image of Haiti, and of the descendants of those people who fought for our American ideals.

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