Revolutions Outrun Men (From the Archive)

At the close of the 18th century, French Republican power was upheld in San Domingo. The English had evacuated, and Toussaint L’Ouverture had seized the first peace after the Revolution to build state power, restore cultivation, and train his army...

At the close of the 18th century, French Republican power was upheld in San Domingo. The English had evacuated, and Toussaint L’Ouverture had seized the first peace after the Revolution to build state power, restore cultivation, and train his army. Across the Atlantic, however, storms gathered. In the same year that the British retreated from the colony, a coup brought Napoleon to power. Napoleon, in his own right, sought to consolidate power and seize the initiatives of ancien regime France. Bonaparte, through one of these initiatives, reasserted mainland control of the colony of San Domingo and decreed that the colony be given a new constitution, enshrining “special laws”. While he gave assurances that his new law would not include slavery, his advisors were a body of slave-owner emigrés and personal enemies of Toussaint. When Toussaint preempted him with his own constitution of 1800, Bonaparte amassed his veteran forces, freed by the collapse of the second coalition, and prepared his deputy Leclerc to retake the island.

Toussaint’s constitution declared himself Governor-General for life, with extraordinary powers over the entire island; he abolished slavery forever, and upheld the association with France and the Roman Catholic Church. The greatest ambition of this great man was to keep personal control of the island _and_ the vital connection to France: to keep his people free but draw on France’s greater economic and cultural resources. Toussaint knew that independence meant a collapse of large-scale agriculture, a return to the drudgery of subsistence farming, and that such an economy could not support a state strong enough to fend off empires.

Napoleon’s excursion to reconquer the island made this an impossible position, but Toussaint stayed his course in the hope of a military victory allowing him to dictate terms: to pull off a diplomatic coup, not a revolutionary one.   In some provinces, the soldiers of San Domingo followed Toussaint’s plan to burn the coast and retire to the interior, and wait for fever to do the rest. In others, this communication failed: Toussaint’s own brother Paul was convinced to join the Expedition by a false letter delivered to him. By prizing his own aims over the revolution’s, Toussaint failed to educate the masses or his own army about the  French’s real intentions. Without that vital, deadly knowledge, many were susceptible to French subversion: we are both fighting for France, for freedom, so why are we killing each other? The island had been at war for 11 years, and the prospect of peace could not have failed to appeal. To make matters more complicated, the forces of the French were made up of Revolutionary veterans, unaware of the imperial policy they’d been assigned: the generation who defied Europe for liberté, egalité, fraternité were not willing pawns of a renewed tyranny.

In spite of setbacks, defections and brutal fighting, Toussaint’s forces gained an upper hand. May brought the rainy season, promising to bring the ravages of yellow fever to the French. To spare his men, Leclerc sued for a diplomatic end.  Toussaint L’Ouverture rode into a parley at Cap-Française and retired to his plantation with full honors. Having defeated an English army and well on his way to defeating a French one, he laid down his sword in the name of peace. Within the month, he would be betrayed and deported to France. Within the year, Toussaint L’Ouverture would be dead in a French mountain prison, and French rule of San Domingo would be bleeding towards its horrible and violent death.

While Toussaint strove to establish a state, the revolutionary prerogative passed him by. A lesser man, without Toussaint’s grand vision to blind him, would seize that fateful mantle soon enough.