Specter of the Haitian Revolution

Before August passes too far into the past, it is worth noting that last month was the 220th anniversary of the beginning of the Haitian Revolution on August 21, 1791. On that date, the slaves in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue rose up in a bloody slave revolt turned revolution that ended in 1804 with the emergence of an independent Haiti ruled by an African-descended elite.

Haiti’s revolution is significant not only because it was the sole major slave revolt to succeed in the history of African slavery in the Americas, but also because of its considerable influence on slavery in the United States. The events in Haiti, along with the rise of King Cotton, reinvigorated slavery in the American South. The accounts of thousands of whites massacred on Saint Domingue, bolstered by slave conspiracies in the 19th-century South, especially Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831, convinced many white Southerners that freed slaves would turn on their owners and other whites in an orgy of barbaric vengeance and hence must be kept enslaved to prevent bloody anarchy. Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, eloquently expressed this dilemma in 1820 when he wrote of the slaves “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

So white Southerners were afraid of their slaves, but feared emancipation even more. Which helps explain their vehemence in resisting even the slightest threat to peculiar institution’s survival and the final decision for secession. Abraham Lincoln’s election in the minds of many slaveholders brought the specter of Saint Domingue so close that safety only seemed possible by secession to preserve the institution that kept the slaves in check.

As blood and treasure though increasingly were expended in the American Civil War, more white Americans in the North warmed to the idea of emancipation, but like white Southerners still feared the consequences. Their fear can be described in a question asked in the New York Times on September 6, 1861–to wit, “What Shall be Done with the Slaves?” The question came from a letter to the paper from J. B. Lyon of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Lyon wrote:

A correspondent asks (in good faith) what shall be done with the slaves of our Southern States, if they are suddenly emancipated? He says that a great many would be in favor of that course if they knew what to do with them. As the difficulties of war gather before us, I also hear that question asked by very many who see in emancipation the only chance of peace and permanent union. But to let loose on those whom we so lately called “our Southern brethren” a repetition of “the horrors of St. Domingo,” is what none of us feel disposed to do. We feel no disposition to surrender our own race to the knife, to the lust and cupidity of African barbarism. You see we don’t know any better than to imagine that emancipation would result in the utter extinction of civilization in the South, because the slaveholders, and those in their interest, have persistently for a half-century told us that such would be the effect of making the negroes free; and they always instance the “horrors of St. Domingo” to show the inevitable result of emancipation.

Lyon did not share these fears seeing the British emancipation of its Caribbean slaves in the 1830s as proof the process could be peaceful. He wrote:

On the 1st of August, 1834, 800,000 slaves were set free in the British West Indies by act of Parliament. They were much more numerous than the whites.  .  .  . They had no houses, no lands, no property of any kind, except the miserable rags in which they were clothed when they became free; no education — but were as entirely imbued with the barbarism of chattlehood, as the four millions of our Southern slaves are.

Now, the result is, they have not revolted, nor made any insurrection; they have acquired a large amount of property — $11,000,000 in the Island of Jamaica alone — they are educating their children; many of the school teachers, and magistrates, and members of the Colonial Assembly, are colored men. The British Government and people consider them peaceable and valuable subjects of the British empire. The experience of the British Government has taught us that the best thing to do with emancipated slaves was to let them alone.

Increasingly, over the rest of 1861 and 1862, more and more white Northerners would adopt a position similar to the J. B. Lyon. That is, for the Civil War to have a proper resolution and to prevent a similar conflict in the future, slavery had to end. Still, for many of these people, the specter of Haiti would stay powerful and do much to explain the sentiment in the North that colonization of freed slaves abroad must accompany emancipation. Abraham Lincoln himself promoted the idea of colonization during the Civil War, skeptical that whites and freed blacks peacefully could live together. Lincoln and colonization will be dealt with in future issues of Civil War Emancipation.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1861/09/06/news/what-shall-be-done-with-the-slaves.html

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to Specter of the Haitian Revolution

  1. Daniel O'Sullivan says:

    Nicely timed. This morning when your post came, I was preparing a qualifying exam question for my phd that deals with globalizing the teaching of U.S. chattel slavery. Thanks for the nudge in the right direction!

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