Excerpts from:
The Haitian Revolution and the Forging of America *

DURING THE NIGHT of August 22, 1791 , a wave of fire engulfed the French West Indies colony of St. Domingue (present-day Haiti), as hundreds of thousands of slaves set fire to plantations, torched cities, and massacred a terrified white population. The slave rebellion that started that night--the most successful slave rebellion in history-- lasted 12 long years. It culminated in the founding of the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere and its first black-governed republic. But more than this, the Haitian Revolution was a turning point in history, the repercussions of which extended far beyond the small island nation. Perhaps nowhere was its impact greater than in the United States, where Haiti's slave revolt figured directly in two of the most significant events in United States history: the Louisiana Purchase and the American Civil War.

The course of the slave rebellion begun in fire on the night of August 22, 1791, was long and tortuous. In the process of achieving independence, the slaves fought and defeated, in turn, the local white planters and troops of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expeditionary force, and, in the end, the supposedly invincible army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Instrumental in the Revolution's success was one man-- Toussaint Louverture, a former Creole slave, regarded by some as a savior and by others as a calculating dictator. In 1793, he took charge of the poorly-organized slaves and molded them into an efficient, disciplined fighting unit known for its guerrilla attacks. It was Toussaint's leadership that steered the revolution through years of savage fighting in a three way racial war between whites, blacks, and mulattos. In 1796, he became St. Domingue's governor general. Through a shrewd mixture of statecraft and diplomacy, he began to rebuild his battered, war-ravaged country, eventually negotiating trade alliances with the British and the United States.

The historical impact of the Haitian Revolution would extend far beyond the small Caribbean island. Without control of the crown jewel of its planned empire, France saw the Louisiana territory as a useless drain on its resources. Needing money for his renewed war with England, Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana territory to the United States on April 30, 1803, for about four cents an acre. With this abrupt act, France removed itself as a power in the Western Hemisphere.

For the United States, the Louisiana Purchase was a turning point the historical importance of which has been ranked "next to the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution." This single acquisition doubled the nation's size, making it formidable enough to withstand almost any outside threat. It gave the country its heartland, as well as control of the Mississippi.

ln a broader sense, the Purchase fundamentally transformed the way Americans thought about themselves. The vast open spaces of the Louisiana territory drew immigrants from all over Europe, changing the character of the nation by increasing its social diversity. The push to settle this new territory shifted the eyes of the country westward, making further expansion almost inevitable and giving birth, if not to the term, at least to the forces behind "manifest destiny"--the idea that the United States had both a right and a duty to own and settle the entire continent. Before the Louisiana annexation, Americans "in many ways still had a colonial attitude; they still looked to England and to France." With the acquisition the Louisiana territory, their focus shifted to their own continent. "[F]or the first time, Americans became Americans as we know them, people with a continental view.”

* Jim Thomson | The Haitian Revolution and the Forging of America.

Top of page

 

Site Contents: Adjoa Gzifa & Eileen Flanagan.
Site Design: Delwar Sayeed. Center for Teaching and Learning.