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Of Human Bondage | The Nation

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Of Human Bondage

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These conclusions are more controversial than you might suppose. Some historians think the liberation in Haiti was so bloody and chaotic, and the results so tarnished, that it actually set back a true and deliberate emancipation by several decades. But Dubois's reasoning is compelling. The slavery of this epoch was buttressed by the sacredness of private property and derogatory concepts of race. Planters were well represented in ruling institutions throughout the Atlantic world. Their power was based on guns, cutlasses and whips as well as racial fears, money and political contacts. They would not be swayed simply by appeals to their better nature, nor would they yield without a struggle. Slavery could be successfully challenged only when there was a profound crisis, usually triggered by war, revolution and slave revolt, capable of neutralizing these powerful supports of the slave system. In 1790 there were 450,000 slaves in Saint Domingue, 700,000 in the United States. The awesome scale of the events in Saint Domingue instilled a sort of permanent panic in the minds of slave-owners, leading them to redouble their security and to reach out to potential allies.

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Robin Blackburn
Robin Blackburn, distinguished visiting professor at the New School for Social Research and former editor of New Left...

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The liberation in Saint Domingue showed that the slave order was highly vulnerable in plantation colonies, where 80 percent of the population was enslaved. British and French West Indian planters were to accept emancipation--with compensation and continuing title to their landed property--partly because they remembered Haiti. Where slaves were not a majority--the United States, Cuba and Brazil--slaveowners had hope so long as they could count on the support of the state and the great majority of free citizens. In Brazil and Cuba the planters cleaved loyally to monarchy. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson's anti-Federalist campaign and "revolution of 1800" can be seen as a bold response to the plumes of smoke rising from the plantations in Saint Domingue. Democratic Republicanism offered enhanced rights and status to white citizens and, in so doing, helped to build what Alexander Saxton has called the White Republic, itself a recycling of the compact of "American slavery and American freedom" that Edmund Morgan has identified as a hallmark of the colonial period. Though not socially radical, the revolution of 1800 was the first time in history that all free men voted and that a partisan clash led to a change of government. Before this the gentry in each section had given leadership to the people of their own colony or state but not embroiled themselves in the popular politics of other regions. Ignoring this unwritten rule, Jefferson appealed directly to the discontented in New York and Pennsylvania, and in so doing helped to construct a barrier to sectional strife. Jefferson never uttered the word slavery, but Southern Bourbons, like Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, knew that the slaveholder was their man. The risk was that the newly enfranchised might not be long-term friends of slavery; the insurance was that, according to the Jeffersonian doctrine, each state had a right to nullify federal laws they found inimical.

In registering the impact the smoldering plantations of Saint Domingue had on North America, we should remember that many refugee planters, with their slave retinues, sought haven in Philadelphia and New York. The belated phasing out of slavery in New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804)--freeing the children born to slave mothers when they reached adulthood--discouraged such unwelcome guests in those states. In 1807, in a further prudential step, both Britain and the United States ended legal participation in the Atlantic slave trade. The formula of the white man's republic was quite compatible with setting limits on slavery and the slave trade, just as it was with establishing a cordon sanitaire around Haiti.

While new compromises secured an extra term for slavery in the Americas, the institution was still haunted by what had happened in Saint Domingue. Toussaint L'Ouverture's epic struggle inspired anti-slavery agitators like William Lloyd Garrison. The very existence of Haiti emboldened African-Americans to reach for freedom, as Frederick Douglass testified.

Understanding of the Haitian Revolution is not enhanced by the seductive and romantic notion that slaves were bound to rebel, bound to champion a general emancipation and bound to triumph. Resistance has been ubiquitous in slave systems, but it has usually been particularistic--freedom for a given person or group--and often frustrated. In fact, the Haitian Revolution is the only successful large-scale slave revolt known to history.

We should also bear in mind that the slavery encountered in Saint Domingue and throughout the New World had been invented by planters and colonial officials, using European legal notions. Much slave resistance in Saint Domingue in the 1790s took the form of a demand for three free days a week (instead of one), or the right to choose one's overseer. While some freed themselves simply by running away, others remained, unwilling to leave provision grounds that they saw as rightfully theirs. Only those of African descent were enslaved, but the racial logic was complicated by the fact that free colored masters owned about a quarter of the slaves in the French colony. The colored proprietors, unlike the whites, lived in the colony. While born a slave, L'Ouverture had been a freedman and slaveowner. He was to sympathize with the planters' desire for an obedient labor force.

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