To Attempt the Impossible

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

As 1797 dawned, Toussaint Louverture was arguably the most powerful man in Saint Domingue. But though he may have been the most powerful man, that did not make him the only powerful man. His influence did not extend into territory held by his ally, André Rigaud, nor to territory held by his enemy, the British. And then, even in the North Province, where Toussaint did wield enormous influence, there was still a check to his total authority in the form of Sonthonax. But Toussaint did have the most troops. He controlled all the best property, both the rich Northern Plains and the slowly rebuilding city of Le Cap. So in a complicated game of politics played out from the fields of Saint Domingue to the halls of the Directory in Paris, Toussaint grabbed opportunities when they arose to make himself not just the most powerful man, but the only powerful man in Saint Domingue. 

Now, there is no doubt that for the moment Third Commissioner Sonthonax was the biggest obstacle now standing in front of Toussaint. Toussaint had successfully engineered the Commissioner’s election to the Council of Five Hundred. But when Sonthonax said, “No, I’m going to stay and maybe I’ll go home in the spring”, Toussaint must have been annoyed, but he could not press the issue. Sonthonax was a living symbol of black liberation and that had to be tread lightly around. Not all blacks were excited to be returning to the plantations under all these labor codes. And all through 1796, armed revolts had popped up from time to time and Toussaint had to rush in to stop them from spreading. And he did not miss that some of these insurgents chanted “Long live Sonthonax!” as they took up arms. So for Toussaint, getting rid of the emancipator was going to be a tricky business. Misplay it and the blacks might rise up against him. 

But though Sonthonax remained, he was the only French emissary Toussaint had to worry about. Lavaux had gone back to France to take up his seat in the Council of Five Hundred. Third Commissioner Philippe Roume remained in Santo Domingo, overseeing the transfer of Spanish authority. Though, just so you know, the Spanish are really dragging their feet about this and the French don’t really have the forces to compel them to do anything for the moment. The other two commissioners, who never did anything, went home without having ever done anything. So, of the five members of the Third Commission, only Julien Raimond and Sonthonax remained. And Raimond had decided firmly that Toussaint was the future of Saint Domingue. Whatever sympathy he may have had for André Rigaud never had much of a chance to express itself. Raimond was in the north, under Toussaint’s military auspices, and he was currently taking advantage, along with Toussaint’s officers, of all these land auctions. So Raimond was not a threat to Toussaint’s authority and was, in fact, now a staunch ally. 

Meanwhile, the rapid fire spins of the French Revolution presented Toussaint with both a mortal threat to all that he was trying to accomplish and a golden opportunity to get rid of Sonthonax and see the project through to completion. We are now at Episode 3.46 of The French Revolution. The first round of elections for the open seats in the legislative councils of the Directory are about to unfold in March and April 1797. And as you may recall, this election turned out to be a crushing defeat for the old Thermidorians and a great victory for a new breed of conservative reactionary. Coming into the Council of Five Hundred, amidst this conservative sweep were a number of prominent colonial landowners – the old big whites, who were absolutely set on reversing the course of liberty and equality in Saint Domingue and restoring the rightful order of things: white supremacy and slavery. 

After taking up their seats in the Council of Five Hundred, these guys wasted little time. And in May and June 1797, a succession of colonial planters rose to denounce the state of Saint Domingue, putting the blame for everything on, first, racial equality and then slave emancipation. These men painted a vivid portrait of a once lucrative colony in ruin. Where once thriving industrialized plantations had pumped out the sugar and coffee that made the whole world go round, there are now stood burnt out plantations overgrown with weeds, tended by indolent blacks who just lay around. Fields were being planted with rudimentary tools and then ill tended thereafter. The city of Le Cap was a burnt out husk of its former self. The colony would never be what it was and what France needed it to be until the crimes of equality and emancipation were avenged. These planters called for a military force to go back to Saint Domingue and put things back the way they should be. And they even got so far ahead of themselves that they demanded the Republic cover the planters costs as they rebuilt their slave plantations. 

These planter delegates also took steps to ensure that there was no voice in the Council of Five Hundred to oppose their picture of Saint Domingue. As the Legislative Councils of the Directory convened, the planters’ interest challenged the credentials of the representatives from the colony, preventing Dufay and Belley and Lavaux from taking up their seats. So there was no one directly connected to the colony who could stand up and defend everything that had happened since emancipation. 

Now, the Directory was not 100% moved by these speeches, but they were not deaf to them either. And part of it had to do with the changing international picture, because where we are at in the revolutionary wars is that General Bonaparte has just beaten the Austrians and imposed the Leoben preliminaries. If this last foreign enemy was really removed, sending an army to Saint Domingue to reassert the old colonial order was not totally out of the question. Nor, given the state of the Directory’s finances, was the prospect of a productive Saint Domingue pumping out sugar and coffee again, odious to the directors. The reactionary planters managed to score one early victory when they pinned everything on Sonthonax and his radical ilk. And in June, they induced the Council of Five Hundred to recall the Third Commission. With a new political climate in Paris, Sonthonax was going to have to come home and defend himself all over again. 

Now, the reactionary planters in the Council of Five Hundred weren’t totally right in the picture that they painted of Saint Domingue in the spring of 1797, but they weren’t totally wrong either. There is no doubt that the cash crop export economy of Saint Domingue had fallen off a cliff after 1791, when everything had been consumed by fire and civil war. It was also becoming clear that the plantations that were restarting were never going to be as productive as they had once been. Men like Toussaint and Sonthonax and the now departed Lavaux believed that they could bring the plantations back to life by creating a system of shared prosperity. And Toussaint in particular urged returning white and colored plantation owners that fostering the love of the cultivators would be more productive than the fear that they had fostered in their old slaves. But at the moment, Saint Domingue was in a vicious economic cycle that prevented this dream from becoming a reality. The colony had always been so focused on sugar, coffee and indigo that Saint Domingue had never been self- sufficient. It relied on imported foods and supplies to live. Imports paid for with the profits of the exports, but with exports nowhere to be found, the imports dried up. 

The other problem is that as much as Toussaint encouraged the rebuilding of destroyed plantations, there was only so much that could be done. All the heavy machinery and special equipment to produce all the really good refined sugar could not just be built from scratch. It had to be crafted and forged, and a lot of it had been built back in France. Who was going to pay for all that or wait for it to show up? 

Anxious new cultivators were more worried about whether they would have enough to eat that night than Toussaint’s long term vision for the future. And many turned away from plantation work to continue raising their own crops. Many also decamped to the mountains to live in peaceful maroon communities, if they could even be called maroons anymore. Focused on the immediate needs of self-sufficiency, these communities cleared parts of the forest to build homes and plant crops, beginning a process of total deforestation which modern Haiti still reels from. And with corporal punishment now banned, the once omnipresent whip set aside, it was harder to get men and women to perform work they really didn’t want to perform, especially when they were hungry and just wanted to eat. 

Also standing in the way of a reborn economy was something we talked about last week, that the life of a cultivator led nowhere. Meanwhile, the life of a soldier had the possibility of advancement. So young men of prime working age wasted no time picking life in the army over life in the fields. Adding up everyone together from across the colony, that is, those serving under Toussaint and Rigaud and the British, something like 25% of the black men in the colony were underarms, as much as 15% of the total population. And as these soldiers continued their lives under arms, they developed the soldier’s habit of taking what they could not make. Cultivators both on plantations and then free blacks living on their own both faced constant harassment and expropriation from the soldiers. And the divide between the military and civilian wings of Haitian cultural life began to grow. 

Sonthonax tried to alleviate some of these structural problems, and he made efforts to erect a civil infrastructure to help bring up the next generation of free citizens into a world where they would not be subject to the whims of the wealthy and powerful. And one subtle new rule forbade the use of the word ‘freedman’ to describe an ex slave. Sonthonax hoped to permanently erase any stigma that came with slavery, even an acknowledgment that it had once been overcome. 

Then Sonthonax and Raimond got started on a program of education reform, though reform isn’t actually a very good word for it. More like education conjured from the ether. The colonial administrators from the very beginning had viewed schools in the colony to be purely seditious institutions, and this is part of the reason why all those prominent colored families had sent their kids back to France for schooling, men like Raimond and Rigaud. There were literally no primary or secondary schools in the colony, and that’s exactly how the Metropole wanted it. So Sonthonax established the first school in Le Cap to serve as a model for what he hoped would be a network of schools that would provide an education for the population. He also wrote back to France begging for teachers and textbooks and resources. But unfortunately, Sonthonax was never able to follow through on the project and schools quickly lost out to the army when it came time to disperse state funds. 

The commissioners also worked to set up legal courts and as many towns and municipalities as they could to try to introduce the rule of law into a colony that had long been governed by little more than brute force. If the cultivators were going to have rights, they needed to have a judicial system they could count on to address their grievances and rectify them. But here, the broader problem of an uneducated population rose its head as Sonthonax struggled to find men who were educated enough to staff these courts. Especially because those who did have an education were drawn from the wealthy planter class, so they could never be trusted to just follow the law where it led them. So the reach of and the population’s faith in these new courts was limited, to say the least. 

Through this period, the winter and spring of 1797, Toussaint and Sonthonax worked in harmony with each other publicly and even privately seemed to get along okay, though Sonthonax did keep requesting that Toussaint demobilized some of his soldiers to get those young men back to work. And Toussaint kept dragging his feet because, yeah, that’s not going to happen. It was clear to everyone that military might was still the key to power in Saint Domingue and Toussaint was not just going to disband the center column of his own support. Sonthonax was also persistently angry about the generous welcome Toussaint kept giving to returning white planters. Many of those guys had fled the colony specifically because they were mortal enemies of the Second Commission. So Sonthonax was not at all pleased when Toussaint welcomed these guys back as if nothing had ever happened. But Toussaint and Sonthonax did share some broad principles and really neither could afford to alienate the other. 

Then, in mid-summer 1797, the text of one of the speeches made by the reactionary planters in the Council of Five Hundred made its way back to Saint Domingue. And Toussaint started formulating a plan to both hold off reactionary attempts to undo all that he was working for and solidify his position as the sole leader of Saint Domingue. 

The first thing he did was write a long response to the speech that would be submitted to the Council of Five Hundred. Toussaint issued a point by point rebuttal of the planter arguments. Aside from the obvious point that the free blacks are now the Republic’s military force in the colony, so you want to be very careful about who you try to put back in chains. Toussaint also pointed out that the white property owners were finding life in the colony productive and beneficial. He said that if the white planters really wanted to make money again, they should embrace their free labor force, not continue to alienate them with threats of reimposed slavery. And God help you if you ever try to act on any of those threats. 

The planters in Paris had also made the claim, though, that the blacks were too stupid and vicious to be trusted as free citizens. To which Toussaint said, “Hey, we might be uneducated, but we’re not stupid. So educate us and we’ll be as upright a population of citizens as you’ve ever seen.”As to the vicious part, Toussaint took a pretty delicious swipe at the French. He said, “If the crimes committed by the inhabitants of Saint Domingue precluded their right to be free citizens, then, my God, what about you lot back in Paris?” Toussaint was well briefed on the course of the terror. So if the existence of bloody crime stains us, then it must really super stain you. So what right do any of you have to be free citizens? And this argument in particular is pretty ingenious, because the Thermidorian Republic was all about distancing itself from the terror, burying it all with Robespierre. So if any group was open to the argument that the crimes committed in the heat of revolt and revolution ought not stained the leaders of the present, it was the men who ran the Directory. 

After dispatching this letter, Toussaint also prepared to make a peace offering to the conservatives that would solve a number of problems in one fell swoop. Because there was no one the planters hated more than Sonthonax. And Toussaint could see that as long as Sonthonax represented the new order in Saint Domingue, the hatred of Sonthonax would transfer to hatred of the new order. Emancipation and Sonthonax were just too closely tied. But if Sonthonax could be cut out, Toussaint might be able to make an independent case for following through with liberty and equality. And the amazing thing here is just how prescient Toussaint is in immediately grasping the political situation back in Paris and then using it to his advantage. Because, unbeknownst to everyone in Saint Domingue, in mid-summer 1797, the Council of Five Hundred had just voted to recall Sonthonax, just as Toussaint was getting ready to expel the Commissioner from the colony. 

Now, the details of the expulsion of Sonthonax are obscure. And unfortunately, the best picture we have of what happened came from Toussaint’s later official version, so you kind of take it all with a grain of salt. But here’s what we do. Now, in mid August, Toussaint and a few of his principal generals got together and decided that the time had come to force Sonthonax to take up his position in the Council of Five Hundred. Toussaint also enlisted the aid of Julien Raimond, who agreed to try to convince Sonthonax to leave. To justify the expulsion, Toussaint revealed that Sonthonax had approached him on numerous occasions with a plan to raise the blacks in a new uprising whose principal objective would be to murder all the whites and then declare independence. Now, it’s pretty likely that this is a wild pack of lies concocted by Toussaint, but it did line up with the prejudice against Sonthonax that was growing in the Council of Five Hundred and that was really the only thing that mattered. 

Toussaint and his generals presented a letter to Sonthonax on August 17, 1797, demanding the commissioner vacate the island. Sonthonax stalled for three days. But on August 20, Toussaint grew impatient and apparently fired off some of the heavy guns in Le Cap to jolt Sonthonax to action. There is also a reporting here of a closed door meeting between Toussaint and Sonthonax from which Sonthonax emerged ready to depart the island. The threats made must have been dire and immediate. 

Now, one of the reasons Sonthonax stalled, though, is that he wanted to Toussaint to write a letter of support for Sonthonax that he could take with him back to the Council of Five Hundred. A request to Toussaint refused. And not only did he refuse the request, he did the exact opposite. He wrote another long letter to the Directory denouncing Sonthonax, detailing Sonthonax’s plans to massacre the whites and declare independence. And he said “For these heinous crimes that I have uncovered and as a defender of the French Constitution, I have now expelled him from the island.” So Toussaint has now positioned himself as the ally of the white planter interest in the colony, and then, given the reactionary conservatives back in the Council of Five Hundred, their most hated enemy on a silver platter. And he reinforced the image of Toussaint Louverture as the Republic’s point man in Saint Domingue. There is a genuinely impressive cunning to how Toussaint operated. I mean, here, in this instance, he is not just eliminated arrival, he has simultaneously co-opted his enemy’s position and enhanced his own position with one deft maneuver. So Sonthonax got on board a ship in August 1797 and sailed away from Saint Domingue. And this time, he would never return. 

But by the time Sonthonax and Toussaint’s letter reached Paris, the Directory had already been hit by its most important coup, the Coup of Fructidor , which we also discussed in Episode 3.46. Fructidor was the coup that saw the Directory abandon democratic pretensions and reforge itself as the so-called Second Directory, run by the triumvirate of Barras, Reubell and La Révellière. But the more immediate upshot of the Coup of Fructidor was that among the deputies expelled from the Council of Five Hundred were nearly all the white planters who had just spent the summer railing against liberty and equality. With them out of the picture, the threat of a white conservative attempt to reseize Saint Domingue was temporarily put to bed. And just as they were getting kicked out, the delegates from Saint Domingue had their credentials approved. So now, for example, the men most committed to colonial matters were men like Lavaux, Dufay and Belley, who were never going to argue for anything less than the continuation of liberty and equality. For example, when Lavaux took up his seat, he defended Toussaint to the hilt. He said “Toussaint is the only reason the colony is still French. And I understand that better than all of you because I was actually the principal military officer in the colony and I’m telling you, Toussaint is not the enemy of the Republic.” He also said that Toussaint’s tricolor vision for Saint Domingue was awesome and given the circumstances, an amazingly good deal for white planters specifically and then France generally. I mean, all that’s happened is that these men have lost the right to call black men property. The rest of their property has not been seized. It’s being handed back to anyone who wants to come claim it. If we all get together and embrace this move away from punishment and exploitation and hate towards a future built on reward and shared prosperity and mutual affection, everything is going to be great. 

With the political situation back in France once again altered, that meant that whatever firestorm Sonthonax believed he was about to walk into was already extinguished by the time he got off the boat in October. Sonthonax did defend himself by saying that Toussaint was a tyrant in the making and you can’t trust what he’s telling you, which isn’t totally inaccurate. The charges that Sonthonax was conspiring to kill the whites and make himself governor general of an independent Saint Domingue – that was almost certainly lies. But the Directory had no personal beef with Sonthonax or the job he had done and they declined to pursue any punitive measures against him. But this does mark the end for Sonthonax in our story and he gets the rare peaceful ending to a revolutionary career. He retired from public life back to his hometown and there lived happily and in comfort for 16 more years before dying in July 1813. 

Outside the very small world of people interested in the Haitian revolution, which I’ve now roped all of you into, by the way, no one knows who Sonthonax is, nor what he did. Even in Haiti, the natural course of patriotic history emphasizes the role played by the blacks and colored leaders in emancipation while downplaying the role of some random white French guy, which is totally understandable. But Sonthonax does deserve his place in world history and hopefully I’ve done my little part here to make sure that he gets the recognition that he deserves. 

But back in Saint Domingue, Toussaint himself was ignorant of the Coup of Fructidor. And so in November 1797, he drafted another long letter that laid out both the promise of a free and equal Saint Domingue and issuing some none too subtle warnings about the dangers of trying to undo it. Since it’s arguably Toussaint’s most famous declaration of principles, I’m going to quote it in full a bit here. But before I do, I want to clarify that when I say that Toussaint is drafting these letters, what he’s actually doing is dictating his thoughts in Creole and then having secretaries translate it into formal French. Now, this could be a very time consuming process that required a lot of dialogue between Toussaint and the secretaries to make sure it said what Toussaint wanted it to say. But he understood just how important it was to convey his ideas and plans and demands in clear educated French. And all of his correspondence from the very earliest stages of the slave revolt show the meticulous care he gave to presenting himself in educated language. 

Toussaint began his November 5 letter with a denunciation of the white planters as the true enemies of the republic who are now covering themselves in false patriotism. He said: “The attempts on that liberty, which the colonists propose, are all the more to be feared, because it is with veiled patriotism that they cover their detestable plans. We know that they seek to impose some of them on you by illusory or specious promises in order to see renewed in this colony its former scenes of horror.” 

He then pivoted quickly to claiming to be the truest offender of the Republic himself and made his first hint that anyone back in France contemplating re-enslavement was going to find this a very difficult proposition. He said, “[…] but they will not succeed. I swear it by all that liberty holds most sacred. My attachment to France, my knowledge of the blacks makes it my duty not to leave you ignorant either of the crimes which they mediate or the oath that we renew, to bury ourselves under the ruins of a country revived by liberty rather than suffer the return of slavery.”

So basically, remember those 20,000 muskets you sent us? We will use them to defend liberty, FYI. 

But then Toussaint definitely turned to a little ass kissing of the Directory to make sure they knew that he trusted their wisdom and judgment entirely. He said “It is for you, Citizen Directors, to turn from over our heads the storm which the eternal enemies of our liberty are preparing in the shades of silence. It is for you to enlighten the legislature, it is for you to prevent the enemies of the present system from spreading themselves on our unfortunate shores to sully it with new crimes. […] Your wisdom will enable you to avoid the dangerous snares which our common enemies hold out for you.” 

Then Toussaint stabbed at the white planters where they were most obviously vulnerable to attack, that from the beginning they had conspired with the enemies of France, that by 1793 they were openly in league with the enemies of the new Republic. He said, “I send you with this letter a declaration which will acquaint you with the unity that exists between the proprietors of Saint Domingue who are in France, those in the United States, and those who serve under the English banner. And you will see there a resolution, unequivocal and carefully constructed, for the restoration of slavery.” Basically, you cannot take their claims of patriotism and love of liberty seriously. They are liars and traitors who are trying to use the English to reimpose slavery. 

Toussaint then moved on to a neoclassical allusion to the supreme fidelity of a man to his country, even over that of his own children. And I don’t know how much of this is just Toussaint saying things or if he really knew, for example, what a hit Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Brutus waiting for his dead sons had been in France. But whether this was on purpose or accident, he hit the perfect note. And he is referring here now to the fact that his two sons have gone back to be educated in France and are now virtual hostages of the French. So he said, “You will see that they are counting heavily on my complacency in lending myself to their perfidious views by fear for my children. It is not astonishing that these men who sacrifice their country to their interests are unable to conceive how many sacrifices a true love of country can support in a better father than they, since I unhesitatingly base the happiness of my children on that of my country which they and they alone wish to destroy.”  

But even as he was directing all this vitriol at the planters, he’s also subtly warning the Directory, don’t you go thinking you can use my kids against me because it’s not going to work. And then, with all that said, he started rolling downhill towards his powerful conclusion. He said, “Do the colonists think that men who have been able to enjoy the blessings of liberty will calmly see it snatched away? They supported their chains only so long as they did not know any condition of life more happy than that of slavery. But today when they have left it, if they had a thousand lives, they would sacrifice them all rather than be forced back into slavery again.” 

Now, this is just kind of a general statement aimed at everyone and reiterating his earlier hint that re-enslavement would be a violent and futile exercise. 

But then he did move quickly onto some more ass kissing by rhetorically agreeing that France would never do anything that horrendous. He said, “But no, the same hand which has broken our chains will not enslave us anew. France will not revoke her principle, she will not withdraw from us the greatest of her benefits. She will protect us against all our enemies; she will not permit her sublime morality to be perverted, those principles which do her most honor to be destroyed, her most beautiful achievement to be degraded, and by her Decree of 16 Pluviôs which so honors the humanity of the world.” 

And then Toussaint concluded with the final famous kicker: “But if, to re-establish slavery in Saint Domingue, this was done, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it.” 

So what Toussaint has done here is first, remind everybody that reactionary big whites have been traitors to the Republic and have been traitors for quite some time. So don’t believe their lies. Second, I love the Republic,I will defend the Republic and I have no doubt that the Republic will defend me. Third, anyone who tries to reimpose slavery is going to face an army of free blacks who will fight to the last man to stop it from happening, and you are just not going to win that fight. Napoleon Bonaparte would, of course, discover that for himself soon enough. 

The ironic thing about this carefully crafted letter is that the battle had already been won before Toussaint even drafted it. The Coup of Fructidor had tossed out the reactionary planters and led in Toussaint’s allies. And I doubt very highly that the Directory to whom the letter was addressed even read it. Before now, delegate Lavaux induced the Council of Five Hundred to reaffirm liberty and equality in the colonies. On January 1, 1798, they voted that French law would be implemented uniformly throughout the Empire and that all blacks and coloreds would enjoy the same rights as if they had been born in France. Though there was one small stipulation, that to enjoy these rights you had to be serving as a cultivator or a soldier or a tradesman, basically employed in some officially recognized productive activity. So though the Directory’s version of freedom wasn’t quite as sweeping as the national conventions had been, it did line up perfectly with Toussaint’s vision for Saint Domingue. And he was no doubt very pleased to discover that everything he had wanted to come to pass from all the letters he had written over the course of 1797 had now come to pass. Sonthonax was gone, the reactionary whites have been smacked down and Toussaint has the full support of the Directory. 

But though Toussaint has positioned himself as the Directory’s man in Saint Domingue, the future of the colony was still in doubt and now lay in a contest between the three principal forces left in the colony: Toussaint Louverture in the north, André Rigaud in the south and then the British, still occupying an archipelago of ports in between. But not for much longer. Next week, when they leave, the stage will be set for a final showdown between André Rigaud and Toussaint Louverture for control of Saint Domingue. 

Before we go, though, I’ll mention that I just got to help the History of Byzantium podcast celebrate its 100 episode with an interview. And I’m assuming you’re all listening to the History of Byzantium already. We talked about some behind the scenes on history podcasting, the difference between dealing with ancient and modern history and then, of course, what my favorite scene from Red Dwarf is. The link is posted at www.

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