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The Birth of Haiti on New Years' Day in 1804

  • Subject: Life
  • Category: Holidays
  • Topic: New Year
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  • Published: 14 September 2018
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On New Years’ Day in 1804, a group of former slaves gathered in Saint Domingue to unequivocally declare independence and mark the establishment of a new nation. They named their new country Haiti. Fifteen years earlier, most of these men were subjugated and destitute in the most profitable slave colony in the world. From enslavement under the French crown to a newly independent country, two men had a significant role in this rapid transformation.[1] Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines held more influence throughout this process than any other men on the island. Thus any attempt to understand how ideas of society and economy developed to a path that eventually resulted in independence for the country, one must foremost analyze the political motivations and decisions of these two men. This essay exhibits how these men respectively imagined their post-revolutionary community.

Undeniably complex and intimate, L’Ouverture’s political relationship with the French largely impacted the way he conducted his political career and, thus, the fate of post-revolutionary Haiti. On the surface, the relationship between the two parties seems to be one of respect and unity. This fact is evident in L’Ouverture’s written words. Historian C.L.R James provides multiple examples of this in his work, The Black Jacobins. In hoping to sway powerful maroon leader, Dieudonné, away from a possible alliance with the British, L’Ouverture projected his opinion of colonial relations in relation to the island as a strong one of unity between France and Saint Domingue. After briefly discussing his own “blind” moment when he fought under the Spanish crown, L’Ouverture then implores Dieudonné to not err any longer and to realize the importance of what it means to be a part of the French Republic. He writes about the future of Haiti, “As far as I am concerned I believe that our only hope of this is in serving the French Republic. It is under its flag that we are truly free and equal.”[2] Though James does allude to the controversial nature between the two parties in the years to come, the fact remains significant that L’Ouverture would align himself with the colonizer country at all. In this passage, he clearly tried to sway Dieudonné by accrediting French aid as a necessary facet in achieving salvation of the people. The underlying component to this relationship is one of unity, stemming from the French Republic’s abolishment of slavery in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Regardless of how sincere or not L’Ouverture was in penning allegiance to the French Republic, the fact remains that the leader insists on maintaining the relationship between colonizer and colonized.

This fact becomes all the more clear when analyzing L’Ouverture’s Constitution, in which he promulgates his political decisions for post-revolutionary San Domingo. In addition to publicly appointing himself Governor-general for life and granting himself autonomous political authority, L’Ouverture relegated French officials to local government posts. Essentially, L’Ouverture called for a “virtual independence”[3], as James calls it. The author describes the relationship as one in which France acts as the “eldest brother, guide, and mentor.”[4] By drawing up this document, L’Ouverture hoped to instill some amount of political stability on the island. Having victoriously fought in the South, he aimed to take direct control in the shape of San Domingo’s future political and economic structure. Regarding France’s position in this form of government, L’Ouverture supposedly answered, “The French Government will send Commissioners to speak with me.”[5] The Constitution essentially provided L’Ouverture with a way to directly control political and economic development in post-revolutionary Saint Domingue.

It also, however, allowed the fledging society to benefit from the influence of French capital and French administrators.[6] As James argues, L’Ouverture recognized how the island could profit from a relationship with France, which would have provided crucial resources necessary to stabilize the situation following his rise to power. In this light the relationship between the two parties seems less of one centered on unity, and more of one designed to be advantageous for L’Ouverture. It is important to note, however, that these examples of the relationship between L’Ouverture and French officials occur under extremely different political climates. In the former, both leaders were in periods of revolutionary tumult and operating under common sets of values. In the latter case, Bonaparte had seized power following the French Revolution and L’Ouverture essentially claimed complete authority in Saint Domingue. It is important to remember that, although the intentions underlying the two parties’ collaboration may have changed significantly over time, and even if they did not, the relationship still yielded incredible influence over L’Ouverture’s vision for postcolonial society.

Despite his clear insistence on keeping a modicum of relation to France, L’Ouverture also viewed himself as central to the future fate of Saint Domingue. Although C.L.R James minimizes the importance of L’Ouverture’s Constitution, author Lawrence Dubois argues, in his work Avengers of the New World, that this document proves to be an important component to understanding L’Ouverture’s leadership. In his analysis of the document and its subsequent effects on post-revolutionary Saint Domingue, the author perceives L’Ouverture as a very stringent leader. Dubois argues that L’Ouverture largely based his power in military force and implemented few advantages to the people. Besides granting himself ultimate authority on all matters within the state, L’Ouverture allowed himself the ability to censure any publications and warned citizens that “seditious gatherings” would be put down by force, if necessary.[7]

Furthermore, residents had a very limited role in politics, only able to submit petitions to government administrations. Here again, Dubois provides an example of L’Ouverture’s emphasis on unity in his speech proclaiming the constitution. Only in this instance, he was calling on soldiers “to observe discipline and subordination, activate cultivation, obey your chiefs, and defend and support the Constitution against the internal and external elements who seek to attack it.”[8] Here Dubois argues, L’Ouverture’s intention in writing this constitution is not to unite the masses behind the French. Rather the opposite, he is delineating the army as united under him, a military force that was to be “essentially obedient” and “at the disposition of the Governor.”[9] Thus, L’Ouverture envisioned a post revolutionary Saint Domingue with himself as unchallenged political leader on the island, aided by support and economic benefits to be enjoyed as part of the French empire and bolstered by the power of an obedient military.

In realizing that simply claiming political power is not sufficient, L’Ouverture also engineered a strict economic policy that he saw as crucial to the reconstruction of stable social systems following the revolution. As James points out, this problem was particularly hard to solve given the local climate of Saint Domingue at the time. Not only was society disorganized in the tumult of revolution, the laborers would need to be men who were recently freed from the tutelage of slavery. However, L’Ouverture viewed work as necessary for the health of the state. Recognizing the need to reintroduce organization into the fractured society, L’Ouverture viewed agriculture as the main way to do so. As James cites, L’Ouverture addressed this issue within the first few days of establishing his leadership. He told the people, “work is necessary, it is a virtue, it is for the general good of the state.”[10] Unfortunately, this undertaking required a substantial amount of manual labor that was only achievable under often-harsh working conditions, not very dissimilar to those the locals had endured under slavery. Only twenty-four hours after L’Ouverture assumed power in the North region of the island, he sent the laborers back to work and assigned military commandants to ensure that they stayed working on the plantations. This forced labor, according to L’Ouverture, was a necessary part of the Republic. However, he maintained the confidence of the laborers by promising paid wages and by being equally stern with white proprietors.

As L’Ouverture saw it, another crucial aspect to establishing a stable and growing economy required the continuing participation of white plantation owners on the island. Partly, he anticipated that preserving these individuals’ place in society to be a stabilizing factor as the country began to make plans for a post-revolutionary society. Furthermore, he foresaw their continued economic contribution to be of significant aid to the island. James argues, “It was their plantations these whites wanted and he gave them their plantations, always ready to forget their treachery if they would work the land.”[11] Racial prejudice had no place in L’Ouverture’s political career. He appointed whites to government positions, seeing in them qualities that contributed to the future health of the Republic. As long as whites declared their allegiance to the Republic, he accepted their participation in the new society.

In his work The Black Jacobins, James describes L’Ouverture’s treatment of the laborers and his economic policies as both rational and effective. James argues that L’Ouverture, in realizing the shortcomings of the average laborer, provided them with an advantage. Although he made them work, he also worked to advance culture and education on the island. He established schools and encouraged the practice of Catholicism. On the whole, James argues, L’Ouverture aimed to educate the average resident about the duties and responsibilities that come along with being a citizen and to instill in them a “pride for San Domingo and veneration for France.”[12] This is an extremely generous light to cast L’Ouverture’s economic project within. James argues that L’Ouverture’s rule is less abrasive than other dictatorships because, ultimately, his intentions always remained rooted within the interests of the laboring poor.[13]

However as Dubois argues, it would ultimately be L’Ouverture’s very core of his vision for the future of Saint Domingue, agriculture, that would prove to be arguably the most harmful move of his political career. Although Dubois concedes that agriculture flourished and society remained tranquil while L’Ouverture was in power, he notes the unavoidable limitations placed on individuals’ freedom in a plantation labor society as the main reason for why L’Ouverture’s government failed.[14] No matter his intentions, L’Ouverture’s attempt to maintain the plantation economy within a newly freed society failed.

However to L’Ouverture, there was no compromise to his vision for the future of the economy. The Governor-general made this vision a felt force in society, particularly when he issued a decree in 1801 that severely limited the possibilities for former slaves. Throughout the colony, the general had observed groups of cultivators who joined together, purchased a few acres of land, and left their plantations to settle there. As Dubois points out, in many “postemancipation contexts as former slaves, [they] sought to gain what they saw as the ultimate guarantee of independence.”[15] By living off their land, they could hope to lead independent lives by engaging in self-sustaining activities such as growing enough food and raising enough livestock to sustain themselves and their families. These ex-slaves could then sell any leftover produce at local markets.

However, L’Ouverture viewed these settlements as detrimental to the level of productivity he desired from the economy. He thought the agriculture in Saint Domingue required the “reunion of considerable means.”[16] To oppose these individual farmers then, L’Ouverture passed decrees that made it relatively impossible for relatively poor men and women to own land. These measures included his administrators strictly monitoring who bought large swathes of land and outlawing sales of land that were three acres or less.[17] These measures substantially crippled the newly freed man’s ability to exercise his full rights under L’Ouverture’s leadership.

However Dubois analyzes L’Ouverture’s intentions in implementing the plantation system in a completely different way from James, instead interpreting the ruler as a strict dictator who “ruled over into a society based on social hierarchy, forced labor, and violent repression.”[18] In Dubois’ argument, this fact leads to the downfall of L’Ouverture. His political career ended on June 6, 1802 when, after years of fighting with the French on the island and almost defeated, L’Ouverture was shanghaied at a supposed meeting with French official Leclerc and arrested on the spot. L’Ouverture and his family were sent to France to await their fate; L’Ouverture’s would be death in his cell in France.[19] In L’Ouverture’s words, the actions of the French had “cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty of the blacks; it will grow back from the roots, because they are deep and numerous.”[20]

Jean-Jacques Dessaline, a high-ranking military leader who ultimately turned on L’Ouverture and fought against him on the side of the French, was selected as the man to take up L’Ouverture’s role and, thus, take on the responsibility of directly shaping society in post-revolutionary Haiti. The French, after disposing of L’Ouverture, were unable to fully carry out Napoleon’s orders and dismantle the colonial army due to a rampant spread of disease amongst the French forces. In June 1802, Leclerc assigned Dessalines with role of finishing the process of dismantling arms among the local militias, a position Dessalines would then use to rearm local forces and, eventually, aid him in claiming victory over French rule.[21] Ultimately however, his role in the revolution before 1803 remains largely told through tales of his brutal massacres and strict treatment of his forces. By early 1803 although still faced with some opposition on the island, Dessalines had managed to assert authority over most of the insurgents on the island. Furthermore by the end of that year, Dessalines had formerly cut ties with the French army and defeated their troops at Le Cap in November 1803.[22] Though historians depict the two leaders as often opposites, there can at least be some important similarities made in reference to the men’s’ visions for the future of the island, namely the importance both placed on the role of agriculture in this process.

Unlike L’Ouverture, who at least publicly promoted a solid relationship between the colony and France, Dessalines firmly rejected any colonial authority by the French in his goal to create a new order on the island. He achieved this distinction in his very first order as leader of Haiti. On December 3, 1803 in looking over a draft of the new Declaration of Independence, Dessalines remarked, “The French name still haunts our lands”[23] and urged for every citizen to “renounce France’s name forever.”[24] In renouncing any French influence and in directly renaming the island, Dessalines also promoted a method of exclusionist policy within the new country of Haiti. The new leader not only wanted the country’s inhabitants to reject any memory of France’s influence on the new country, he also aimed to draw an inherent distinction between the two countries by emphasizing the difference between being ‘Haitian’ and being ‘French’. According to Dessalines, the difference between French and Haitians, which he saw mainly as a distinction of race and location in the world, proved that “they are not our brothers, that they will never be.”[25] Although Dessalines considered the tie with France to be negative and subsequently moved to make the colony independent whereas L’Ouverture hoped to maintain the relationship as a means of insurance, both leaders were markedly influenced by their relationship to the colonizer country. For Dessalines, this controversial and, often times, antagonistic relationship would set Haiti on the path for independence.

In his extreme rejection of any French influence, Dessalines also established a very strict concept of what it meant to be ‘Haitian’ in forming an independent Haiti. Even the name of the country, a reference to what the island’s original Taino inhabitants had called it, evokes a sense of distinctness and shared history for the residents of the newly independent country.[26] In attempting to establish universal recognition of community and a shared sense of history among the inhabitants of Haiti, Dessalines also necessarily alienated and demonized French, white people, who had up until then enjoyed relative security on the island under the protection of L’Ouverture.[27] Partly drawing from the peoples’ want for revenge, Dessalines ordered the murder of all remaining white population of French Creoles in Haiti in 1804.

C.L.R James and Lawrence Dubois take startlingly different viewpoints in their respective analyses of the events. James, in seemingly continuously advocated for the more humane sides of these two figures, insists that Dessalines less so acted out of personal racisms, but rather was incapable of halting the series of events that occurred under his leadership. Although James does note that Dessalines directly ordered the actions, he also attributes the massacre to more personal and deep conflicts, arguing, “it was not politics, but revenge and revenge has no place in politics.”[28] Furthermore, the direct massacre of whites was not fully unleashed until fear of reestablishing slavery arose on the island. According to James, the people of the infant nation acted to this degree of barbarity, not because they collectively desired to, but as a result of a very confused and damaged population. The people of Haiti, newly gaining both their independence on a personal level and on a country wide aspect, now had to cope with their bitter past, learn to accept these notions, and move on to build a new and prosperous nation. James alludes to this very reactive and hazy notion as the impetus that drove these people to massacre whites. Dessalines, he argued, simply did not halt this.

Furthermore as he argues, it was truly the young nation that suffered as a result from these massacres. In response to the events of 1804, Haiti was isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, Haiti lost a priceless influence that relations with Britain and America would have provided. James writes, “Whites were banished from Haiti for generations, and the unfortunate country, ruined economically, its population lacking social culture, had its inevitable difficulties doubled by this massacre.”[29] James concludes his argument by lauding the Haitians for maintaining their small country in that moment and throughout the years, considering their formerly subjugated status under the French.[30] In specifically depicting the role of the country’s leader in this tragedy, James portrays Dessalines as a more sympathetic figure, citing attempts of his to protect “the British and the American whites, and spared also the priests, the skilled workmen, and the officers of health”[31]

In my opinion, here it is interesting to consider L’Ouverture’s political program once again. Perhaps the insightful Governor-general had some prudence in envisioning a post revolutionary society that was still attached to the colonial system. Certainly, he thought he could directly control the political situation on the island and, perhaps, he also thought he could extend this influence to Napoleon. Granted if any political figure in history would take on the task of trying to convince a French emperor to maintain an empire in which the system of slavery was unlawful, it would be L’Ouverture. Whatever the case, these are simply ruminations.

Dubois’ analysis of Dessalines in reference to his actions during the massacres is of marked difference, instead arguing that the leader allowed the massacre of the whites because of political ambitions. Following Dessalines’ declaration of independence from the French, some on the island feared a counter-revolution by the remaining whites. Not only did Dessalines suspect Napoleon of wanting to reestablish slavery, he also feared that “whites in the colony were actively conspiring to prepare a new attack aimed at bringing slavery back to the island.”[32] Though the author does cite Dessalines’ pardon of certain groups on the island, such as women and priests, Dubois more importantly mentions that Dessalines directly ordered these series of massacres as a response to the threat of reintroducing slavery to Haiti.[33] Whereas James alludes to the fact that most Haitian leaders and, perhaps even Dessalines, disapproved of the events, Dubois directly associates Dessalines amidst the chaos on the island.

Besides his exclusion of the French from this vision, Desslaines’ idea of how to distribute political authority is also a central component to understanding his direction for the newly independent Haiti. Dessalines declared himself emperor on October 1804 and just as L’Ouverture, he maintained that his position of power was to be held for his entire life. James ironically notes how the Emperor attended his coronation ceremony decorated with ornaments made and transported to the island “by English and American capitalists”.[34] Dubois ends his account before Dessalines declares himself Emperor, simply attributing a side note to the event.[35] However, this proclamation is extremely important in the fate of Haiti. Just as L’Ouverture maintained that a singular leader necessarily needed to yield direct control over all aspects of society on the island, Dessalines clearly also upheld that same structure for political authority was necessary in the newly independent nation.

Although L’Ouverture was arguably clearer in his projection for the future of the island’s economy, Dessalines did have some contact with agriculture during his political career and these moments helped to shape his vision for the future of Haiti. Before becoming Emperor of Haiti, Dessalines was among a group of ex-slaves in society who amassed a good number of plantations. They rented abandoned plantations and began cultivating the property, effectively creating a new property-owning class and, thus a new generation of managers, made up of people of African descent. This complicated the conflict over plantation labor, especially straining the already tense relationship between ex-slave laborers and former plantation owners. As Dubois notes, this social conflict would “haunt postindependence Haiti.”[36]

Furthermore under the leadership of L’Ouverture, Dessalines acted as inspector of agriculture in the South and West regions of the island, a role that undoubtedly led to experience and education with the future economy. His responsibilities included overseeing and enforcing L’Ouverture’s labor regulations, which apparently he harshly imposed on the laborers under his control.[37] Eventually in total, Dessalines managed thirty plantations under L’Ouverture. Clearly, Dessalines had direct and extensive experience with the plantation system, whether or not he advocated for this remains to be seen. Neither Dubois nor James mention any future plans that Dessalines made for the economy in Haiti, though there is something to be said for this absence. Most notably unlike L’Ouverture, Dessalines obviously did not hold the same obsession with preserving the country’s status as a major agricultural exporter in the Atlantic world.

In reference to the country’s direction after the revolution settled, the two leaders concerned themselves most with the island’s enduring and complicated relationship to France and with the future state of the economy. The level of priority given to these two issues by both of the leaders involved in the movement is key to understanding how Haitian revolutionaries would have imagined their post-revolutionary community. However, the two leaders differed not only in how they treated these sectors. Essentially, Dessalines and L’Ouverture had completely separate visions for the post revolutionary state of the island. Holding complete political authority, Dessalines envisioned a community bonded by a shared history and common sense of identity and, most importantly, free from the subjugation associated with both the colonial system and slavery. In wanting to preserve the plantation system and maintaining ties to their French colonizers, L’Ouverture conceived of the future state to be foremost a productive economic port, not unlike what it had been before the revolution. Ultimately however, analyzing the political projects of L’Ouverture and Dessalines show how societal, political, and economic pressures directly influence how ideas of independence for a country, especially in the tumultuous atmosphere with which Haiti took form.

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