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Jefferson on the Haitian Revolution
Digital History ID 222

Author:   Thomas Jefferson


Revolution took on a new meaning when slaves in the French colony of St. Domingue (later Haiti) rose in revolt. The outbreak of the French Revolution led the colony's mulattoes--who were nominally free but deprived of civil rights--to demand full citizenship. In 1791, France granted them citizenship, but the colony's whites then sought to reverse this decision. The mulattoes fomented resistance and the slaves in the colony's Northern Province rose in mass insurrection, engulfing St. Domingue in race war.

The conflict lasted more than a decade. The whites sought help from the mother country, but found that the new revolutionary government was too busy fighting in Europe to provide much assistance. In 1793, French commissioners proclaimed freedom for the slaves, but upheaval continued. In the later 1790s, Pierre-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803), a former slave who had long been free and had owned land and slaves himself, succeeded in defeating Spanish, British, and mulatto-French armies. With secret aid from the United States, Toussaint won de facto independence.

In 1801, however, Napoleon (1769-1821) sent a 20,000-man French expeditionary force to Haiti, which obtained Toussaint's surrender in May 1802. A month later, Toussaint was arrested, transported to France, and imprisoned in a cell in the Jura Mountains, where he died of pneumonia. After his imprisonment by the French, Toussaint declared: "In overthrowing me, you have broken down only the trunk of the tree of liberty for the blacks; it will spring up again from its roots which are many and deep." Toussaint's prediction proved correct. His successors, aided by guerrilla forces in the mountains and by diseases that enfeebled the French, drove out the rest of the French forces, and in 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haitian independence.

In a note to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson reports on the early slave revolt against the French in St. Domingue. Jefferson's claim that all whites had been expelled from Haiti was false. A large British expeditionary force had landed and many French planters remained.


As to great, we can only perceive in general that the French are triumphing in every quarter. They suffered a check as is said by the D. of Brunswick, losing about 2000. men, but this is nothing to their numerous victories. The account of the recapture of Toulon comes so many ways that we think it may now be believed. St. Domingo has expelled all it's whites, has given freedom to all it's blacks, has established a regular government of the blacks and coloured people, and seems now to have taken it's ultimate form, and that to which all of the West India islands must come. The English have possession of two ports in the island, but acting professedly as the patrons of the whites, there is no danger of their gaining ground. Freneau's and Fenno's papers are both put down for ever.

Source: Thomas Jefferson, December 1, 1793, to Martha Jefferson Randolph, Morgan Archives 1029 (67).

Additional information: Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph

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