Two Revolutions in the Atlantic World: Connections between the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution

The late eighteenth century saw two successful anti-colonial revolutions unfold in the Americas. The first was in the United States, culminating in 1783. The second was in Haiti, then the French colony of Saint-Domingue. That revolution began with a mass insurrection by the enslaved in August 1791, which led first to the abolition of slavery in the colony in 1793, then to its abolition throughout the French empire in 1794, and finally to Haitian independence from France in 1804.

What was the relationship between these two remarkable revolutions?

The story of these revolutions is generally told in national terms. But we learn a great deal about both of them if we examine them as intertwined stories within the larger history of Atlantic revolutions, with particular attention to the United States, France, and Haiti.[1] According to historian Robin Blackburn, as the three connected revolutions unfolded, they led to increasingly radical outcomes.[2] While the American Revolution represented a profound challenge to imperial structures, it did not cause a true social revolution in North America, where colonial elites became the new national elite. And despite the offers of freedom put forth by the British to enslaved people who would fight for them, which many slaves took up, and the initiation of emancipation in many northern states, slavery ultimately survived that revolution and even expanded and thrived in its wake.

The events in North America did have global ramifications, however. They helped set the stage for the French Revolution, both by putting forth powerful new political ideologies and through the debts contracted by the French king in his support of the North American rebels. The French Revolution ultimately led to a far-reaching social transformation within the country. Its unfolding was intricately tied to events in France’s most important colony, Saint-Domingue, where the weakening colonial governance and the emergence of new political language and new possibilities for mobilization—including the enslaved—set the stage for a profoundly radical revolution.[3]

Though the 1790s saw mobilization, revolt, and transformation throughout the French Caribbean, the changes that took place in Saint-Domingue were the most epochal. The contrast with the American Revolution is striking. In both places slavery was important, but in Saint-Domingue it dominated everything: 90 percent of the population was enslaved. As the year 1789 began, it would have been very difficult to imagine, for those both in the colony and outside of it, that the slave system would be completely overturned. And yet by 1793 there were no slaves in Saint-Domingue, and by 1804 it had become a new nation, led by an ex-slave general named Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The Haitian Revolution was the speediest and most successful abolitionist movement in history: it took a mere two years to go from revolt to universal and immediate emancipation.

In recent years scholars have increasingly insisted that much of what we inherited from the Age of Revolution—especially ideas of universal rights—were in fact crucially shaped by the events in the Caribbean. As an anti-slavery revolution largely made by enslaved people of African descent, the Haitian Revolution posed a direct threat to deeply entrenched interests throughout the world, including in the United States itself. Whereas the US relatively quickly found acceptance within the broader concert of nations, no foreign nation even acknowledged Haitian independence officially until France did so in 1825, and it took the US until 1862, in the wake of secession, to recognize the country. It was the last nation to do so.

The very different trajectories the two nations have taken since independence sometimes obscure the extent to which the Haitian and American Revolutions were ideologically intertwined. Understanding the links in the prerevolutionary histories of the US and Haiti is critical to understanding how the revolutions evolved.[4]


The economic geography of the Americas looked dramatically different in the eighteenth century than it does today. The Caribbean was an economic and strategic center, in many ways much more significant than North America from the perspective of European empires. The booming sugar and coffee plantations of colonies like Saint-Domingue and Jamaica were the motor of the broader Atlantic economy. Though only the size of Maryland, the French colony of Saint-Domingue created as much wealth for France as the thirteen colonies did for England.

This economic configuration made North America dependent on the Caribbean. The North American colonies, especially New England, profited from extensive trade with Saint-Domingue. Merchants from the British colonies brought lumber and provisions to the French colony and came home with various goods, particularly molasses, which was turned into rum in New England refineries. The French and the English imperial governments sought to stamp out this contraband trade, but it was a hopeless task. Eventually, by the late eighteenth century, the French government grudgingly allowed some forms of intercolonial trade, establishing "free ports" where foreign merchants could bring in certain goods. But much of the trade continued illegally anyway. These patterns of exchange continued during the Haitian Revolution, when US merchants supplied not only provisions but crucial weapons and ammunition to the rebels. And in fact, except for a few years between 1806 and 1809, trade with independent Haiti continued essentially unabated throughout the early nineteenth century, despite the fact that the US hadn’t officially recognized the country.[5]

This trade relationship between the two colonies had political effects in both places. In North America, the lucrative trade with Saint-Domingue helped spur the demands for free trade that became part of the American Revolution. The success of the American Revolution, in turn, inspired certain French planters and merchants in Saint-Domingue, who during the 1770s and 1780s frequently demanded freer trade, sometimes through violent revolt. When the events of 1789 in France created a political opening, white colonists pressed for more economic autonomy. The American Revolution surfaced as a particular kind of example, however: the slaveholders of the United States had managed to secure political and economic autonomy while preserving slavery. The latter point was key, because white planters in Saint-Domingue were worried that abolitionist sentiment in France would encourage slave revolt in the colony. Though demands for outright independence were rare in Saint-Domingue, planters hoped that they would be able to carve out greater economic and political autonomy, with the United States as an example of the advantages of doing so.[6]

The link between the American Revolution and the actions of people of African descent in Saint-Domingue is more complex. The little-known role played by troops from Saint-Domingue in the American Revolution is part of this story. In 1779, several hundred gens de couleur—free men of African descent—joined the French military and fought at the siege of Savannah. Though no one yet has found documents listing the members of this unit, a number of important Haitian Revolutionaries—including André Rigaud and Henry Christophe—later claimed to have been part of this mission. The effects of this participation on the development of the revolution are difficult to track. On the one hand, the international military expedition was a source of pride for those who had participated. But for many, frustration at the way they were treated afterward may have stoked some of the resentment that came out during the early years of the Haitian Revolution.[7]

Between 1789 and 1791, free people of color in Saint-Domingue initiated what can be considered the first stage of the Haitian Revolution as they fought—at first peacefully, and then violently—for political rights. Their actions, coupled with increasingly powerful divisions within the white population and between planters and French administrators, created an opening that the enslaved population took advantage of. In 1791, tens of thousands of enslaved people in the north of Haiti went into open and violent revolt against the plantation system, burning cane fields, killing masters, and smashing the machinery of sugar production. Within a few months, this uprising had been consolidated into a formidable political and military movement. Within two years they had pressured local officials to decree emancipation in the colony. This decision was ratified in February 1794 by the National Convention in Paris, which abolished slavery throughout the French empire.

This decree was the first national abolition of slavery in history. It was a radical, stunning, and challenging victory not only because of what it represented but also because of how it had happened. Slaves had transformed themselves into military leaders and then full-fledged citizens. Their actions resounded in an Atlantic world dominated by slavery and racial hierarchy. Throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, the Haitian Revolution became a pivotal referent—an inspiration for some, a terror for others—in debates about slavery, emancipation, and race.[8]

The United States, then in the midst of its own conflicts over the development of the new republic, was very close to these events. In the 1790s refugees from Saint-Domingue streamed into US cities, particularly Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, where they became a crucial part of the cultural and social fabric of urban life. They included masters and slaves, but also free people of color, and their presence helped spur debates about slavery in Philadelphia and New York. They also embodied one part of the story of the Haitian Revolution, influencing the ways in which people in the US saw what was happening in the Caribbean.[9]

Some startling scenes played out in the United States: in 1793, a delegation of representatives from Saint-Domingue on their way to France stopped in Philadelphia. The delegation included an African-born man, Jean-Baptiste Belley, whose presence was a powerful symbol of the emancipation in Saint-Domingue. He arrived wearing a tri-color symbol, and a mob of refugees from the colony ripped it off him and threatened to lynch him. He stood his ground, recalling his service in the French military in the colony and explaining that a man who had defended whites in combat could very well also represent them in politics. Belley went on to Paris, where he was part of the delegation that argued for the abolition of slavery in France. His service as a member of the parliament in France during the 1790s highlights one of the profound differences between the American and Haitian Revolutions. It would take many decades, and a civil war, before a black person would serve in Congress in the United States, whereas several men of African descent did so in France in the 1790s.[10]

The history of US policy toward Haiti has been explored in rich detail in recent years.[11] Adams and Jefferson pursued very different policies. Adams offered support to Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution, and at one point the US Navy actually helped the black general defeat one of his internal enemies, André Rigaud, by blockading and bombarding the port town of Jacmel. Jefferson was much more reticent about links with Haiti, fearful of how the example of slave revolt might spread to the United States. In both cases, however, decisions about trade and political relations with Saint-Domingue, and then independent Haiti, were influenced by domestic and international factors. And though Jefferson refused to recognize Haitian independence—like all other nations at the time—the US only briefly outlawed trade with the new nation. Indeed, in 1802 and 1803 arms shipments from the US were crucial in the victory of the Haitian revolutionaries against France. In this sense, the two revolutions found a certain common cause—though unofficially, through commerce rather than any direct US aid—as weapons from the US ended up contributing to the creation of the second independent nation in the Americas.

Starting in late 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte began to reverse the policies of emancipation decreed in 1794 and to strike out against Toussaint Louverture and the new leadership class that had emerged in Saint-Domingue. This change in policy precipitated the conflicts that culminated in Haitian independence in January of 1804. For the revolutionaries, the cry of "Liberty or Death!" took on quite literal meaning: defeat at the hands of the French, it became increasingly clear, would mean a return to slavery.

In the wake of independence, Dessalines ordered the massacre of most of the remaining French planters on the island. But even this did not dissuade North American merchants from trading with the newly independent nation. Indeed some seem to have sold him weapons directly during this period. In the first year after Haiti’s declaration of independence, no fewer than forty ships sailed between Haiti and the United States. Though there was broad hostility to the Haitian Revolution, reactions to the events there were not uniform, and economic interest played a critical role in defining US policy.[12]

US merchants were interested in Haiti because there were profits to be made. And that was because, contrary to the stories often told about post-independence Haiti, there were some important economic successes. In particular, the new form of small-scale farming that ex-slaves developed on the ashes of the plantation system was quite productive. Coffee, cultivated more on small to medium-sized farms, became an important export from Haiti in the early nineteenth century. And Haitians continued to import goods from the north. Although the country suffered greatly on the political scene from its diplomatic isolation, that did not sever the links between the two countries.

At the center of the Haitian Revolution, and of the battle for Haitian independence, was a desire to secure both a permanent end to slavery and access to a system that would allow people autonomy and dignity. In a nation whose population was made up almost entirely of ex-slaves, a small majority of them African-born, the challenge was to find forms of social and economic organization that would allow this to happen. The very different social situation in Haiti and the US after independence explains why the two independence declarations are so radically different. In fact, Jean-Jacques Dessalines explicitly refused a version that was based on the US Declaration of Independence. Instead, the Haitian Declaration was issued as a powerful denunciation of slavery and racism.

"It is not enough to have expelled the barbarians who have bloodied our land for two centuries," the Declaration begins,

it is not enough to have restrained those ever-evolving factions that one after another mocked the specter of liberty that France dangled before you. We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth; we must take any hope of re-enslaving us away from the inhuman government that for so long kept us in the most humiliating torpor. In the end we must live independent or die.[13]

If the language was quite different, certain concepts were shared: the "empire of liberty" and the call for "Liberty or Death," which was emblazoned atop the official publication of the Declaration. There was much in the world order of the time that made it difficult to see that at their root the two revolutions shared a common set of principles. What has been even more difficult for centuries to understand is that, in many ways, it was the Haitians who in fact showed the way forward, by insisting that any claim to natural or human rights was incomplete as long as slavery persisted.

[1] Some of the research in this essay is based on work done for the New-York Historical Society exhibit Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn, which I participated in as the co-chair of the Scholar’s committee.

[2] Robin Blackburn, "Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution," William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 4, Third Series (October 2006): 643–674.

[3] I present an analysis of the relationship between the French revolution and events in the Caribbean, specifically Guadeloupe, in Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2004). An excellent panorama of this period is offered in A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean, Blacks in the Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

[4] I explore the long-term ramifications of the revolutionary period in my history of Haiti: Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012).

[5] Dubois, Aftershocks, 137–138.

[6] Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), chapters 1–2.

[7] John Garrigus, "Catalyst or Catastrophe? Saint-Domingue’s Free Men of Color and the Battle of Savannah, 1779-1782," Revista/Review Interamericana 22, no. 1–2 (1992): 109–125; John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[8] I offer a detailed history of the revolution in Dubois, Avengers. On the abolition of 1793 see the detailed account of Jeremy D. Popkin, You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[9] Ashli White, Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[10] Dubois, Avengers, 168–170.

[11] Tim Matthewson, A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003); Gordon S. Brown, Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005).

[12] On early US reactions to the Revolution see Rayford Whittingham Logan, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with Haiti, 1776–1891 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941), chapter 5.

[13] A translation of the declaration, along with other documents relating to the Haitian Revolution, is available in Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006).

Laurent Dubois is the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History and co-director of the Haiti Laboratory of the Franklin Humanities Center at Duke University. His books on Haiti and the French Caribbean include A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (2004), which received the Frederick Douglass Book Prize; Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004); and Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2012).