The fate of slavery: What role did views play in determining this?

In 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, African-born former slave and military leader of the uprising of slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue, proclaimed a declaration of independence. He, and those fighting alongside him, rejected Emperor Napoleon’s attempt to reintroduce slavery, and attested that ‘we have dared to be free’. 28 years before this proclamation, in what was then the ‘United Colonies’ of America, Virginian Thomas Jefferson also penned a declaration of independence. Like Dessalines, Jefferson asserted his commitment to freedom in the face of an oppressive power. He argued that he and his countryman had an innate right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, which justified their overthrow of the British King George III, a man ‘unfit to be the ruler of a free people’. Interestingly, Jefferson also made the same argument as Dessalines – that slavery was oppositional to inherent freedom, a, ‘a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty’. Thus both Dessalines and Jefferson led a revolution in the name of freedom, and, crucially, recognised that slavery was oppositional to true liberty. Yet, despite these similarities, there are clear distinctions between the historical trajectory of slavery in the two territories these authors resided in. Saint Domingue followed through with its promises wholesale; slavery was absolutely outlawed in the newly created nation of Haiti by 1805. The United States, on the other hand, had a more torturous and complicated history of putting abolitionist rhetoric into action. Whilst action was taken in Northern states towards abolition, by the early years of the 19th century, the United States, bold proclaimers of liberty, paradoxically defended slavery on a national level. Slavery wouldn’t be outlawed nationally until much later, as per the 13th Constitutional Amendment of 1865.

In this essay, I intend to explore this comparison of Saint Domingue/Haiti and the United States, and focus it around two key comparative questions: how did views on slavery change, and in what circumstances did changing views lead – or, crucially, not lead – to the political or institutional changes of abolition? To put it a different way, why, despite the fact that abolitionist ideas were emerging in both Saint Domingue and the United States did abolition occur on a much larger scale in the former than the latter? My contention is that views were changing in similar ways in both territories, but that an ideological support for abolition led to external outcome change only where the institutional and wider contexts were able to properly mediate and guide these view changes. In the United States, during the Revolutionary period and after (1776-1800), a combination of broader demographic, political and institutional contexts meant that, despite much support for the freedom of slaves, abolition was not introduced in law. In specific, its demographic composition, and dominance of white citizens, dissuaded against a national slave revolt emerging, as would happen in Haiti. Moreover, its federalised political structure, and decentralisation of power, encouraged abolition on a state level, but dissuaded bold action on abolition on a national level. The result was a series of fragile compromises on the issue of slavery between Northern and Southern states which ruled out abolition in the short term. In Saint Domingue, contrastingly, during the Revolutionary period and after (1791-1805), the institutional and wider contexts were favourable to institutionalise support for abolition. A myriad of demographic, political, military and environmental contexts – The strength of numbers of African slaves; the chaos of colonial authority, and the growing internecine struggle between its different factions; the military strength of the slave army; the resulting centralisation of power in the hands of a dictator military-governor; the plethora of diseases that Europeans were vulnerable to – all of these factors meant that, in comparison to the United States, view change on slavery led to engender genuine, radical and wholesale abolitionism on a national scale.

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