Day 21: Black History Month: “Freedom Letters, Letters of Freedom” from Toussaint Louverture

Day 21: Black History Month: “Freedom Letters, Letters of Freedom” from Toussaint Louverture

The Haitian general Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture writing a letter to Emperor Napoleon I, lithograph by Gaetano Riccio after a drawing from the History of Napoleon by Cesare Malpica (1804-1848), from Poliorama Pittoresco, n 27, February 12, 1842.

In this essay, I present Toussaint Louverture as a public intellectual, social activist, and anticolonial prophet of black freedom and human rights in Saint-Domingue’s public sphere. Toward this goal, I will explore how Louverture’s strategic use of language as a generative force and creative-performative act to foster revolutionary ideas—what I call “the revolutionary rhetoric of freedom” (RRF)—and to articulate his idea of freedom and understanding of being a public servant to the people, the enslaved Africans in the French colony of Saint-Domingue-Haiti. I carefully analyse Louverture’s rhetorical actions to propagate human liberty and equality for all men and women, and, in particular, the unreserved general emancipation of his people from the dominion of slavery and the colonial system. In this inquiry, the focus is on my critical reading and interpretation of his political writings, including selected public speeches and letters toward the importance and possibilities of creating a postcolonial people and identity, and the project of fostering an ethics of human liberation and cosmopolitanism based on human dignity, self-determination, and social justice.

As general Governor of Saint-Domingue, Toussaint Louverture was prolific in writing letters to different individuals and audiences; in fact, tradition tells us that he “would dictate as many as 300 letters in a single day.”[1] One contemporary account reveals how Toussaint has reinvented himself into a prominent figure and public intellectual of the Haitian and French Revolutions:[2]

I saw him in few words verbally lay out the summary of his addresses [to his secretaries]; rework the poorly conceived, poorly executed sentences; confront several secretaries presenting their work by turns; redo the ineffective sections; transpose parts to place them to better effect; making himself worthy, all in all, of the natural foretold by Raynal.[3]

Toussaint was born in the Age of Revolution in which Saint-Domingue was the most prosperous colony of the French empire. The Caribbean island substantially boosted up the economy of the Americas and Europe:

In the period between the American and French revolutions, Saint Domingue produced close to one-half of all the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the Americas, as well as substantial amounts of cotton, indigo, and ground provisions. Through scarcely larger than Maryland, and the little more than twice the size of Jamaica, it had long been the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean and was hailed by publicists as the “Pearl of the Antilles”’ or the “Eden of the Western World.” . . . By 1789 Saint Domingue had about 8,000 plantations producing crops for export. They generated some two-fifths of France’s foreign trade, a proportion rarely equalled in any colonial empire. Saint Domingue’s importance to France was not just economic, but fiscal (in customs revenue) and strategic, too, since the colonial trade provided naval stores from northern Europe (hemp, mast trees, saltpeter). In the Mole Saint Nicolas, the colony also contained the most secure naval base in the West Indies.[4]

Arguably, slavery as a system that exploited black labor was the foundation of the colonial economy and the problem of slavery was the crisis of modernity. Colonizers and pro-slavery proponents would fight fiercely to sustain the institution and to maintain the unpaid work of enslaved African men, women, and children, and to keep them from freedom.

Brief Background of Toussaint

Born in slavery on the plantation of Bréda in the northern plain, Toussaint was born François Dominique Toussaint Bréda of African parents. He later assumes the surname Louverture meaning “The Opener of the way,” a floating signifier that would give grand imports to the Haitian epic.[5] To emphasize the textual symbolism and significance of his name, I will use “Louverture” throughout the remaining part of this post, instead of “Toussaint” as it is traditionally done. As a brilliant political and military leader, Louverture was truly the “Master of the Crossroads” as novelist Madison Smartt Bell recounts in his imaginative and brilliant novel.[6] The “Black Spartacus” was a multilinguist. He spoke the colonizer’s language French, the slaves’ tongue Haitian Creole, and his father’s (unknown) African dialect. He served as a coachman, an esteemed position for a slave, which allowed him to establish inter-plantation contacts and carry important messages across plantations for his master, Baron de Libertat, who granted him freedom at thirty-three, sometime in the 1770s. Louverture was fifty years old when he taught himself to read.

 In a short autobiographical statement date 1801, he affirmed, “I felt that I was destined for great things. When I received this divine portent, I was fifty-four years old; I did not how to read or write . . . in a few moths I knew how to sign my name and read correctly.”[7] He was a man of faith, a devout Catholic. Louverture was himself a slave owner, as in 1777 he emancipated the African-born slave named Jean-Baptiste.[8] Louverture’s former status as a slave owner and former slave, however, provided him with a deep understanding of slave life and the meaning of liberty/ freedom. A contemporary American consul, Tobias Lear, describes his admiration, “By all the inhabitants of all colours; whether this proceeds from fear or love I cannot yet tell; but all speak of him as a just man.”[9] Louverture “believed that to rule men they must be lashed and caressed in turns.”[10] Quoting a contemporary source, historian Laurent Dubois comments he “greatly impressed most who met him.”[11]

 In the 1796 letter to Etienne Laveaux—which we will return later—Louverture acknowledged the positive public perception of him as a committed social activist and the champion of black self-determination and human rights: “I asked them if they knew me and whether they were glad to see me. They answered yes, that they knew that I was the father of all the blacks, and that they also knew that I had never ceased to work for their happiness and for their liberty.”[12] He continued by informing us about a public meeting he had with the people in which “one of them spoke and said to me: ‘General, all of us look upon you as our father, it is you after God who are dearest to us and in whom we have the most confidence.’”[13] As the conscience and represented voice of the slave population’s will and desire for freedom, Louverture took the causes and suffering of the people seriously: “But they begged me to listen to them and that perhaps I would see that they perhaps were not so in the wrong as I believed. I was quiet and listened to them.[14] Being an eloquent orator, Louverture had substantial influence upon the slave community and the military forces he led. It is believed that he was an avid reader, especially the abolitionist writings of Abbé Raynal.[15] Louverture deliberately acted upon Raynal’s words and let the language of this apocalyptic prophecy guide his destiny,

All that the negroes lack is a leader courageous enough to carry them to vengeance and carnage. . . . Where is he, this great man that nature owes to its vexed, oppressed, tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, do not doubt it. He will show himself and will raise the sacred banner of liberty. This venerable leader will gather around him his comrades in misfortune. More impetuous than torrents, they will leave everywhere ineffaceable traces of their just anger.[16]

In his 1801 “Self-Portrait” which he probably wrote in his prison cell at Fort de Joux, France, Louverture penned the following words, confirmed Raynal’s prediction, and presented himself as the self-emancipatory and self-righteous hero whom Raynal predicted above:

I felt that I was destined for great things. When I received this divine portent. . . . The revolution of St-Domingue was going its way; I saw that the writes could not hold out, because they were divided among themselves and crushed by superior members; I congratulated myself on being black. . . .A secret voice said to me: “Since the blacks are free, they need a chief,” and it is I who must be the chief predicted by Abbé Raynal. I returned, transported by this sentiment.[17]

French dramatist and writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier also dreamed in 1771—the dignified “negro” who would “deliver the world from the most atrocious, longest, and most insulting tyranny of all”—he (Louverture) was also the one who had “broken the chains of his compatriots and transformed the oppressed by the most odious slavery into heroes.”[18] Based on this brief evaluation of the person and incredible accomplishments of Toussaint Louverture, in the interim I want to articulate this singular proposition: The entrance of Louverture into the Haitian drama might be interpreted as a pivotal era in Black Atlantic political thought and freedom movements. In his intervention in the 1790s, Louverture radically reorients the Haitian experience.[19]

As a towering figure in the unfolding events leading to the Haitian Revolution, Louverture was committed fearlessly to black freedom and made “the black problem” at Saint-Domingue his own political interest and ambition. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the letter of November 1797. Louverture pledges:

I shall never hesitate between the safety of San Domingo and my personal happiness; but I have nothing to fear. It is to the solicitude of the French Government that I have confided my children. . . . I would tremble with horror if it was into the hands of the colonists that I had sent them as hostages; but even if it were so, let them know that in punishing them for the fidelity of their father, they would only add one degree more to their barbarism, without any hope of ever making me fail in my duty.[20]

Fragments of Rhetoric of Freedom in Louverture’s Thought

Louverture conceptualized freedom and its meaning through the art of persuasion and through the rhetoric of resistance. The revolutionary rhetoric of freedom is the mere idea of imagining the meaning of freedom from the perspective of the slave masses. The expression accentuates the indigenous influences on the Haitian Revolution; that does not mean we undermine external influences upon the slaves in the event of the Haitian Revolution. As we shall see, Louverture in particular directly and indirectly was impacted by the libertarian ideology and radical rhetoric of the French Revolution, and the language of the Enlightenment. But Louverture and the slave community at Saint-Domingue were the agents of their own freedom. Louverture used various rhetorical strategies to stress autonomous slave agency, collective self-determination, and collective self-expression. For Louverture, the act of speaking and writing was inexorably an act of individual and communal liberation, as this was the case particularly for many literate ex-slaves and slaves such as the abolitionist and race leader Frederic Douglas.[21]

Freedom from the perspective of Louverture and former slaves and ex-slaves at Saint-Domingue was both an imagining process and a reality. The kind of freedom Louverture envisioned which led successfully to general emancipation out of slavery was ideologically constructed and culturally nurtured. As we will observe in his political letters, this way of thinking of human moral capability and autonomy exercised through collective self-expression was first imagined through language or performative utterances which I already identified as the revolutionary rhetoric of freedom (RRF). My basic argument is twofold. First, I advance the idea that revolutionary rhetoric of freedom produced by Louverture had considerable cognitive effects on his audience: the French colonial authorities and the entire slave population. By this position, I suggest that Louverture acted upon words or language with an emancipative intent. Second, I propose through the practice of various rhetorical techniques, Louverture was able to orchestrate new ways for social organization, racial alliance and unity, and political solidarity. Revolutionary rhetoric of freedom is chiefly concerned with “building community, reaffirming human dignity, enhancing the life of the people” of the enslaved Africans at Saint-Domingue, and equally promoting the interest of all people.[22]

Yet with Toussaint Louverture’s turning point in the epic of Haitian history, the revolution moves steadily with liberative discourses.[23] (The Haitian Revolution was one of the few successful achievements in the human struggle toward freedom—the right to life and to live—which in its own unique way contributed potentially to the forward flow of human emancipation and a better world, especially the affirmation of the basic rights of dignity, respect, and equality for all men and women and its substantial impact in eradicating slavery both in North America and Latin America. For the impact and after effects of the Haitian Revolution in the Americas and the Atlantic World.) From this vantage point, I contend that to write about the politics of revolutionary rhetoric of freedom at Saint-Domingue is in effect and necessarily to engage particularly the activistic thought of Toussaint Louverture.

Louverture’s political vision and his self-conscious vocation as the apostle of Haitian liberty were thoroughly grounded in the grammar of revolutionary rhetoric; his military genius was ancillary. In summary, his political writings as we will observe below are statements or declarations that wage war against any form of human injustice and human oppression. The vigor of the language employed therein constitutes perhaps the most succinct and compelling testimony of Louverture’s unflinching devotion to practical freedom, the theoretical aspects of participatory democracy and universal emancipation.

The meaning of freedom and its vision contested here is not presented merely as a function of space or people, be it France or French citizens; but how we concomitantly and deliberately pursue justice on behalf of all men and women. In other words, Toussaint’s correspondence bears significance for contemporary times. In addition, the aspiration for liberty expressed in the pages of these documents is the paramount determination to get rid of slavery itself.

Furthermore, we must situate Louverture’s first “real” attempt toward radical freedom and the postcolonial push in the year of 1793. The transformative moments of this epoch have placed him on both the national and international level as a social activist for human rights, and an anti-racist and anticolonial fighter. The events of 1793 were a defining moment in transatlantic history and in the story of human strivings toward a democratic order, world peace, and subsequently the creation of a future world without slavery. The ideal of human collaboration and transnational affiliation, networking, and political activism have succeeded in various cultural circles and socio-political movements both in the Americas and in Western Europe. The international and transnational dimensions of racial difference and cultural racism (both as social categories), anti-oppressive government, and issues pertaining to national identity and citizenship were critical concerns facing the majority peoples in the world. These national and global phenomena reveal in the clearest sense the paradoxical character of modernity and human nature, and the fragility of human existence.

In this epoch-making period, human demands for peace and the cost for freedom and human rights intensified. The United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that forced escaped slaves to return to their slave owners; this law also allowed the pursuit of runaways in another state or territory. The invention of Whitney’s cotton grin in 1793 “revived the institution of slavery.” It not only radically increased slave labor in the South, but also required more demands for African slaves and augmented transatlantic slave trade transactions.[24] In this same time frame, the peasants in France revolted against the French revolutionary government, pressing their cause for economic equality and representation in the new political order. On June 24, the first Republican Constitution (known as the Constitution of 1793) was adopted in the “New France,” which would bear significant repercussions for the political rights of the French overseas colonies, especially in Saint-Domingue.[25] In this same year, the Jacobins initiated what is traditionally called the “The Reign of Terror” in the history of the French Revolution.

In February 1793, France and Spain warred over the sovereignty of the island of SaintDomingue, which included both geographical locations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On June 20, the city of Cap François was destroyed through a series of wars between European powers, and African forces.[26] Seeking political hegemony in the island, on September 20, 1793, British troops under the direction of Major-General Williamson invaded and occupied Saint-Domingue for the next five years.[27]

In August 29, 1793, French civil commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax proclaimed the abolition of slavery in the Northern Province of the colony, which would assure the equality of all men, white or any other color in the colony, a project that was not fulfilled.[28] It was in the same year, and exactly on the same day, that Louverture’s inaugural moment is marked by this illustrious speech: “Brothers and Friends. I am Toussaint Louverture. My Name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and Equality to reign in Saint Domingue. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.”[29] I interpret this public appearance as Louverture’s significant critique of colonial modernity and the embedded structures sustaining it. Louverture ventures to engage the whole edifice of the colonial order by setting things right, and hence to (re-)create an alternative modernity in black.[30] The idea of a black intellectual in modernity describes the public vocation of Louverture both as social critic of the colonial regime in Saint-Domingue’s public sphere and the Haitian intellectual par excellence who leads his people to the way of freedom.

Toussaint Louverture championed the human cause in the land of his birth as a critic, observer and participant in the Haitian drama. He persuasively defended the cause of human freedom, human rights, justice, dignity, and ultimately contributed to the reconstruction of black life at Saint-Domingue. What is significant about this historic day is the enduring psychological impression of the speech on its hearers, and the process of actualizing this prophetic hope into a reality. First, the declaration reveals Louverture’s undivided commitment to general emancipation, a consensus that is agreed upon by most Haitianist historians. Second, Louverture sees himself as an anticolonial leader in the process of recreating African history in the Saint-Dominguan landscape, and reconstructing a coherent human community. Finally, Louverture’s call for robust solidarity, greater unity and communal loyalty are intrinsically linked to a shared vision and purpose, among the members of the slave community. Louverture’s momentous summons is rooted in the common experiences of colonial racial injustice and deliberate social exclusion and the marginalization of African blacks. His political solidarity is also predicated on the historical oppression of slavery, black labor exploitation, and colonial imperialism.

Louverture’s general emancipation decree is in essence predicated on the idea that to become free is equally to become human, a necessary predisposition to “enter into and transform a preexisting social order.”[31] What Haitianist historians have often overlooked in Louverture’s political writings and his speeches and letters is the “invisible will of the people” he frames. The foremost general of the Haitian Revolution embodies symbolically the voice of the people through his own inflection, and concretely articulates their fears, joys, triumphs, and ultimately their desire for general emancipation. In a letter dated August 25, 1794, Louverture’s self-conscious messianism is revealed when he pronounces to a group of gens de couleurs (“free people of color”) that he had been “the first to stand up for” general emancipation, a cause he had begun, supported, and “will finish.”[32] I suggest that the language of this text can be deduced in two different ways. First, it reportedly discloses the details about Louverture’s personal arrogance and his historical amnesia of the resilience of those who preceded him. If this is so, then, this interpretation would confirm Pierre Pluchon’s direct denial of the universal dimension of Louverture’s liberative political vision. In his ground-breaking biography on Toussaint, Pluchon argues that Toussaint was un profiteur du régime colonial (“an opportunist of the colonial regime”) who unremittingly fought for le droit de l’homme (“human right”), la justice (“principles of justice”) and not for la liberté générale (“general emancipation”).[33] Based on the Pluchonian logic, Louverture was simultaneously a “power-seeker” and a “sincere- abolitionist.”[34] Both positions attempt to demonstrate the complex personality of Haiti’s leading revolutionary hero, but both authors have failed to look beyond what they affirmed.

A second convenient interpretation suggests that Louverture’s pronouncement counters the unconventional idea that Sonthonax the abolitionist was “The Author of Haitian freedom.” Whether Louverture was fairly concerned about black liberation (Beaubrun Ardouin) or always strove to achieve an emancipatory agenda (H. Pauleus Sannon, Aimé Césaire, C. L. R. James, and Stephen Alexis) says very little about the politics of Louverture’s rhetorics.[35] Toussaint Louveture strategically employed various language techniques that are egocentric such as rhetoric of intimidation to provoke revolutionary fear and concurrently advance the revolution to its culmination. Rhetorical persuasions are specifically goal oriented.

A thorough analysis of Louverture’s political writings, speeches and letters reveal that the latter employs constructive rhetorical discourses to accomplish two basic goals: the triumph of human freedom through the Haitian Revolution, and the process of constructing a new Black citizenry in the new republic. He seeks to eradicate the colonial evils, as he makes known in a public speech to the black community at Saint-Domingue: “The moment has arrived when the veil obscuring the light must fall.”[36] Although, the evil of slavery, the veil of darkness and colonialism had caused many pains and sufferings to African slaves in the colony, the courageous and determined Louverture, as he declared, was “animated by feelings of humanity and fraternity” and believed that “there can exist no possibility of the destruction of this sacred edifice . . . [the] love for freedom.”[37] This particular conviction illuminates further his declaration that “I am utterly unlike many others who witness scenes of horror in cold blood. I have always held humanity in common to all, and I suffer whenever I cannot prevent evil.”[38]

As the public intellectual of the Haitian Revolution, Louverture conceptualizes and defines the new Haitian identity through the articulation and nurturing of political speeches, which disclose his democratic vision and ideals as both revolutionary leader and Governor-in-chief of the island. Article 1 in Louverture’s 1801 constitution affirms the new republic’s commitment to universal freedom for all. The article envisions a new and postcolonial nation without slavery—a surprising new identity for former slaves—by declaring its end in the colony: “There cannot exist slaves on this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.” This particular text bears a performative functionality, fulfilling the new republic’s decisive goal and national loyalty toward universal emancipation in an era where racial slavery was intrinsic to New World societies and their cultural identity.

As he boards L’Héros for France, the imperial ship that would turn him into a transnational maroon in the Atlantic seas and ultimately a forced expatriate in the Metropole, Louverture pronounces to his captors these memorable words: “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of the liberty of the blacks; it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”[39] One can only imagine these thirty-four words would push forward the spirit of “the tree of the liberty of the blacks” to the final phase of the revolution. At this juncture, Louverture tries to accomplish two things, symbolically. The first move he undertakes is the yielding of the revolutionary spirit of freedom of the enslaved and the voice he incarnates. This is expressed in the first part of the dictum: “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of the liberty of the blacks.” His forced exile would mean that Louverture must also surrender his conscience to his people. The second move, much anticipated by the one who is going away, foretells the triumph of the spirit of the revolution. Yet “you have cut down,” Louverture tells his kidnappers, “only the trunk of the tree of the liberty of the blacks.” Louverture is undergoing an oceanic voyage, signaling the Middle Passage and the aquatic route their ancestors experienced a while ago.

He is going away involuntarily, in the same manner that some slaves sold themselves into the peculiar institution to Western merchants and others were giving into slavery.  In a surprising way, Louverture presents his life as a sacrifice for the liberty of his people. For example, in his long poet, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, the anticolonial poet Aimé Césaire honors Louverture with a moving eulogy. In fact, he interprets the life of Toussaint Louverture as a life of service and of sacrifice for the black race, and elsewhere Louverture, “The Opener of the way,” is depicted as “Le Sacrifice du peuple” (“The Sacrifice of the people”).[40] Césaire continues to inform us that Louverture the martyr disappeared in order to unite and reunite the people. Moreover, he reports that Louverture died (“Mourir comme Brissot. Comme Robespiere”) like Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a seminal figure of the Girondist movement during the French Revolution and one of the founding members of the abolitionist movement known as La Société des Amis des Noirs, and like Maximilien Robespierre, a member of the Jacobin Club and one of the most influential leaders of the French Revolution. Césaire interprets the surrender of Toussaint Louverture to France “as the sacrifice of a life, his own, that of a leader, is an act of faith, for the salvation of his people.”[41] The suffering and death of Toussaint Louverture is the ground for creating bonds of solidarity and racial consciousness as well as the catalyst for black unity in the island, forecasting Louverture’s “New branches will spring forth and bear fruit from the old root.” To the moment of death, Louverture remained loyal to his people. “Forever faithful to the masses of slaves, and committed to building alliances to reach his goal, he abandoned whoever that he, Toussaint, could be used against his people.”[42] As a social activist, he must foster unity among the people and lead them toward the same objective. Louverture believed that the unification of the slave community could reduce social tensions among them and was important in their struggle for liberty and equality, which he stressed, would not actualize unless the people are united for a common cause:

I have worked since the beginning [of the revolt] to make that happen, and to bring happiness to all. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause. [. . .] You say that you are fighting for liberty and equality? Is it possible that we could destroy ourselves, one against the other, and all fighting for the same cause? It is I who have undertaken [this struggle] and I wish to fight until it [liberty] exists [. . .] among us. Equality cannot exist without liberty. And for liberty to exist, we must have unity.[43]

While Louverture is stressing the importance for the slaves to unite in order to escape the evils and labyrinth of slavery and hegemonic Western colonialism, Louverture believed strongly that equality and liberty are inseparable human rights and “essential to any conceivable progress towards emancipation.”[44] In his letter to Govenor General Laveaux of Saint-Domingue—an issues which would take up in subsequent paragraphs—Louverture speaks fearlessly on behalf of his people to the General; he laments over social injustice against blacks in the colony and particularly on the problem of equality and liberty that has been denied to his people. Notice his playful rhetoric in the first few lines, as he makes this forceful declaration:

Alas, general, they wish as well to make us slaves; there is not equality here, as it seems there is with you. Look how the whites and coloured men who are with you are good and are united with the blacks. One would think they were brothers from the same mother. That, general, is what we call equality. Here it is not the same. We are looked down upon, they vex us at every turn. They don’t pay us what we are owed for the food we grow. They force us to give away our chicken and pigs for nothing when go to sell them in the city, and if we complain, they have us arrested by the police, and they throw us in prison without giving us anything to eat, and then make us pay to get out. You see, general, that one is not free if he is treated like this.[45]

Louverture as the voice and reflecting conscience of the will of the people often guided and told them exactly what they must to do in their fight toward liberation. Louverture acted as a moral force and catalyst in Saint-Domingue’s public sphere, challenged the slave system, the colonial order and colonial laws and authorities to take responsibility for social justice, black freedom and equality. He had depicted himself as a seeker of “truth about humanity and social justice, and for the betterment of blacks and all humanity.[46]

Briefly, I want to take us back to the 1801 statement already mentioned above. Remarkably, in my perspective, it is the elevation of Louverture’s speech tone that deserves our most attention: “I am only a branch” out of many. New branches will spring forth and bear fruit from the old root.[47] The meaning of the first metaphor is not clear. I would like to propose that Louverture construes his activist work in the anti-slavery tradition of his predecessors and contemporaries (i.e., Makandal, Boukman, Biasou, Jean-Francois, etc). The second imagery is a biblical illusion found in the prophetic book of Isaiah 11:1. Observe below the textual parallel between Isaiah’s prophecy and Louverture’s proclamation:

  • Toussaint: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse”
  • Isaiah: “I am only a branch out of many”
  • Toussaint: “From his roots a Branch will bear fruit”
  • Isaiah: “New branches will spring forth and bear fruit from the old root”

The Isaianic prophecy foresees the coming of the expected Jewish Messiah proceeded directly from the Davidic dynasty. Walter Brueggemann advises that this particular promise along others in the Hebrew Bible anticipates the eschatological new king, a practitioner of justice, who will assure the rehabilitation of the nation of Israel and restore the cosmic order.[48] Furthermore, Brueggemann posits that “from a theological perspective, what is important about these prophetic promises, whatever the specific content and whenever they may be dated, is that they are situated in the presence of prophetic judgment and threats.”[49] It is quite possible that Louverture knew about this prophetic passage in Isaiah, as a result he saw himself fulfilling a messianic mission in the context of the Haitian Revolution as the triumph of human freedom. At this point of his life, Louverture practices contextual biblical. He alludes to this particular prophetic text and interprets the history of the Haitian Revolution as the execution of this biblical promise. Louverture biographers inform us that “the Catholic religion became his own . . . and Louverture was outwardly an extremely devout Catholic.”[50] Substantially, Louverture probably invoked the Isaiah’s passage to foretell the forthcoming divine judgment upon the French empire and correspondingly to forecast the ending of slavery in the colony. At any rate, Louverture and his radical religious predecessors such as Francois Makandal and Dutty Boukman practiced the politics of God and used religion for their own gain.

In addition, this Louverturian forceful declaration in its anticolonial bent provokes horrors in the psychology of the French troops who heard him. The Black liberator insists that freedom is not a function of geography. Elsewhere in an address to soldiers for the universal destruction of slavery, Louverture employs the metaphor of “the tree of liberty” to declare his unqualified commitment to universal emancipation and his idea of freedom:

Let the sacred flame of liberty that we have won lead all our acts. [. . .] Let us go forth to plan the tree of liberty, breaking the chains of those of our brothers still held captive under the shameful yoke of slavery. Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the imprescriptible and inalienable rights of free men. [Let us overcome] the barriers that separate nations, and unite human species into a single brotherhood. We seek only to bring to men the liberty that [God] has given them, and that other men have taken from them only by transgressing His immutable will.[51]

Freedom Letters from General Louverture

The contour of (black) liberty is beyond the Saint-Dominguan landscape, his words imply. If these words are self-revealing truths, then the border of the tree of (black) liberty would have transnational effects: “it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep” and “Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the imprescriptible and inalienable rights of free men.” These two phrases are inseparable; they establish Louverture’s theoretical and central conception of freedom. Freedom, for the latter, is geographically unrestricted and globally stretched, which points to the repercussions of freedom story as the Haitian Revolution or other world revolutions (i.e., the American and French Revolutions). For Louverture, practical freedom must entail bringing the gift of freedom to other enslaved peoples and nations beyond Haitian boundaries. He emphasized that God as Creator has given liberty as a natural right to men and nations. As we have observed, these declarations signify Louverture’s philosophy of democracy and his strong belief in the doctrine of universal emancipation.

Subsequent to his installation as commander-in-chief in Saint-Domingue on May 2, 1797, Louverture wrote two apologetic letters to the French Directory, which date from October 28, 1797, and November  5, 1797, for two basic reasons. Both letters were written to defend the intents of the revolutionary slaves, and to rebuke erroneous charges made against Louverture and the enslaved community. These accusations were advanced both by the plantation owner Viennot Vaublanc, and the French general Donatien Rochambeau. It is good to point out here that the last phase of the revolution ended in 1804. It was because of Napoleon Bonaparte’s ultimate goal to reinstitute slavery in Saint-Domingue, which he did successfully in French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

With Louverture’s deportation to France in 1802, Napoleon invaded Saint-Domingue with his powerful army. In short, the indigenous army won the last war of independence and Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the independence of Haiti on January 1, 1804. The second letter (November 5, 1797) is well documented in by James and Tyson.67 The first letter is also found in Tyson; yet, both authors have insufficiently dealt with the rhetoric of these extraordinary letters. Nonetheless, what I hope to do in closing is to briefly illustrate Louverture’s skilful use of the rhetorical modalities in the interest of his people and in their struggle for social justice, human rights, and equality. The second letter is the most radical and is often viewed by historians as a symbolic representation of Louverture’s total commitment to general liberty and his absolute devotion to black freedom and human rights.

Several points need to be made. First of all, these letters were motivated by the collective interest and libertarian ideology of the enslaved community. The voice of the people through Louverture is made absolutely clear. The documents epitomize the slaves’ natural desire for freedom, a phenomenon that has been with them from the beginning. The intellectual preoccupation of the first letter is race vindication, whereas, the overarching theme of the second one is general emancipation. Observe below this provocative statement by Louverture, from the November 1792 letter:

We know that they seek to impose some of them on you by illusory and specious promises in order to see renewed in this colony its former scenes of terror. . . . But they will not succeed. I swear it by all that liberty holds most sacred. . . . My knowledge of the blacks, make it my duty not to leave you ignorant either 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.[52]

It is plain in the text that Louverture and the black masses under his leadership had decided to experience death at any cost; they feared the intention of some former French planters, slave owners, and landholders to restore slavery in the island. General liberty is the consequence of the affirmation and the justification of black humanity and dignity, and “the possibility of becoming subjects to a universal right to freedom”[53] The struggle for black sovereignty and collective subjectivity was the product of historical consciousness, group imagination, and ideological revelations. The militant black resistance expressed in Louverture’s brilliant rhetoric also frustrated the French hegemony in the island. Louverture’s intellectual integrity and moral courage lead him to oppose any future attempt of violence and/or the restoration of slavery in the colony. To refute various accusations and racist attacks made by Vienot Vaublanc, a member of the new elected right-ring French assembly of 1797, Louverture determines to defend republican ideals, the right of blacks to resist oppression, and ultimately the freedom of his people and the revolution. Vaublanc and several members of the Assembly questioned the capacity of black Africans for liberty and self-determination. Consequently, in the October 28 letter, Louverture “exposes the double standards by which colonial nations have always condemned the colonized people while justifying their own crimes and hypocrisy.”[54] Below is one of his most provocative texts:

Far be it from me to want to excuse the crimes of the revolution in St. Domingue by comparing them to even greater crimes, but citizen Vaublanc, while threatening us . . . didn’t bother to justify the crimes that have afflicted us and which could only be attributed to a small number. . . . However, this former proprietor of slaves couldn’t ignore what slavery was like; perhaps he had witnessed the cruelties exercised upon the miserable blacks, victims of their capricious masters, some of whom were kind but the greatest number of whom were true tyrants. And what would Vaublanc say . . . if, having only the same natural rights as us, he was in his turn reduced to slavery? Would he endure without complaint the insults, the miseries, the tortures, the whippings? And if he had the good fortune to recover his liberty, would he listen without shuddering to the howls of those who wished to tear if from him?[55]

Louverture continues his argument by insisting on human ontological sameness and the right of every individual or people to be evaluated not on the basis of social categories of color and/or race but on the content of their character and on their action:

Certainly not; in the same way he so indecently accuses the black people of the excesses of a few of their members, we would unjustly accuse the entirety of France of the excesses of a small number of partisans of the old system. Less enlightened than citizen Vaublanc, we know, nevertheless, that whatever their color, only one distinction must exist between men, that of good and evil. When blacks, men of color, and whites are under the same laws, they must be equally protected and they must be equally repressed when they deviate from them. Such is my opinion; such are my desires.[56]

The letters of October 28 and November 5 forcefully attacked institutional slavery in Saint-Domingue. Louverture made it obvious to the French Directory that the forces of slavery came to an end in the colony. He remarks, “But to-day when they have left it [slavery], if they had a thousand lives they would sacrifice them all rather be forced into slavery again. . . . But no, the same hand which has broken our chains will not enslave us anew.”[57] In the same line of thought, these two documents along with other important letters written by slaves are the political Manifestoes of the general will of the enslaved community at Saint-Domingue. Together these critical texts, directly addressed the representative body of the French government, interrogate the promise of the 1789 Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of man and its application in the colonial territory. To reiterate the cause of black freedom, Louverture appealed to the “French Freedom Principle” as well as the conscience of the Nation’s authorities:

France will not revoke her principles, she will not withdraw from us the greatest of her benefits. . . . She will not permit her sublime morality to be perverted, those principles which do her most honour to be destroyed, her most beautiful achievement to be degraded, and her Decree of 16 Pluviose which so honours humanity to be revoked.[58]

At this point, Louverturian rhetorical tone and seemingly, his undivided faith in France, and the unprecedented conviction that the Empire will not deny these rights and freedoms to blacks are puzzling. On the other hand, for Toussaint the rhetoric of liberté, égalité, fraternité would become for the slaves a means for political empowerment, political action, revolutionary freedom, and their deliberate pursuit of self-governance. If France would not respond appropriately, then the enslaved people would be forced to “make the way by walking it.”[59] In the November 1797 letter, Toussaint Louverture took a daring stand on republican values and this was the key turning point for him as general leader in bolstering Saint-Domingue’s liberty.[60] Toussaint overtly challenged the ontological foundations of colonial imperialism, racial slavery, and white supremacy altogether. When the threat was made to reimpose racial slavery at Saint-Domingue, Louverture deliberately manipulated language and used it as a deadly weapon to make known the community’s decisive commitment to liberty and common loyalty: “The oath that we renew, [is] to bury ourselves under the ruins of a country revived by liberty rather than suffer the return of slavery.”[61] It is evident that the Commander-in-chief had compromised his unconditional dedication to universal justice and the aspiration for freedom on behalf of his race in the colony. For the latter, freedom means the pure categorical imperative of human emancipation, that is, general liberty and the physical transition from slavery to liberty.


Throughout this essay,  I have suggested that we should nderstand Louverture’s role as public intellectual, social activist, and anticolonial prophet of black freedom and human rights. Through my close reading of his political writings, I able to see how his ideas contributed to the theoretical concept of the revolutionary rhetoric of freedom. I  have been able to trace some key words and phrases in the radical language of Louverture as the revolutionary leader of the Haitian Revolution par excellence. I have also observed a pattern of ideological links and thought that reflect Louverture’s grand commitment to the principles of justice and natural rights. I have contended that Louverture had ambitious drive toward freedom and a desire for the slave community to live in a free society without slavery. Ideological sentiments in the collective sense against the institution of slavery and toward freedom are dominant features of this discourse.

Further, I  have also pointed out various textual connections (i.e., textuality, echoes, allusions, textual parallels) and the ideological connections particularly in all three letters by Toussaint—July 1792, August 1797, and November 1797—and his other political ideas. Freedom for Louverture meant the articulated vision of general emancipation as the general will of the slave community. As he stressed elsewhere his political ideology and philosophy of freedom: “We are free by natural right . . . who could dare claim the right to reduce into servitude men made like them and whom nature has made free.”[62] However, freedom as general liberty meant different things in application to various segments of the slave population. The letter dated July 1792 represents the organized will of the slave community through the forceful ideas of Louverture. It indicates in clear terms the collective renunciation of slavery by the masses and their aspiration for collective emancipation. Louverture’s first public announcement, “I want liberty and equality to reign in Saint-Domingue” is perhaps the most comprehensive statement of general emancipation in the epic of the Haitian Revolution, comparable to the letter dated July 1792.

Louverture’s many statements bore a pragmatic force, characterizing the revolution’s rhetoric. In a sense, his rhetoric contributed to the birth of the new republic—the postcolonial Haiti—that was to be. The ideological motives and rhetorical motifs associated with Louverture’s writings and the literature of Haitian Revolution represent a rich vocabulary including but not limited to the following concepts: liberty, emancipation, independence, free, people, death, slave, human rights, hearts, master, slavery, black, white, live, free, die, etc. Toussaint Louverture exploited these rhetorical declaratives to call to arms, to incite fear to motivate, but also to encourage, desire, and resolve.

The Revolutionary rhetoric of freedom embodied in creative speech acts, had performed its intended objective, the will of the slaved community. Finally, the Haitian Revolution—through the voice and rhetorical precision of Louverture—and its success was a particular vision of the good life and a particular conception of the good, in the interest of humanity—which were both defined by the revolution’s historical trajectories and social location. In seeking total emancipation, Toussaint through his political writings and public functions had sacrificed his individual interests in order to actualize the general welfare of the slave community. These symbolic gestures are consistent with the principles that guided and sustained his commitment: collective self-determination, shared purpose, and self-expression. Toussaint Louverture’s various roles as the public intellectual par excellence of the Haitian Revolution, social activist, and anticolonial prophet of black freedom and human rights are rooted in a robust form of human solidarity of shared values of communal determination and mutual commitment, and in his immediate and unflagging commitment to human liberty and decolonization.

Source: Celucien L. Joseph , Revolutionary Change and Democratic Religion (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2020).

[1] Nesbitt, Toussaint L’Ouverture, xxliv. Nesbitt has translated into English several letters by Toussaint from the French as well his political writings and speeches. I shall heavily rely on Nesbitt’s text for my engagement with and analysis of Toussaint’s political ideas and writings. In the opening page of his “Note on the Texts,” Nesbitt writes, “The correspondence of Toussaint L’Ouverture is vast, and remains to a great degree unpublished, dispersed across the globe in various archives and private collections, awaiting a critical edition.” David Patrick Geggus voices similar concerns about Toussaint’s correspondence, Haitian Revolutionary Studies.

I am also relying on the French original letters, speeches, and political writings, as edited by Gerard Mentor Laurent, Toussaint Louverture à travers sa correspondence, 1794–1798. C. L. R. James in his classic work, The Black Jacobins, on the Haitian Revolution, had translated into English two important letters by Toussaint: the October 28, 1797, and November 5, 1797, letters. These same correspondences in English translation can be found in George F. Tyson, Toussaint L’Ouverture. There is also another significant letter dated July 1792 by Toussaint which biographer Madison Smartt Bell had translated and incorporated in his new biography on the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. Throughout this chapter, I shall be referring to and quoting these texts or authors.

[2] Nesbitt, Toussaint L’Ouverture, xxliv.

[3] Quoted in Nesbitt, Toussaint L’Ouverture, xxliv.

[4] Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 5.

[5] Matthew Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2010), 6.

[6] Bell, Master of the Crossroads: A Novel of Haiti (New York: Vintage Books, 2000).

[7] Nick Nesbitt, “Self-Portrait, 1801,” in Toussaint Louverture: The Haitian Revolution (Brooklyn: Verso, 2008), 40.

[8] Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 171.

[9] Thomas Ott, The Haitian Revolution, 1789-1804 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1973), 128.

[10] Ibid., 128.

[11] Dubois, Avengers of the New World, 172.

[12] Nesbitt, “Letter to Laveaux, 20 February 1796,” 22.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] Guillaume-Thomas-Francois Raynal first published  his 10 vols. work, L’Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, in1770.

[16] Qt in Dubois, Avengers of the New World, 57-58; Raynal, L’Histoire philosophique et politique,3:204-205.

[17] Nesbitt, “Self-Portrait, 1801,”40-1.For further studies on the person of Toussaint Louverture and his transatlantic legacy, see excellent studies by C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989 [1938]);Aimé Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: La révolution française et le problème colonial (Paris : Présence Africaine, 1962); Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture : A Biography (New York : Vintage Books, 2008) ; Matthew J. Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

[18] Dubois, 57.

[19] [19]Yet, we must stress that the revolutionary effort of Louverture and his counterparts (i.e., Makandal, Boukman, Jean-François, Biassou, Belair, etc) and the courageous maroons must be studied jointly.

[20] James, The Black Jacobins, 196.

[21] For further research on Douglass, see his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001 [1845]), and My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005 [1855]).

[22] Maulana Karenga, “Nommo, Kawaida, and Communicative Practice: Bringing Good into the World,” in Ronald L. Jackson II and Elaine B. Richardson, eds., Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations (New York: Routledge, 2003), 5.

[23] The Haitian Revolution was one of the few successful achievements in the human struggle toward freedom—the right to life and to live—which in its own unique way contributed potentially to the forward flow of human emancipation and a better world, especially the affirmation of the basic rights of dignity, respect, and equality for all men and women and its substantial impact in eradicating slavery both in North America and Latin America. For the impact and aftereffects of the Haitian Revolution in the Americas and the Atlantic World, see the various texts mentioned cited above as well these influential two studies: Alfred N. Hunt Haiti, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2006 [1988]); David Geggus, The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001).

[24] Junius P. Rodriguez, ed., Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2007), 516; On the relationship between slavery and Atlantic economy, see Sidney Ratner, Soltow, and Richard Sylla, eds., The Evolution

[25] For further studies, see Robert Aldrich Greater France (1996).

[26] The most comprehensive and detailed study on this watershed moment in 1793 is treated in Jeremy D. Popkin’s brilliant book, You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[27] David Geggus wrote the best work on the British occupation of the French island of Saint-Domingue, Slavery, War and Revolution: The British Occupation of Saint Dominque, 1793-1798 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

[28] Nick Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 202-3.

[29] Nesbitt, “Proclamation,” 1.

[30] I borrow the expression “modernity in black” from Frank M. Kirkland, “Modernity and Intellectual Life in Black,” in John P. Pittman, ed., African American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions (New York: Routledge, 1997), 136-166.

[31] Nick Nesbitt, “Troping Toussaint, Reading Revolution,” Research in African Literatures 35:2 (2004), 22.

[32] Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies, 127.

[33] Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture, de l’esclavage au pouvoir (Paris : l’Ecole, 1979), 21; Nathalie Piquionne, “Lettre de Jean-François, Biassou et Belair, Juillet 1792,” Annalles historiques de la révolution françaises 311 (1998): 136.

[34] Ott, The Haitian Revolution, 83.

[35] Geggus provides the most succinct summary of the various theories on this issue in Haitian Revolutionary Studies, 119-136.

[36] Nesbitt, “Toussaint L’Ouverture to His Brothers and Sisters in Varettes, 22 March 1794,” 13.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Nesbitt, “Letter to General Laveaux, 18 May 1794,”10.

[39] Bell, Toussaint Louverture, 265; Clavin, Toussaint Louverture, 2.

[40] In his long poet, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, the anticolonial poet Aimé Césaire honors Louverture with a moving eulogy. In fact, he interprets the life of Toussaint Louverture as a life of service and of sacrifice for the black race, and elsewhere Louverture “The Opener of the way” is depicted as “Le Sacrifice” du peuple (“The Sacrifice of the people”), Toussaint Louverture, 309-314.  Césaire continues to inform us that Louverture the martyrdisappearedin order to unite and reunite the people. Moreover, he reports that Louverture died(“Mourir comme Brissot. Comme Robespiere.”)like Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a seminal figure of the Girondist movement during the French Revolution and one of the founding members of the abolitionist movement known as La Société des Amis des Noirs, and likeMaximilien Robespierre, a member of the Jacobin Club and one of the most influential leaders of the French Revolution. Cesaire interprets the surrender of Toussaint Louverture to France “as the sacrifice of a life, his own, that of a leader, is an act of faith, for the salvation of his people,” Gregson Davis, Aimé Césaire (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 140.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Jean Bertrand-Aristide, “Introduction,”  in Nick Nesbitt, Toussaint Louverture, xiv.

[43] Nesbitt, “Proclamation, 29 August 1793,” 1-2.

[44] Nesbitt, “Note on the Texts,” in Nesbitt, Toussaint Louverture, xlv.

[45] Nesbitt, “Letter to Laveaux, 20 February 1796,” 23.

[46] Ibid., 3.

[47] Isaiah 11:1. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (The New International Version, 2010).

[48] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 171.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Bell, Toussaint Louverture, 21, 59; Dubois, Avengers of the New World, 173.

[51] Nesbitt, “Address to Soldiers for the Universal Destruction of Slavery,” 28.

[52] James, The Black Jacobins, 195.

[53] Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation, 139.

[54] George F. Tyson, Toussaint L’Ouverture (New York: Prentice Hall, 1973), 35.

[55] Ibid., 43.

[56] Ibid.

[57] James, The Black Jacobins, 196.

[58] James, The Black Jacobins, 197.

[59] Peter Hallward, “The will of the people: notes towards a dialectical voluntarism,” Radical philosophy 155 (2009), 1.

[60] Carolyn Fick, “The Saint-Domingue Slave Revolution and the Unfolding Independence, 1791-1804,” in David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering, eds., The World of the Haitian Revolution (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009), 178-181.

[61] James, The Black Jacobins, 195.

[62] Nesbitt, “Letter to Jean Francois, 13 June 1795,” 16.

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