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Chapter 03

Paradox of Liberty & the Founding of America

The paradox of the American Revolution―the fight for liberty in an era of widespread slavery―is embedded in the foundations of the United States. The tension between slavery and freedom—who belongs and who is excluded—resonates through the nation’s history and spurs the American people to wrestle constantly with building “a more perfect Union.” This paradox was embedded in national institutions that are still vital in the nation to this day.

Illustration of Revolution in Haiti

Section IVDiasporic Fight for Freedom

Age of Black Revolution

The revolutionary spirit arrived in the Americas when the first slave ships reached shore. Confronting lifelong enslavement and the enslavement of their children, Africans fought for freedom on many fronts. These revolutionary ideas spread throughout Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, connecting this wide diaspora through ships, newspapers, smuggled pamphlets, and word of mouth.

The Haitian Revolution, 1791–1804

Haitian Rada Drums

The Haitian Revolution shook the institution of slavery throughout the New World, and left enslavers in the United States terrified of a slave rebellion. Inspired by the French Revolution, those enslaved on the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) rebelled in 1791. Led by a brilliant political and military leader, Toussaint Louverture, the rebels secured the entire island after 10 years of fighting and issued a Constitution abolishing slavery. After Louverture’s death, Lt. Jean-Jacque Dessalines continued the revolution and declared independence in 1804.

Haitian Rada Drums

Revolution in Haiti

Toussaint Louverture, 1743–1803

Toussaint Louverture said that he "was born a slave, but nature gave [him] the soul of a free man." Throughout his life he fought for freedom. He was born enslaved in Bréda on Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) but freed in 1776 at age 33. Well-educated, he could speak both French and Kreyol. During the Haitian Revolution he used his military, political, and economic knowledge to govern the country. There are no known portraits of Louverture. His legacy lay in his actions, founding the first republic to ban slavery.

Letter from Louverture to Charles Humbert de Vincent, 1797

Toussaint Louverture campaigned tirelessly on behalf of enslaved people during the Haitian Revolution, and his actions helped push France to abolish slavery in all its colonies in 1794. He wrote this letter in response to a speech in French parliament calling for slavery's restoration on Saint-Domingue. In a strongly worded statement, he declared that "virtue and truth have always triumphed over vice and hypocrisy."

The Cabildo

Cabildo Records, 1785–1802

The Spanish governor, Baron Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet, nervously witnessed the effect of the ongoing French and Haitian Revolutions on Louisiana. Enslaved people began to boldly claim their freedom. The governor’s mixed reactions are detailed in the records of the Cabildo, or governor’s office.

Cabildo Records, 1785–1802

Translation of Cabildo Document No. 4

If Dorville or Brule have stated the propositions made to them, have them appear in front of you and confess the truth of the matter, but if all these plots are extended to the citizens and inhabitants for the purpose of distracting them from the confidence they had in the Government, it causes them to commit, in good faith, atrocities that have destroyed the French colonies. Disabuse them [of this notion], dispel the cloud that obscures their understanding and assure them that as long as we are united we do not have to fear either the enemies of our August Monarch or those [enemies] who are secretly among us. I will accompany the troops to reassure the inhabitants of Pointe Coupee, intimidate the culprits [of this plot], and ensure the execution of those who are judged worthy of death [in accordance with] the laws, the observation of which will be the unique guide of conduct for my actions.

God rest your Lordships in his holy keeping,

New Orleans, May 1, 1795.

Baron of Carondelait