When we think of democracy, our minds jump to places like France and the United States, who published declarations of independence in 1789 and 1776. One of the most prominent books on the subject, The Age of the Democratic Revolution (by RR Palmer) focused mainly on these two revolutions and only mentioned the Haitian revolution at the very end of the book. The Haitian revolution was all but silenced until very recently, and was never really seen as a part of the history of democracy. Only at the very end of the 20th century did the Haitian revolution begin to be considered as a part of democratic revolutions.
Modern historians would likely argue that the US, French and Haitian declarations of independence should be grouped together, and if anything, the Haitian revolution should have been seen as the start to modern democracy and not the other two. The Haitian revolution towards democracy truly realized the ideal of the movement of enlightenment and had the idea of rights for people of all colors far before the French or the American people. Their original Declaration of Independence (in 1804) recognized that all of the people in Haiti were granted rights, regardless of their skin color. This was unthinkable even as it happened, and was likely part of the reason that the history of this revolution was silenced afterwards.
Both the American and French Declaration’s of Independence fell short in this category of equality and neither abolished slavery or gave full rights to those who were not white men. In 1804, Haiti was highlighting issues of race and of slavery. Just a few years earlier, American and French documents were actively opposing it and only giving full rights to certain people. France did technically abolish slavery around this time (the abolition law passed in 1794), but this did not stick, and they needed to abolish slavery once again closer to 1848. The American and French democratic revolutions were triumphs of reason and freedom while the Haitian revolution added equality to this description.
These revolutions, while all similar in the end point, had very different founding moments and very different levels of violence. The US revolution was peaceful in comparison to the other two, with just a small amount of violence. The French revolution towards democracy was certainly more based on violence than the US revolution, as evidenced by the Burning of Cap Francais. The Haitian revolution, however, was the most violent of all three, and the revolution itself was essentially defined by violence.
The definition of violence in this revolution was offset by myth. With no eye witness testimony’s of the founding moment of Haiti, known as Bois Caiman, the opportunity to fantasize the event was certainly taken advantage of by the Haitian people. With only stories, and no literature published until years in the future, it is not clear exactly what did happen that day, but the stories told by word of mouth have been put down as the history of the founding day.
The silencing of this revolution has clouded our understanding of the democratic history, and bringing this revolution to light has given us a better understanding of the world around us.