The Haitian Revolution and the Origins of Modern Democracy was presented by Jeremy D. Popkin is the William T. Bryan Chair of History at the University of Kentucky. He focused on the years 1776, 1789, 1804. The events he described are over two hundred years ago yet the term “Haitian Revolution” has been used only in the past few decades. From the Haitian revolution we learn that how significant the Haitian Revolution is and how we consider revolutions when comparing it to American and French revolutions. What truly stood out to me throughout the lecture was Bryan’s ability to relate the events discussed to today’s classrooms.
Jeremy Popkin’s talk “Haitian Revolution and the Origins of Modern Democracy” discussed the many revolutions Haiti underwent (1776, 1789, and 1804) to establish itself as a democracy. Popkin provided insight into how the Haitian Revolution is often overlooked, forgotten, and/or disregarded. However, as unique as the Haitian Revolution was for becoming the first African-American run democracy in the New World, there may be legitimate reasons for historians to overlook the revolution.
What has the Haitian Revolution resulted in? Was it truly successful? Historians choose to delve into significant historical events. Why? Significant events, such as the American revolution, are more apt to influence subsequent historical occurrences. An event like the Haitian Revolution, although having potential to empower freed African-Americans and former slaves, did not change the world sphere. Rather, the event passed by. Some people may point to racial injustices, I would point to how the Haitians’ independence didn’t involve high stake powers and was separated from the, at the time, main-stream world.
This is my personal reflection regarding the Haitian Revolution. Although many historians will continually point to racial injustices, I would argue it would be worthwhile for them to at least consider this point of view, and at least bring it up, or counter it, when calling for people to reconsider overlooked historical events.
As we have spent months focusing on the theme of Revolutions, I have thought back to countless history classes detailing the revolutions of developed nations worldwide. However, as the semester went on, and I as listened to Professor Popkin’s lecture, I recognized the degree to which Western schooling marginalizes and suppresses the narrative of non-white revolutions, such as that which occurred in Haiti. This post will explore why Western learning ignores the stories of oppressed non-white populations, and why the Haitian revolution has meaning and context today.
“He only listens to the suffering of his own people.” I remember as a young learner in middle school, my 8th grade American History teacher opened our course with an aphorism that was meant to guide and contextualize our learning for the year. In his mind, history was indeed a story told by the victorious, that the suffering, the subjugated, and the seriously underdeveloped were, in the annals of history, the voiceless. My teacher wanted us to acknowledge that suffering was not a path to having your story told in a favorable, or empathetic manner: instead, suffering almost guaranteed your story would not be told at all. Indeed, in conflicts amongst the greatest political bodies, there are losers, too. However, the Napoleonic Wars that produced the Vienna Conference, which established balance of power politics as the governing ideology in international relations, did not produce a loser that for decades after would suffer from complete government instability and widespread disillusionment in the population. The point here is that when the dust settled from the Battle of Ticonderoga, or when the streets were finally filled again after the Battle of Trafalgar, no state was left considering whether the structure of their country would prevail, whether their ideals would find their way to the next generation, and most importantly, whether it was safe enough to engender a next generation.
Enter here the story of the Haitian Revolution, the largest slave rebellion in world history, and a tale of grassroots collaboration and the fight against colonialism that not only saw the little guy emerge victorious, but managed to be hid under the volumes of textbook readings that would rather discuss the “enlightening” and “democratic” French revolution. The Haitians fought tooth over nail for 12 years to gain their independence from a country that was at that point, growing disinterested in the daily proceedings of their colony (France), but was nonetheless unwilling to slight their pride by giving the Haitians independence. In this incredible irony, that France did not care but cared enough to protect pride, we see a major struggle of oppressed groups. Only when the dominating, first world power grows tired of expending resources does an uprising become an option, and even still, if that option becomes a victory, the story will not be told, for it is a dangerous precedent in the mind of the colonizer to let the colonized win, and even more costly to let them spread the tale of freedom to other subjugated groups. This is why we see the tale of history ignore the various Latin American revolutions that gave independence to millions and a hero to a country, such as with Simon Bolivar. Because for those countries that will always be on top, letting the little guy get the notion that somewhere in the distance, after the battlefields and funerals, freedom lays in the form of a revolution, is paramount to passing around “get out of jail free” cards in the international arena.
I remember during my freshman year of high school our history class was called “Global Studies” and the class focused on forgotten or often neglected history. One of the first topics we studied was the Haitian Revolution and I remember being very interested in it. Hearing Professor Jeremy Popkin’s talk brought me back to freshman year of high school learning about important historical figures like Toussaint Louverture. Like other history in that class, the Haitian Revolution is usually pushed to the side in favor of the American Revolution and the French Revolution even though all of these revolutions took place in the same twenty year span. The American Revolution occurred first and in part inspired the Haitian and French Revolutions. The French Revolution, however became the spark for the Haitian Revolution after the French revolutionaries declared that all men be free and equal and when word spread to Haiti, a French colony, the African slaves of the island agreed and decided to rise up. The Haitian Revolution was the first and only slave uprising that led to the establishment of a free state without slavery and ruled by non-whites and former slaves. This feat needs to be recognized more in today’s society as one of the marquee revolutions in history.
The American and French Revolutions are praised as marking the beginning of the end of many absolute monarchies and ushering in liberal democracies and republics. However, the American Revolution did not abolish slavery and even though the French Revolution did, Napoleon Bonaparte brought it back when he rose to power. When the word “revolution” is brought up in a historical context, these are the first two revolutions that come to mind. The Haitian Revolution is less recognized in today’s society and in history, even though it did more by establishing a free state AND truly creating a free society for all men (women is a different story unfortunately) by abolishing slavery. What does this say about our society? At a liberal arts school, the first inclination is to blame it on inherent and institutionalized racism throughout our society. And do not get me wrong, I consider myself liberal and I believe there is institutionalized racism in our world. However, I find it difficult to put all the blame for societal negligence of the Haitian Revolution on racism. I believe it has a role given that the most studied history has been about white men.
Instead of blaming racism for ignoring the Haitian Revolution, I think it is important to follow Professor Popkin’s model and emphasize the Haitian Revolution as being as important as it needs to be when discussing historical revolutions. By being proactive and getting the word out instead of blaming these theoretical, wide-ranging entities like “society”, the Haitian Revolution will have a better chance of getting the historical credit it deserves. Popkin emphasized that the scholarship of the Haitian Revolution has blown up in recent years, which is an avenue of recognition that can place it in its appropriate place in world history.
Some of the most significant political revolutions took place in the late 18th and early 19th Century. The American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789, which gave birth to democracy and outlined the idea of power amongst the common people. But Wait. We are still missing one major event. Its the Haiti Revolution, which took place in 1804. This event saw the rise of power of slaves to overthrow the colonial French rule and establish an independent empire of Haiti. If you probably never heard about the ‘Haiti Revolution’ until now, there is no need to be worried. You are not alone. Time and time again it has been overlooked by the western historians, simply because it was caused by the blacks.
Jeremy D. Popkin, in his lecture ‘New Perspectives on the Haitian Revolution’ discussed in detail about the Haiti Revolution, which took place in the ‘age of revolutions’. Amongst many things he discussed as to why Haiti Revolution is not talked about much. Possibly because, being caused by blacks, historians did not simply consider it a revolution. Maybe, for them, it was more like a black uprising. this also talks a lot about how racism in general has evolved over the years. By establishing an independent empire of Haiti, the black slaves had strived for liberty and independence. Yet they were not provided the glory of the American and the French revolution.
It is important that whole of mankind remembers the Haiti Revolution. For it is events like this which inspire people, encourage them to take on the world and bring about a change, a revolution.
Like others, maybe at best I had heard about the Haitian Revolution in the past, but not in enough detail to fully recall it. It was a landmark and unique event that is startlingly absent in public knowledge. I understand there are many other examples of forgotten history because a person can only remember so much, but I wish I knew more about the significance and outcomes of painful past events. The silence surrounding the Haitian Revolution has done us a disservice, but when we separate it from the French Revolution and focus on just the Haitian Revolution, we fill in an important piece in the history of freedom and democracy. There are lessons that can be learned from both the good and bad aspects of the Haitian Revolution.
Memory is one simple way of honoring those who lost lives for a cause. A revolution changes a place, a country, and the world. And for maximum effect, any positive or negative change must be remembered, even if its meaning changes over time. Maybe at points certain ideas or past struggles lose relevance in the public mind, and those are instead held in books and by scholars, but in the future, almost anything could become relevant again. And one of our greatest insights into the future–maybe the only one–is the past, and often we are still surprised by both human future and past.
Like our revolutions themed lecture on monuments by Jeffrey Schnapp from the week before, the past can often be reframed, lost, or destroyed, even if at one time it was seemingly immortalized in stone. As is the saying: Forgetting the past, while not in all cases, may lead to similar mistakes in the future. This can be from something as minute as a mistake on an exam all the way up to a war, or revolutionary struggle for rights. Even very recent and very clear pertinent things sometimes must be reiterated, especially if false notions exist. Like how China recently reminded politicians in the United States that climate change is not an invented hoax, and that furthermore, it was republicans over 30 years ago who began climate negotiations. Now the same party denies its existence. Possibly the only thing worse than forgetting hard lessons learned in the past is actively “forgetting” them by creating misinformation to serve current interests. In the case of the Haitian Revolution, it seems to have been overshadowed or omitted in history books, despite how clearly unique it is from the American and French Revolutions. Haiti was fighting for freedom for all and to abolish slavery, things the US would not fight for or accomplish until many years later. Possibly governments around the time selectively “forgot” and misinformed, or didn’t inform to prevent uprisings against slavery in their countries. This is another example of the danger in covering up world history and only learning and considering one perspective of any historical event. The Haitian Revolution was far ahead of its time, and its recognition is far behind. Hopefully, we continue to gain new perspectives and learn more about forgotten events.
Despite having attended a boarding school that claims to be one of the leading high schools in the United States and world (I say this not as a brag, but as a critique), I had never come across the Haitian Revolution until this lecture. However, this does not diminish the severity or significance of this Revolution in the slightest, and in fact causes further intrigue for its lack of acknowledgement in education. Furthermore, Professor Jeremy T. Popkin compared the Haitian Revolution to that of the American Revolution, and French Revolution, two of the most (objectively) covered and studied revolutions in global history. While I am now aware of the event, an important question to ask in response to this, is why wasn’t I before? If the Revolution had such profound effects, surely I should have learned about it? Professor Popkin spoke to this, sharing that those who take curiosity in the event are primarily African-American, allowing for the event to quickly dissipate from the minds of the eurocentric, white world. I fully stand with Professor Popkin in this regard, as this slave rebellion in Haiti marks an astounding moment in Haitian, and global history. Popkin also notes its negligence is potentially a result of how astounding a feat it truly was – one that may be deemed greater than the American Revolution, with slaves overtaking the ever-powerful, white, governmental leaders. In a form of censorship, are we washing away the successes of others to avoid being perceived as vulnerable? This continued, Euro-centric perspective is dangerous as it assumes a lack of inequality and the presence of a social hierarchy, one that the Haitian slaves worked so hard to remove. Seemingly, this is a revolution that should be acknowledge to an equal significance as the American revolution, if not greater. Despite not being an American victory, this revolution precisely stands for (what I believe are) the American values of equality and justice. The breaking down of social hierarchies, power structures, and racial inequalities are the exact example which the present-day United States could use, showing how truly forward-thinking and progressive this revolution was. This lack of acknowledgement of history is negatively indicative of our appreciation for international justice, potentially questioning our very values at home. However, it is also impossible to recognize the historic event, without acknowledging its downfalls. While the liberation was not as widespread as anticipated, this still serves as a moment of recognition, one that must be analyzed, celebrated, AND critiqued all at a much greater depth.
Professor Jeremy T. Popkin’s lecture shed a new light on the subject of the Haitian Revolution that began in 1804. He compared it to the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789. Popkin noted the similarities between the American and French Revolution and how they different from the Haitian Revolution. He also explained that the Haitian Revolution has been belittled throughout history, and silenced as a significant revolutionary event by the Western world until the mid-1990’s, almost 200 years after it occurred.
Many people consider the American Revolution the event that caused revolutions against corrupt leaders throughout the western world. When the colonies proved that they could overcome the British superpower, other oppressed people were inspired to overthrow their monarchies since they has a newfound sense of hope of success. France followed this trend. Soon after the American Revolution, the French people rebelled against their monarch Louis XVI Capet. Unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution did not end with a solid political structure but continued with rebellions against anyone that claimed power until Napoleon assumed control.
The Haitian people were enslaved members of the French Colony, and playd a role in the French Revolution. Toussaint L’Ouverture was the leader of the Haitian Revolution; although, he ironically did not support revolutionaries during the French Revolution. L’Ouverture, in fact, kept ties with the French monarchy even after revolutionaries had taken control of the government. L’Ouverture lead to black insurrection against French colonizers that enslaved black Haitian people. The Haitian Revolution has been defined by violence, where the American and French Revolutions were defined by liberty and freedom. This is ironic since they Haitian Revolutionaries arguably were also fighting for freedom, but from slavery as opposed to an oppressive government. Liberty and freedom are regarded as positive qualities, where violence is considered negative. Perhaps the Haitian Revolution has been defined by its violence to give the revolution less esteem. Throughout history, the Haitian Revolution has been silenced due to racist undertones from those responsible for recognizing its significance. This inherent racism in those that decided important event of history may have lead to the definition of the Haitian Revolution as a violent event.
While the ideology of the American Revolution promoted that “all men are created equal,” the nation post-revolution allowed the continuation of slavery, thus denying that black deserve equal rights. The Haitian Revolution, lead by blacks, truly worked to insist that all people, regardless of race, deserved equal rights. Ironically, the United States was considered the first “free” nation even though a significant population of its people were enslaved.