The French Revolution was a very important event in history, and it was a critical event in the development of France. When most revolutions take place, the enduring legacy of those events is felt most principally in the place where the people have chosen to revolt. The French Revolution was different, however. It also played a role in changing the reality for a number of other countries, including the slaves in Haiti who overthrew their oppressors in order to live free. In Haiti, a brutal form of slavery was practiced, and French control of the island meant that France was profiting in a major way from the exploitation of the slaves there. When the French Revolution – with its message of equality and the rights of man – came about, the new French ideology was tested, and the French leadership was required to think about the full and lasting implications of its ideas. Ultimately, the existence of the Haitian Revolution means that the French Revolution’s legacy is as much about slavery as it is about the rights of determinism of the French people.
When the people of France first started clamoring for independence, word of the movement spread all the way to Haiti. There, rich, white people were lording over a host of slaves and a prospering economy, but the revolution in France made those whites think that they, too, could break free from the French crown. Free blacks on the island understood that revolution was a possibility, but they knew that if the rich whites led the revolution, Haiti may turn into an even harsher place to be a slave or be a free black person. What this did, then, was condense the timeline and provide an impetus to action for the black people in Haiti. They knew that they had to act to have their own revolution before the whites on the island could lead a revolution, and the conditions were right for those kinds of revolts. The French Revolution in many ways caused the Haitian Revolution to speed up.
Likewise, the Haitian Revolution was complicated by the existence of the new French focus on the rights of man. Early in the French Revolution, the country’s prominent thinkers penned a document outlining what they thought to be the indomitable human rights of all people. While they meant that document to be a memorial to the human rights they should get to experience in France, it truly was a universal document, and many of the free black leaders in Haiti began to use its words against the French. How could the French talk about the rights of man to be free while also holding an entire slave colony? While it may be true that the Haitian free blacks, along with the revolting slaves, could have taken over the island with a fully motivated France fighting against it, the truth was that France did not have its heart in holding Haiti. Rather, it gave a disinterested effort, largely because there was a conflict in the French soul about whether it was even acceptable to own a slave colony like Haiti. What this meant, then, was that the French Revolution served to weaken France’s ideological position in holding Haiti, making it much easier for the Haitian Revolution to take place.
If one is to argue that the events of the Haitian Revolution overwhelm the significance of the French Revolution alone, then one must consider the things that the Haitian Revolution did. For perhaps the first time in the Atlantic area, the Haitian Revolution empowered black people, both free and slave. More than that, it prompted fear in the hearts and minds of those European colonies that were holding slaves. In Haiti, slaves had revolted, and they had successfully taken control of their own territory and their own lives. This made some slave owners think that revolt was a legitimate possibility in America and in other places. It might be going too far to say that the Haitian Revolution brought about the end of American slavery.
After all, it was not until the Civil War seven decades later that the United States finally took to the job of dismantling its slave culture. Still, the Haitian Revolution did plant the seeds of doubt in white farmers and provide hope to slaves in America that they could potentially be free. While the ability of the French to overthrow their government and establish some human rights standards was an important achievement, the effects of the Haitian Revolution on slavery were potentially an even bigger achievement. Because the French Revolution essentially made the Haitian version possible, the French Revolution’s legacy is forever tied to its impact in curing slavery in North America, even if this is not what the French intended to accomplish with their efforts.
Ultimately, the French Revolution is a complex event that had a long and broad impact on a number of different areas. It is certainly true that in a vacuum, on its own, the French Revolution was important both to the people of France and citizens of the world. The French Revolution provided the conditions in which Haiti could be liberated, and for that reason, its legacy is as much about slavery as it is about French determinism. The Haitian Revolution sparked change in an entire structure of power, and this ranks as one of the most significant events of the eighteenth century.