In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-written book on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 16. Beginning in the eighteenth century with Enlightenment hope and ending in the twentieth with postmodern despair, this chapter explores how the changing character of movements for social and political liberation have influenced moral thought – and how changing moral conceptions have, in turn, influenced movements for liberation. This extract is from the beginning of the chapter, and tells the story of the Haitian Revolution and what that revolution reveals about the relationship between morality and politics in the modern world.

Aimé Césaire, the Martinique-born poet and statesman, once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Christopher Columbus had landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed Saint-Domingue, as it called its colony, into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet which was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.

Slaves had always resisted their enslavement. What transformed that resistance into something far more historic was another revolution 5000 miles away. The French Revolution of 1789 provided both the material and the moral grounds for the Haitian Revolution. It upset the delicate balance between the classes that had held colonial society together. And in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it provided the intellectual argument for revolutionary change in Haiti.

The different social classes in Saint-Domingue had different aims, different interests, different hopes, different fears, different desires.  Les grands blancs, the major plantation owners, were hostile to Revolutionary aims and remained attached to the ancien regime. The lower-class whites, les petits blancs, the artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and labourers, wanted to free themselves of aristocratic control and so were generally sympathetic to the Revolution.  But if they wished to rid themselves of the ‘aristocracy of birth’, they nevertheless had no desire to dispense with the ‘aristocracy of skin’ or with the institution of slavery. The ‘free men of colour’ – the so-called mulattoes of ‘mixed race’ – who formed an important social group in Haiti, saw an opportunity to challenge white supremacy and promote political equality, at least for themselves. They, too, remained silent on the question of slavery, especially as many were themselves slave owners. Only the slaves, who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, could push the logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man to its conclusion. They pictured the French Revolution in their own image. They saw in the storming of the Bastille the white slaves of France rising up against their masters and deposing them so as to be able to enjoy the fruits of their own labour. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. These were to the slaves of Saint-Domingue more than simply abstract slogans. They were intellectual bolt cutters for their chains.

Haitian slaves found across the Atlantic the ideas to loosen their chains. And in their backyard they found the leader to forge those ideas into chain-breakers. Toussaint L’Ouverture was a self-educated former slave, deeply read, highly politicized and possessed of a genius in military tactics and strategy. His greatest gift, perhaps, was his ability to see that while Europe was responsible for the enslavement of blacks, nevertheless within European culture lay also the political and moral ideas with which to shatter the bonds of enslavement.  The French bourgeoisie might have tried to deny the mass of humanity the ideals embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But L’Ouverture recognized in those ideals a weapon more powerful than any sword or musket or cannon.

The Saint-Domingue slaves rose in rebellion on 24 August 1791. In the space of twelve years they defeated, in turn, the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French force of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. Slaves who, just months earlier, had trembled in their hundreds before a single master, had been transformed into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day. In 1803, the only successful slave revolt in history gave Haiti its independence.

The Haitian Revolution, more than any other, expressed the new relationship between morality and politics. It was, like the French Revolution, defined and driven by a moral claim – the idea of a common humanity and the insistence that the ‘Rights of Man’ applied to all.  But that moral claim was, as in the French Revolution, necessarily expressed in political terms and instantiated through a social revolution. Most, though not all, Enlightenment philosophes were fiercely opposed to slavery. In 1770 the Abbé Raynal penned a remarkable polemic against unfree labour in his Histoire les Deux Indes, which went through 55 editions in five languages over the next 30 years. Arguing that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’, Raynal both prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery. ‘The negroes only want a chief’, he wrote, ‘sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’

Whatever the moral and philosophical arguments, the French bourgeoisie was resistant to the claims of the abolitionists.  The strength of the old order in France, and the weakness of the bourgeoisie, meant that it was dependant largely upon colonial trade. Colonial wealth had played a major part in the growth of bourgeois power in ports such as Bordeaux and Nantes. One in five members of the National Assembly owned colonial property and a much larger number was linked to the colonies through trade or administration. The narrow base of the French capitalist class meant that it was even more important that slavery be protected as private property. The National Assembly agreed that qualified blacks – that is, those with property – should have the vote. But the delegates refused to oppose, indeed barely considered the issue of, slavery. More radical delegates challenged this. ‘You urge without ceasing the Rights of Man’, Robespierre observed. ‘But you believe in them so little yourself that you have sanctified slavery constitutionally.’ When the Saint-Domingue slaves rose up in 1791, far from abolishing slavery, the Assembly reacted by rescinding the rights of free blacks and mulattos it had earlier granted.

What transformed the situation was the social power of the masses, in Saint-Domingue and in France. Léger Félicité Sonthonax, the Jacobin commissioner of Saint-Domingue, recognized that he could, and indeed needed to, make common cause with the rebels against both the moderate Republicans, on the one side, and encroaching Spanish and English forces, on the other.  In the context of defending the Revolution, slaves became transformed from human property to moral agents. In August 1793 Sonthonax announced a decree of general emancipation, freeing all slaves on the island, an extraordinary and revolutionary stance in a colony built on slave labour. Meanwhile, in metropolitan France, the Parisian masses – faced with royalist plots, intervention from abroad and a vacillating government – armed themselves, stormed the Tuileries, imprisoned the royal family, dissolved the legislature, elected a new parliament, the National Convention, and helped put the radical Jacobins in power. This was the start of the Terror, during which more than 40,000 people were executed as part of a mass crusade against the ‘enemies of the revolution’. The horrors of the Terror have tended to obscure the myriad political gains of the period, most notably the abolition of slavery. Until then, the campaign against slavery had been hamstrung by the almost sacred attachment to private poverty. In the new political climate, as the propertyless masses led the struggle for social change, private property was no longer considered sacrosanct, and the question of slavery became of central importance. On 3 February 1794 the local decree on Saint-Domingue was made universal. In the presence of delegates from the island, the Convention abolished slavery in the name of the Universal Rights of Man. ‘All men’, it declared, ‘without distinction of colour, domiciled in the colonies, are French citizens, and enjoy all the rights enjoyed under the Constitution.’

It was a historic moment, the first true political instantiation of the radical moral claim of equality. The Jacobin government eventually fell, and Napoleon came to power in a coup d’etat 1799. Under Napoleonic rule slavery was reinstituted in the colonies, and free blacks denied their rights. But in 1804 Haiti’s independence was confirmed.

There was, the historian Robin Blackburn observes, ‘a universalistic emancipatory element in the French Revolution, but those who issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man were by no means always aware of it, or willing to follow through its logic.’ For the emancipatory logic to be fulfilled, ‘there was needed the independent action of formerly excluded, oppressed and exploited social layers – radicalized sans culottes and slave rebels who understood that there could be no peace with slavery or slaveholders.’

Here is revealed the new relationship between morality and politics that emerges in the transition from premodern to the modern world. In the premodern world, morality and politics were inextricably linked because social structures were a given. In the modern world, morality and politics are inextricably linked because social structures are not fixed.  Morality helps define our vision of the good society. Moral claims emerge not out of a fixed set of social institutions but through social and class struggle. In the modern world, as Blackburn observes, it is only through the articulation of social power that moral claims find concrete expression.


  1. rowanwphillips

    I think its really interesting to see how quickly wholesale changes in the social structures of the day were made once those who were once oppressed by the aristocracy started making choices over who should now be oppressed by slavery. Once people making decisions were able to humanise the suffering of the victims, rather than dismiss them as sub-human (be it slaves, serfs or any other ‘underclass’), progress was inevitable.

    That the seeds of the Haitian revolution were rooted in the political thinking imported from France is also indictaive of the collapse of the British Empire. By educating people in European, ‘modern’ or ‘enlightened’ ways, the colonial powers were training them for independence. Which was, of course the original stated objective, rather than the exploitative reality.

  2. Well done. I am myself starting to re-visit and learn more about the enlightenmnet, the French revolution, and how both have influenced how we think about what it means to be human.

    I will be curious to see where you go with it from here. Man has freed himself from the shakles of despotism, aristocracy, and theocracy, in an attempt to establish a social contract built on morality, justice, and reason. Clearly, this is some kind of progress. But history since has shown us that human logic is often fallible – it might be argued that we have in some ways built new religions based on ideological systems of ideas. Like the old Gods, they are treated as absolutes: we are willing to die by them and kill for them. This was demonstrated with The Terror.

    Reason, treated as an absolute, closes in on itself and makes itself impenetrable to exterior logic; it becomes a tautaulogy that destroys its own principles. Or as stated by Camus: “Morality, when it is formal, devours.”

      • Your response is what I would have expected by anyone of above-intelligence, but I suspect you have deeper thoughts on the matter.

        From a very broad analysis, the history of humankind can be understood as a series of failures in our attempts to reconcile our existence as meaning seeking creatures in a world devoid of absolute values or purpose. There is nothing that ‘more reason’ can do to reconcile the two, which is why Camus called it the ‘absurd.’ Our ultimate desire is irrational, though ‘reasoning’ of varied integrity, has nonetheless been employed througout history in an attempt to deal with this dilemma.

        From Christianity, to Communism and Capitalism, we have faught to secure both transcendence and order through changing systems of belief about the nature of reality; morality can be seen as one of its by-products. First ‘right and wrong’ was determined by God. Then man became God – determining ‘right and wrong’ through invented ideologies that fight for existence through revolutions where the means are justified by the purported end – in short, human reasoning allowed for the people to be inslaved in the present, so that one-day we can all be free in some utopean future. But history is also a moving target – it is never championed or taken to task.

        The problem with reason, is that recent history wants to use it to reconcile human absurdity through some utopian absolute (the current one is Capitalism – where even human life has a dollar value). Lucid reason must know its limits. Knowing its limits implies that in a certain sense, there can be ‘too much’ reason… which I supect leads to the kinds of perversions you allude to.

  3. bruce

    The Big question is what did this democracy do for the island of Haiti
    They may have defeated the biggest european nations of their time but what have they ended up as- one of the poorest nations in the world

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: