Haitian liberator, former slave, set the stage for the Louisiana Purchase
November 7, 2011
Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, liberator of Haiti, was admired and helped by President John Adams (1797-1801) and hated and feared by Napoleon Bonaparte.
He was a black African born into slavery around 1743 on a sugarcane plantation owned by Count de Breda. There, he was given the rare privilege of learning to read and write.
Toussaint became an avid reader of books by Plutarch, Epictetus, Caesar and Saxe. Abbe Raynal was especially influential, as was Roman Catholicism, all of which were important in shaping both his actions and personality.
Toussaint possessed an innate skill for leadership, and this talent, plus his calm, persistent nature, made him one of the greatest leaders of all time, even though he was a slave.
At 33, Toussaint gained his freedom shortly before the slaves’ massive revolt against the whites on Oct. 30, 1791. Toussaint acted as doctor for the black army. He did help the Count de Breda family escape the massacre.
But when the uprising was defeated and slavery resumed, Toussaint had incredible military success fighting for the Spaniards on Spain’s side of the island against the French side. When Haiti’s General Assembly abolished slavery Feb. 4, 1794, Toussaint returned to the French side and Napoleon made him commander-in-chief of the colony.
Toussaint then used the military to force Spain back to a permanent border on the island and stop British encroachment on French territory. He also replaced whites with blacks in political posts, including Haiti’s governor, thereby improving infrastructure, eliminating racial discrimination in favor of merit, expanded schooling and agriculture and improving the military.
Toussaint’s efforts to make Haiti economically stable and prosperous caused the mulattos to rise up against him, which was subdued with the help of America. Toussaint then undertook writing Haiti’s Constitution, which enraged Napoleon. In January 1802, the French emperor sent an army of 20,000 under General Leclerc. On May 5, 1802, Toussaint accepted a peace treaty with Leclerc, which insured Haiti’s independence and allowed Toussaint to retire to his estate in peace.
Nevertheless, Leclerc – under Napoleon’s orders – had Toussaint bound hand and foot and shipped to France. On April 7, 1803, Toussaint L’Ouverture died of apoplexy, pneumonia and starvation. Napoleon feared Toussaint’s leadership and power if he had remained free.
Six months after killing Toussaint, Napoleon, preoccupied with war in Europe, relinquished his holding in the New World, having lost thousands of soldiers in Haiti fighting Toussaint’s army. Napoleon’s colonies in the western world proved too costly to keep. He granted Haiti its independence and sold his holdings in continental North America to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. This was all due, in varying degrees, to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s leadership.
In the War of 1812, the empire-building British, possibly influenced by President Adams’ helping Toussaint terminate British property ownership and expansion in Haiti, met their Waterloo in the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815, against General Andrew Jackson and his riflemen. Jackson later became an American president, serving from 1829-37.
The British were handicapped by having perfect-target uniforms and inaccurate, smooth-bore muskets. Nevertheless, they and their allies, who were all good targets and predominantly musket armed, as were Napoleon’s forces, defeated Napoleon six months later at the battle of Waterloo of June 18, 1815. A painting of Waterloo shows Napoleon’s cavalry crashing to their deaths in a trench, similar to the trench Jackson used against the British in January, which was dug overnight.
Dooley P. Wheeler Jr., 97, is a retired geologist and author, and resident of the Rifle Housing Authority Retirement Community. He was assisted in his research of Toussaint’s history by Rifle Works Inc.