Philip Kaisary

The Haitian Revolution’s Radical Constitutionalism: Slavery, Nationality, and Citizenship in the Atlantic World

The Haitian Revolution broke out on the French colony of Saint Domingue on the night of August 22, 1791, when black slaves rose up and attacked plantations in the colony’s richest sugar-growing district. Some thirteen years later, the events set in motion that night culminated on January 1, 1804, with the Haitian declaration of independence by a former slave, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Achieving the overthrow of colonialism, slavery, and racial inequality, the Haitian Revolution represented a foundational challenge to an Atlantic economy that was booming on slavery. Of the three great revolutions that reshaped western political thinking at the end of the eighteenth century – the American, French, and Haitian – the Haitian case was the most profound. Each was animated by the rhetoric and ideals of liberty and freedom, but only in Haiti were the implications of those ideals pursued unconditionally. Only in Haiti was the affirmation of the natural, inalienable rights of all human beings insisted upon.

However, despite the recent resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in the only successful slave revolt in modern history, the recognition that Haiti’s early constitutions stand as key documents of the age of revolutions is still too frequently lost amid accounts and analyses of the French colonial “pearl of the Antilles,” its extraordinary revolution, and the economic deprivation of its post-independence decline. Also frequently forgotten or given too little attention, is the fact that the birth of the world’s first black republic generated an enduring ideological inheritance and blazed a radical trail long into the nineteenth century Atlantic world. Given these omissions, this paper will reflect on the radical constitutionalism of the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 in order to examine how the former slaves of Saint Domingue sought to codify in law their vision of freedom. Contextualizing the 1801 and 1805 constitutions within the Atlantic world’s age of democratic revolution, the paper considers both constitutions as acts of ‘expressive law making’ in which the concepts of nationality and citizenship were harnessed to an agenda of universal emancipation and the affirmation of a political and cultural identity that arose via the highly contingent events of the African slave trade and the New World plantation system.

The 1801 Constitution, which was abolitionist but stopped short of declaring independence, ironically bears the influence of the most conservative of American revolutionary figures, Alexander Hamilton, who was consulted in its drafting, while the rhetoric of the Haitian Constitution of 1805 echoes the 1787 U.S. Constitution, notwithstanding that text’s status as a conservative document of compromise that legalized slavery in the southern states. The paper places both Haitian texts in dialogue with declarations of rights of the pre-revolutionary United States and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in order to contextualize the thesis of Haitian radicalism. The paper also considers the means by which the 1801 Constitution endeavored to build a ‘nation’ with only quasi-independence and without formal nationhood, while the 1805 Constitution defined the new Haitian nation by invoking ‘blackness’ not as a racial category, but as a political concept. The paper will thus provide a more complete critical picture of how the Haitian Revolution’s ‘radical constitutionalism’ deployed, negotiated, and refigured the categories of race, citizenship, and nationality within the context of a complex and rapidly shifting jigsaw puzzle of Atlantic politics in this period.


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