The Haitian Revolution represents the most thorough case of revolution
ary change anywhere in the history of the modern world.
In ten years of sustained internal and international war
fare, a colony
populated predominantly by plantation
slaves overthrew both its colonial status and its economic system and established a new political state of entirely free individuals—with some ex-slaves constituting the new political authority.
As only the second state to declare its independence in the Americas, Haiti had no viable administrative models to follow. The North Americans who declared their independence in 1776 left slavery intact, and theirs was more a political revolution
than a social and economic one. The success of Haiti against all odds made social revolution
s a sensitive issue among the leaders of political revolt elsewhere in the Americas during the final years of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Yet the genesis of the Haitian Revolution cannot be separated from the wider concomitant events of the later eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Indeed, the period between 1750 and 1850 represented an age of spontaneous, interrelated revolution
s, and events in Saint Domingue/Haiti constitute an integral—though often overlooked—part of the history of that larger sphere.
But, even more, the intellectual changes of the period instilled in some political leaders confidence.
New ideas, new circumstances, and new peoples combined to create a portentously `turbulent time.`
For the vast majority of workers on the far-flung plantation
s under the tropical sun of the Americas, the revolution
ary situation presented an opportunity to change fundamentally their personal world, and maybe the world of others equally unfortunate.
Nowhere was the contrast sharper than in the productive and extremely valuable French Caribbean colony
of Saint Domingue between 1789 and 1804. The sentiments of hundreds of thousands of African slaves and tens of thousands of legally defined free coloreds were motivated not only by a difference of geography and culture but also by a difference of race and condition.
Within fifteen turbulent years, a colony
of coerced and exploited slaves successfully liberated themselves and radically and permanently transformed things. It was a unique case in the history of the Americas: a thorough revolution
that resulted in a complete metamorphosis in the social, political, intellectual, and economic life of the colony
. Socially, the lowest order of the society—slaves—became equal, free, and independent citizens. Politically, the new citizens created the second independent state in the Americas, the first independent non-European state to be carved out of the European universal empires anywhere. The Haitian model of state formation drove xenophobic fear into the hearts of all whites from Boston to Havana
and shattered their complacency about the unquestioned superiority of their own political models.