History of the United States 1801-09/The First Administration of Thomas Jefferson/I:15
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The First Administration of Thomas Jefferson, Part I, Chapter 15
Chapter 15: Toussaint Louverture 
FORTUNATELY for the Prince of Peace, the world contained at that moment one man for whom Bonaparte entertained more hatred and contempt, and whom he was in still more haste to crush. The policy which Talleyrand had planned, and into which he had drawn the First Consul, could not be laid aside in order to punish Spain. On the contrary, every day rendered peace with England more necessary, and such a peace was inconsistent with a Spanish war. That Bonaparte felt no strong sympathy with Talleyrand's policy of peace in Europe and peaceful development abroad, is more than probable; but he was not yet so confident of his strength as to rely wholly on himself,—he had gone too far in the path of pacification to quit it suddenly for one of European conquest and dynastic power. He left Godoy and Spain untouched, in order to rebuild the empire of France in her colonies. Six weeks after he had threatened war on Charles IV., his agent at London, Oct. 1, 1801, signed with Lord Hawkesbury preliminary articles of peace which put an end to hostilities on the ocean. No sooner did Bonaparte receive the news than he summoned his brother-in-law Leclerc to Paris. Leclerc was a general of high reputation, who had married the beautiful Pauline Bonaparte and was then perhaps the most promising member of the family next to Napoleon himself. To him, October 23, Napoleon entrusted the command of an immense expedition already ordered to collect at Brest, to destroy the power of Toussaint Louverture and re-establish slavery in the Island of St. Domingo.
The story of Toussaint Louverture has been told almost as often as that of Napoleon, but not in connection with the history of the United States, although Toussaint exercised on their history an influence as decisive as that of any European ruler. His fate placed him at a point where Bonaparte needed absolute control. St. Domingo was the only centre from which the measures needed for rebuilding the French colonial system could radiate. Before Bonaparte could reach Louisiana he was obliged to crush the power of Toussaint.
The magnificent Island of St. Domingo was chiefly Spanish. Only its western end belonged by language as well as by history to France; but this small part of the island, in the old days of Bourbon royalty, had been the most valuable of French possessions. Neither Martinique nor Guadeloupe compared with it. In 1789, before the French Revolution began, nearly two thirds of the commercial interests of France centred in St. Domingo; its combined exports and imports were valued at more than one hundred and forty million dollars; its sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton supplied the home market, and employed in prosperous years more than seven hundred ocean-going vessels, with seamen to the number, it was said, of eighty thousand. Paris swarmed with creole families who drew their incomes from the island, among whom were many whose political influence was great; while, in the island itself, society enjoyed semi-Parisian ease and elegance, the natural product of an exaggerated slave-system combined with the manners, ideas, and amusements of a French proprietary caste.
In 1789 the colony contained about six hundred thousand inhabitants, five sixths of whom were full-blooded negroes held in rigid slavery. Of the eighty or hundred thousand free citizens, about half were mulattoes, or had some infusion of negro blood which disqualified them from holding political power. All social or political privileges were held by forty or fifty thousand French creoles, represented by the few hundred planters and officials who formed the aristocracy of the island. Between the creoles and the mulattoes, or mixd-breeds, existed the jealousy sure to result from narrow distinctions of blood marking broad differences in privilege. These were not the only jealousies which raged in the colony; for the creoles were uneasy under the despotism of the colonial system, and claimed political rights which the home government denied. Like all colonists of that day, in the quiet of their plantations they talked of independence, and thought with envy of their neighbors in South Carolina, who could buy and sell where they pleased.
When in 1789 France burst into a flame of universal liberty, the creoles of St. Domingo shared the enthusiasm so far as they hoped to gain by it a relaxation of the despotic colonial system; but they were alarmed at finding that the mulattoes, who claimed to own a third of the land and a fourth of the personalty in the colony, offered to make the Republic a free gift of one fifth of their possessions on condition of being no longer subjected to the creole tyranny of caste. The white and mulatto populations were thus brought into collision. The National Assembly of France supported the mulattoes. The creoles replied that they preferred death to sharing power with what they considered a bastard and despicable race. They turned royalists. Both parties took up arms, and in their struggle with each other they at length dropped a match into the immense powder-magazine upon which they both lived. One August night in the year 1791 the whole plain of the north was swept with fire and drenched with blood. Five hundred thousand negro slaves in the depths of barbarism revolted, and the horrors of the massacre made Europe and America shudder.
For several years afterward the colony was torn by convulsions; and to add another element of confusion, the Spaniards and English came in, hoping to effect its conquest. Feb. 4, 1794, the National Assembly of France took the only sensible measure in its power by proclaiming the abolition of slavery; but for the moment this step only embroiled matters the more. Among its immediate results was one of great importance, though little noticed at the time. A negro chief, who since the outbreak had become head of a royalist band in Spanish pay, returned, in April, 1794, within French jurisdiction and took service under the Republic. This was Toussaint Louverture, whose father, the son of a negro chief on the slave-coast of Africa, had been brought to St. Domingo as a slave. Toussaint was born in 1746. When he deserted the Spanish service, and with some four thousand men made the sudden attack which resulted in clearing the French colony of Spanish troops, he was already forty-eight years old.
Although Toussaint was received at once into the French service, not until more than a year later, July 23, 1795, did the National Convention recognize his merits by giving him the commission of brigadier-general. Within less than two years, in May, 1797, he was made General-in-Chief, with military command over the whole colony. The services he rendered to France were great, and were highly rewarded. His character was an enigma. Hated by the mulattoes with such vindictiveness as mutual antipathies and crimes could cause, he was liked by the whites rather because he protected and flattered them at the expense of the mulattoes than because they felt any love for him or his race. In return they flattered and betrayed him. Their praise or blame was equally worthless; yet to this rule there were exceptions. One of the best among the French officers in St. Domingo, Colonel Vincent, was deep in Toussaint's confidence, and injured his own career by obstinate attempts to intervene between Bonaparte and Bonaparte's victim. Vincent described Toussaint, in colors apparently unexaggerated, as the most active and indefatigable man that could be imagined,—one who was present everywhere, but especially where his presence was most needed; while his great sobriety, his peculiar faculty of never resting, of tiring out a half-dozen horses and as many secretaries every day; and, more than all, his art of amusing and deceiving all the world,—an art pushed to the limits of imposture,—made him so superior to his surroundings that respect and submission to him were carried to fanaticism.
Gentle and well-meaning in his ordinary relations, vehement in his passions, and splendid in his ambition, Toussaint was a wise, though a severe, ruler so long as he was undisturbed; but where his own safety or power was in question he could be as ferocious as Dessalines and as treacherous as Bonaparte. In more respects than one his character had a curious resemblance to that of Napoleon,—the same abnormal energy of body and mind; the same morbid lust for power, and indifference to means; the same craft and vehemence of temper; the same fatalism, love of display, reckless personal courage, and, what was much more remarkable, the same occasional acts of moral cowardice. One might suppose that Toussaint had inherited from his Dahomey grandfather the qualities of primitive society; but if this was the case, the conditions of life in Corsica must have borne some strong resemblance to barbarism, because the rule of inheritance which applied to Toussaint should hold good for Bonaparte. The problem was the more interesting because the parallelism roused Napoleon's anger, and precipitated a conflict which had vast influence on human affairs. Both Bonaparte and Louverture were the products of a revolution which gave its highest rewards to qualities of energy and audacity. So nearly identical were the steps in their career, that after the 18th Brumaire Toussaint seemed naturally to ape every action which Bonaparte wished to make heroic in the world's eyes. There was reason to fear that Toussaint would end in making Bonaparte ridiculous; for his conduct was, as it seemed to the First Consul, a sort of negro travesty on the consular régime.
When the difficulties between France and America became serious, after Talleyrand's demand for money and sweeping attacks upon American commerce, Congress passed an Act of June 13, 1798, suspending commercial relations with France and her dependencies. At that time Toussaint, although in title only General-in-Chief, was in reality absolute ruler of St. Domingo. He recognized a general allegiance to the French Republic, and allowed the Directory to keep a civil agent—the Citizen Roume—as a check on his power; but in fact Roume was helpless in his hands. Toussaint's only rival was Rigaud, a mulatto, who commanded the southern part of the colony, where Jacmel and other ports were situated. Rigaud was a perpetual danger to Louverture, whose safety depended on tolerating no rival. The Act of Congress threatened to create distress among the blacks and endanger the quiet of the colony; while Rigaud and the French authority would be strengthened by whatever weakened Louverture. Spurred both by fear and ambition, Toussaint took the character of an independent ruler. The United States government, counting on such a result, had instructed its consul to invite an advance; and, acting on the consul's suggestion, Toussaint sent to the United States an agent with a letter to the President containing the emphatic assurance that if commercial intercourse were renewed between the United States and St. Domingo it should be protected by every means in his power. The trade was profitable, the political advantages of neutralizing Toussaint were great; and accordingly the President obtained from Congress a new Act, approved Feb. 9, 1799, which was intended to meet the case. He also sent a very able man—Edward Stevens—to St. Domingo, with the title of Consul-General, and with diplomatic powers. At the same time the British Ministry dispatched General Maitland to the same place, with orders to stop at Philadelphia and arrange a general policy in regard to Toussaint. This was rapidly done. Maitland hurried to the island, which he reached May 15, 1799, within a month after the arrival of Stevens. Negotiations followed, which resulted, June 13, in a secret treaty between Toussaint and Maitland, by which Toussaint abandoned all privateering and shipping, receiving in return free access to those supplies from the United States which were needed to content his people, fill his treasury, and equip his troops.
To this treaty Stevens was not openly a party; but in Toussaint's eyes he was the real negotiator, and his influence had more to do with the result than all the ships and soldiers at Maitland's disposal. Under this informal tripartite agreement, Toussaint threw himself into the arms of the United States, and took an enormous stride toward the goal of his ambition,—a crown.
Louverture had waited only to complete this arrangement before attacking Rigaud. Then the fruits of his foreign policy ripened. Supplies of every kind flowed from the United States into St. Domingo; but supplies were not enough. Toussaint began the siege of Jacmel,—a siege famous in Haytian history. His position was hazardous. A difficult war in a remote province, for which he could not bring the necessary supplies and materials by land; a suspicious or hostile French agent and government; a population easily affected by rumors and intrigues; finally, the seizure by English cruisers of a flotilla which, after his promise to abandon all shipping, was bringing his munitions of war along the coast for the siege,—made Toussaint tremble for the result of his civil war. He wrote once more to the President, requesting him to send some frigates to enforce the treaty by putting an end to all trade with the island except such as the treaty permitted. Stevens again came to his assistance. The United States frigate, "General Greene," was sent to cruise off Jacmel in February and March, 1800, and was followed by other vessels of war. Rigaud's garrison was starved out; Jacmel was abandoned; and Rigaud himself, July 29, 1800, consented to quit the country.
Toussaint's gratitude was great, and his confidence in Stevens unbounded. Even before the fall of Jacmel, Stevens was able to inform Secretary Pickering that Toussaint was taking his measures slowly but certainly to break connection with France. "If he is not disturbed, he will preserve appearances a little longer; but as soon as France interferes with this colony, he will throw off the mask and declare it independent." Hardly was Rigaud crushed, when the first overt act of independence followed. Toussaint imprisoned Roume, and on an invitation from the municipalities assumed the civil as well as military authority, under the title of governor. In announcing to his Government that this step was to be taken, Stevens added: "from that moment the colony may be considered as forever separated from France. Policy perhaps may induce him to make no open declaration of independence before he is compelled." A few days afterward Toussaint took the Napoleonic measure of seizing by force the Spanish part of the island, which had been ceded to France by the treaty of Bâle five years before, but had not yet been actually transferred. In thus making war on the ally of France, Toussaint had no other motive, as Stevens explained, than to prevent the French government from getting a footing there. Bonaparte had given a new Constitution to France after the 18th Brumaire. Toussaint, after the deposition of Roume, which was his coup d'état and 18th Brumaire, gave a new Constitution to St. Domingo in the month of May, 1801, by which he not only assumed all political power for life, but also ascribed to himself the right of naming his own successor. Bonaparte had not yet dared to go so far, although he waited only another year, and meanwhile chafed under the idea of being imitated by one whom he called a "gilded African."
Perhaps audacity was Louverture's best policy; yet no wise man would intentionally aggravate his own dangers by unnecessary rashness, such as he showed in Bonaparte's face. He was like a rat defying a ferret; his safety lay not in his own strength, but in the nature of his hole. Power turned his head, and his regular army of twenty thousand disciplined and well-equipped men was his ruin. All his acts, and much of his open conversation, during the years 1800 and 1801, showed defiance to the First Consul. He prided himself upon being "First of the Blacks" and "Bonaparte of the Antilles." Warning and remonstrance from the Minister of Marine in France excited only his violent anger. He insisted upon dealing directly with sovereigns, and not with their ministers, and was deeply irritated with Bonaparte for answering his letters through the Minister of Marine. Throwing one of these dispatches aside unopened, he was heard to mutter before all his company the words, "Ministre! . . .valet! . . ." He was right in the instinct of self-assertion, for his single hope lay in Bonaparte's consent to his independent power; but the attack on Spanish St. Domingo, and the proclamation of his new Constitution, were unnecessary acts of defiance.
When Jefferson became President of the United States and the Senate confirmed the treaty of Morfontaine, had Louverture not lost his balance he would have seen that Bonaparte and Talleyrand had out-manœvred him, and that even if Jefferson were not as French in policy as his predecessor had been hostile to France, yet henceforth the United States must disregard sympathies, treat St. Domingo as a French colony, and leave the negro chief to his fate. England alone, after the month of February, 1801, stood between Toussaint and Bonaparte. Edward Stevens, who felt the storm that was in the air, pleaded ill-health and resigned his post of consul-general. Jefferson sent Tobias Lear to Cap Français in Stevens's place, and Lear's first interview showed that Toussaint was beginning to feel Talleyrand's restraints. The freedom he had enjoyed was disappearing, and he chafed at the unaccustomed limitations. He complained bitterly that Lear had brought him no personal letter from the President; and Lear in vain explained the custom of the Government, which warranted no such practice in the case of consuls. "It is because of my color!" cried Toussaint. Justice to President Jefferson and a keener sense of the diplomatic situation would have shown him that such a letter could not be written by the President consistently with his new relations of friendship toward France; and in fact almost the first act of Pichon, on taking charge of the French Legation in Washington after the treaty, was to remonstrate against any recognition of Toussaint, and to cause Lear's want of diplomatic character which offended Louverture.
Rarely has diplomacy been used with more skill and energy than by Bonaparte, who knew where force and craft should converge. That in this skill mendacity played a chief part, need hardly be repeated. Toussaint was flattered, cajoled, and held in a mist of ignorance, while one by one the necessary preparations were made to prevent his escape; and then, with scarcely a word of warning, at the First Consul's order the mist rolled away, and the unhappy negro found himself face to face with destruction. The same ships that brought news of the preliminary treaty signed at London brought also the rumor of a great expedition fitting at Brest and the gossip of creole society in Paris, which made no longer a secret that Bonaparte meant to crush Toussaint and restore slavery at St. Domingo. Nowhere in the world had Toussaint a friend or a hope except in himself. Two continents looked on with folded arms, more and more interested in the result, as Bonaparte's ripening schemes began to show their character. As yet President Jefferson had no inkling of their meaning. The British government was somewhat better informed, and perhaps Godoy knew more than all the rest; but none of them grasped the whole truth, or felt their own dependence on Toussaint's courage. If he and his blacks should succumb easily to their fate, the wave of French empire would roll on to Louisiana and sweep far up the Mississippi; if St. Domingo should resist, and succeed in resistance, the recoil would spend its force on Europe, while America would be left to pursue her democratic destiny in peace.
Bonaparte hurried his preparations. The month of October, 1801, saw vast activity in French and Spanish ports, for a Spanish squadron accompanied the French fleet. Not a chance was to be left for Toussaint's resistance or escape. To quiet English uneasiness, Bonaparte dictated to Talleyrand a dispatch explaining to the British government the nature of the expedition. "In the course which I have taken of annihilating the black government at St. Domingo," he said, "I have been less guided by considerations of commerce and finance than by the necessity of stifling in every part of the world every kind of germ of disquiet and trouble; but it could not escape me that St. Domingo, even after being reconquered by the whites, would be for many years a weak point which would need the support of peace and of the mother country; . . . that one of the principal benefits of peace, at the actual moment, for England was its conclusion at a time when the French government had not yet recognized the organization of St. Domingo, and in consequence the power of the blacks; and if it had done so, the scepter of the new world would sooner or later have fallen into the hands of the blacks."
No such explanations were given to the United States, perhaps because no American minister asked for them. Livingston landed at Lorient November 12, the day before Bonaparte wrote these words; Leclerc's expedition sailed from Brest November 22; and Livingston was presented to the First Consul in the diplomatic audience of December 6. Caring nothing for Toussaint and much for France, Livingston did not come prepared to find that his own interests were the same with those of Toussaint, but already by December 30 he wrote to Rufus King: "I know that the armament, destined in the first instance for Hispaniola, is to proceed to Louisiana provided Toussaint makes no opposition."
While the First Consul claimed credit with England for intending to annihilate the black government and restore slavery at St. Domingo, he proclaimed to Toussaint and the negroes intentions of a different kind. He wrote at last a letter to Toussaint, and drew up a proclamation to the inhabitants of the island, which Leclerc was to publish. "If you are told," said this famous proclamation, "that these forces are destined to ravish your liberty, answer: The Republic has given us liberty, the Republic will not suffer it to be taken from us!" The letter to Toussaint was even more curious, when considered as a supplement to that which had been written to the British government only five days before. "We have conceived esteem for you," wrote Bonaparte to the man he meant to destroy, "and we take pleasure in recognizing and proclaiming the great services you have rendered to the French people. If their flag floats over St. Domingo, it is to you and to the brave blacks that they owe it." Then, after mildly disapproving certain of Toussaint's acts, and hinting at the fatal consequences of disobedience, the letter continued: "Assist the Captain-General [Leclerc] with your counsels, your influence, and your talents. What can you desire?—the liberty of the blacks? You know that in all the countries where he have been, we have given it to the peoples who had it not." In order to quiet all alarms of the negroes on the subject of their freedom, a pledge still more absolute was given in what Americans might call the Annual Message sent to the French Legislature a week afterward. "At St. Domingo and at Guadeloupe there are no more slaves. All is free there; all will there remain free."
A few days afterward Leclerc's expedition sailed; and the immense fleet, with an army of ten thousand men and all their equipments, arrived in sight of St. Domingo at the close of January, 1802. Toussaint was believed to have watched them from a look-out in the mountains while they lay for a day making their preparations for combined action. Then Leclerc sailed for Cap Français, where Christophe commanded. After a vain attempt to obtain possession of the town as a friend, he was obliged to attack. February 5 Christophe set the place in flames, and the war of races broke out.
The story of this war, interesting though it was, cannot be told here. Toussaint's resistance broke the force of Bonaparte's attack. Although it lasted less than three months, it swept away one French army, and ruined the industry of the colony to an extent that required years of repair. Had Toussaint not been betrayed by his own generals, and had he been less attached than he was to civilization and despotic theories of military rule, he would have achieved a personal triumph greater than was won by any other man of his time. His own choice was to accept the war of races, to avoid open battle where his troops were unequal to their opponents, and to harass instead of fighting in line. He would have made a war of guerillas, stirred up the terror and fanaticism of the negro laborers, put arms into their hands, and relied on their courage rather than on that of his army. He let himself be overruled. "Old Toussaint," said Christophe afterward, "never ceased saying this, but no one would believe him. We had arms; pride in using them destroyed us." Christophe, for good reasons, told but half the story. Toussaint was not ruined by a few lost battles, but by the treachery of Christophe himself and of the other negro generals. Jealous of Toussaint's domination, and perhaps afraid of being sent to execution like Moyse—the best general officer in their service—for want of loyalty to his chief, Christophe, after one campaign, April 26, 1802, surrendered his posts and forces to Leclerc without the knowledge and against the orders of Toussaint. Then Louverture himself committed the fatal mistake of his life, which he of all men seemed least likely to commit,—he trusted the word of Bonaparte. May 1, 1802, he put himself in Leclerc's hands in reliance on Leclerc's honor.
Surprising as such weakness was in one who had the sensitiveness of a wild animal to danger,—Leclerc himself seemed to be as much surprised that the word of honor of a French soldier should be believed as any bystander at seeing the negro believe it,—the act had a parallel in the weakness which led Bonaparte, twelve years afterward, to mount the deck of the "Bellerophon," and without even the guaranty of a pledge surrender himself to England. The same vacillations and fears, the same instinct of the desperate political gambler, the same cowering in the face of fate, closed the active lives of both these extraordinary men. Such beings should have known how to die when their lives were ended. Toussaint should have fought on, even though only to perish under the last cactus on his mountains, rather than trust himself in the hands of Bonaparte. The first Consul's orders to Leclerc were positive, precise, and repeated. "Follow exactly your instructions," said he, "and the moment you have rid yourself of Toussaint, Christophe, Dessalines, and the principal brigands, and the masses of the blacks shall be disarmed, send over to the continent all the blacks and mulattoes who have played a rôle in the civil troubles. . . . Rid us of these gilded Africans, and we shall have nothing more to wish." With the connivance and at the recommendation of Christophe, by a stratagem such as Bonaparte used afterward in the case of the Duc d'Enghien and of Don Carlos IV., Toussaint was suddenly arrested, June 10, 1802, and hurried on ship-board. Some weeks later he was landed at Brest; then he disappeared. Except a few men who were in the secret, no one ever again saw him. Plunged into a damp dungeon in the fortress of Joux, high in the Jura Mountains on the Swiss frontier, the cold and solitude of a single winter closed this tropical existence. April 7, 1803, he died forgotten, and his work died with him. Not by Toussaint, and still less by Christophe or Dessalines, was the liberty of the blacks finally established in Hayti, and the entrance of the Mississippi barred to Bonaparte.
The news of Leclerc's success reached Paris early in June, and set Bonaparte again in motion. Imagining that the blacks were at his mercy, orders were at once issued to provide for restoring them to slavery. The truth relating to this part of the subject, habitually falsified or concealed by Bonaparte and his admirers, remained hidden among the manuscript records of the Empire; but the order to restore slavery at Guadeloupe was given, June 14, by the Minister of the Marine to General Richepanse, who commanded there, and on the same day a similar instruction was sent to General Leclerc at St. Domingo, in each case leaving the general to act according to his discretion in the time and manner of proceeding.
- "As regards the return of the blacks to the old régime, wrote the Minister to General Leclerc, "the bloody struggle out of which you have just come victorious with glory commands us to use the utmost caution. Perhaps we should only entangle ourselves in it anew if we wished precipitately to break that idol of liberty in whose name so much blood has flowed till now. For some time yet vigilance, order, a discipline at once rural and military, must take the place of the positive and pronounced slavery of the colored people of your colony. Especially the master's good usage must reattach them to his rule. When they shall have felt by comparison the difference between a usurping and tyrannical yoke and that of the legitimate proprietor interested in their preservation, then the moment will have arrived for making them return to their original condition, from which it has been so disastrous to have drawn them."