A Tale of Two Revolutions: The Haitian Revolution in the Early Republic

Frances Bell

In late June 1793, the first emancipation proclamation of the Haitian Revolution was issued by French Civil Commissioners in the northern city of Cap-Français. The commissioners issued the proclamation amid several days of chaotic urban warfare, sparked by hostility between two factions of free colonists. On one side were supporters of the Civil Commissioners, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, who supported equal rights for free people of color; on the other were supporters of Governor-General François-Thomas Galbaud du Fort, who opposed equal rights and feared that the Civil Commissioners might abolish slavery. It took place against a backdrop of two years of slave revolution, during which enslaved laborers had taken up arms, burned plantations, and established themselves as a serious abolitionist military force in the colony.

On June 20, the simmering factional conflict boiled over when Galbaud’s supporters attacked the city and attempted to arrest the commissioners. They were met by troops loyal to the commissioners, and the resulting conflict turned the city into a chaotic urban warzone. By the night of June 20, fires had been started—it was unclear exactly by whom—and they continued to spread over the next several days. Increasingly desperate for reinforcements, the Civil Commissioners issued a proclamation which offered freedom to enslaved men who would fight for the French Republic. They sent word of the declaration to revolutionary bands who were camped in the mountains outside the city, who descended into the town to fight the Governor-General’s supporters not as fugitive slaves, but as free representatives of the French Republic. As Galbaud’s supporters, groups of formerly enslaved people ran through the streets and called on others to join them, shouting, “you are all free; the commissioners say you are all free, all whites are now equal to us, this whole country belongs to us.”[1]

The Battle of Cap-Français is widely recognized by historians as one of the great turning-points of the Haitian Revolution. As Jeremy Popkin points out, the alliance of Black revolutionaries with the French Republic was not a foregone conclusion, and it decisively shaped the course of events to come. The abolition proclamation marked the beginning of a rapid process of legal abolition in the colony, as Sonthonax and Polverel extended abolition decrees to the rest of Saint-Domingue over the fall of 1793. It led directly to the passage of the French Abolition Decree of 1794, which abolished slavery throughout the French empire.[2]

Even as it was a moment of radical abolitionist possibility, however, the Battle of Cap-Français was also a moment of mass migration. At the same time that Black troops began to descend into the city, two women named Magdalene and Zare were boarding one of the ships in the harbor with their enslaver, a woman named Madame Chambré, and several thousand other colonists. Word had spread that the fleet in the harbor, which was bound for the United States, was now accepting passengers free of charge, and white colonists and a small number of free people of color rushed to get on board. When they did, they compelled the enslaved people in their households to join them. Over July and August 1793, at least 6,000 people from Cap-Français arrived in port towns along the eastern seaboard of the United States, of whom several thousand were enslaved, taken from revolutionary Haiti at the first moment of legal abolition.[3]

In recent decades, an outpouring of scholarship has detailed the many and varied connections between the Haitian Revolution and the early United States. Scholars including James Alexander Dun and Leslie Alexander have shown that news of the revolution galvanized public debates over slavery and abolition, and spurred the development of a new Black internationalist consciousness in the early United States. The revolution served to inspire anti-slavery revolts and conspiracies throughout the southern United States, including Gabriel’s Rebellion in Richmond, Virginia; the German Coast uprising in Louisiana; and the Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina. Fear of this revolutionary impulse, coupled with narratives of the revolution which blamed it on white abolitionists, prompted proslavery forces in the United States to develop new attacks on abolitionists as risking “another Haiti” at home. As Matthew Clavin has shown, these narratives continued to gain potency throughout the antebellum period, as memory of the Haitian Revolution influenced the rhetoric around slavery and abolitionism on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.[4]

At the same time as U.S. political discourses were influenced by news of the Haitian Revolution, American society was also shaped directly by the arrival of people from the revolutionary colony. The Cap-Français fleet represented just one wave in a far larger process of migration from revolutionary Haiti to the United States. While precise numbers are difficult to come by, roughly 20,000 people arrived in United States from revolutionary Haiti between 1791 and 1810. Of these, an estimated one-quarter were enslaved, departing with enslavers who were fleeing a revolution predicated on emancipation.[5] Once in the United States, many enslaved Haitians such as Magdalen and Zare continued to seek freedom, acquiring legal knowledge to press claims based on both local and Haitian law. Others, particularly those in states without legal routes to freedom, sought extra-legal liberty through escape, including returning to post-abolition Haiti. Their efforts illuminate the deep connections between the Haitian Revolution, the early American Republic, and the legalities of slavery in an era of revolutionary emancipation.

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The arrival of thousands of people from revolutionary Haiti briefly transformed the U.S. port cities in which they disembarked. In Norfolk, Virginia, where the Cap-Français fleet first dropped anchor, one English traveler estimated that there were “two to three thousand” French residents from the West Indies in the mid-1790s. Their initial numbers were so large that upon the fleet’s arrival, passengers “crowded into inns” or even “sought out the canopies of the market-places” to take shelter for the night.[6] In Charleston, South Carolina, which received roughly 1,000 people from revolutionary Haiti between 1791 and 1809, there were “entire streets inhabited by the French.”[7] Philadelphia, where Magdalene and Zare arrived with Madame Chambré in Summer 1793, experienced an influx of 3,000-5,000 people from revolutionary France and the French Caribbean in the 1790s. As Francois Furstenberg has vividly demonstrated, this population transformed the city, populating lodging-houses, establishing businesses selling French products and services, and turning heads with French and French-Caribbean fashions.[8] Afro-Caribbean style was so distinctive to American audiences that fugitive slave advertisements frequently described people who fashioned themselves “in the stile[sic] of the French negroes.” That this style was also worn by people with no apparent ties to the French Caribbean suggests that it had become fashionable among enslaved people in the United States.[9] In 1795, for example, an enslaved man from Baltimore named Joe was described by his enslaver as wearing his hair “in the form of the French Negroes,” suggesting that Joe had seen, and perhaps interacted with, free or enslaved Black people from the French Caribbean.[10]

Upon their arrival, enslaved people who traveled to the United States from revolutionary Haiti found themselves in jurisdictions with different legalities of slavery. In South Carolina and Virginia, for example, there were few opportunities for legal freedom beyond manumission, and the South Carolina state legislature restricted these even further after 1800.[11] In Pennsylvania, however, Magdalen, Zare, and other enslaved people from revolutionary Haiti were in a gradual abolition state. Pennsylvania had been the first state in the union to pass a comprehensive gradual abolition law in 1780, banning slave importation and beginning a slow process of gradual abolition by granting freedom to children born to enslaved mothers after the passage of the law once they reached the age of twenty-eight. Most relevantly for people from revolutionary Haiti, the law also included a “sojourner clause,” which stipulated that enslaved people who entered the state would be legally free after six months of continual residence. While the clause had initially been included as a means to protect enslavers who traveled with enslaved people through the state, it also provided a valuable avenue for legal freedom. Between 1792 and 1810, over fifty enslaved people from revolutionary Haiti sought legal freedom in Philadelphia on the grounds that they had resided in the state as slaves for over six months.[12]

Enslavers from revolutionary Haiti initially fought to evade the law. In 1792, a group of “citizens of the French West-Indies” petitioned the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for an exemption—ironically, on humanitarian grounds of being refugees fleeing war and revolution.[13] When this was rejected, many resorted to transforming the people they enslaved into indentured servants, manumitting them and then immediately binding them in contracts to maintain control of their labor for several more years. Others simply removed the people they enslaved from Pennsylvania immediately prior to the six-month deadline, traveling to nearby states such as New Jersey or Maryland. In so doing, they followed the same logics as U.S. enslavers, including, most famously, George Washington, who ‘rotated’ the enslaved laborers in his presidential household to prevent them from being able to claim freedom. As enslavers from revolutionary Haiti learned of the law, they learned, too, of the established loopholes they could use to avoid it.[14]

After five-and-a-half months of residence in the state, Magdalen and Zare underwent this same process when Madame Chambré moved her household to Burlington, New Jersey, to avoid the gradual abolition law. However, Magdalen and Zare were now determined to claim their freedom under the Pennsylvania sojourner clause. In June 1794, they escaped from Burlington and returned to Philadelphia, where they contacted the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and, with their legal aid, filed suit against Madame Chambré for wrongful enslavement. When they contacted the society, the women offered two legal bases for their freedom. First, the women claimed that they had been held in the state for over six months. Although they had been removed to New Jersey after five-and-a-half calendar months, the women argued that they had nonetheless been held in Philadelphia for six lunar months, and that calendar months were not specified in the wording of the sojourner clause.[15] As Sue Peabody notes, the abolition society’s lawyers based this argument on several precedent decisions. However, it is also possible to read Magdalen and Zare’s argument as evidence of alternative epistemologies of time. Magdalen and Zare, who were described by Chambré as “Congo” and “Arada” respectively, had been raised in communities in West and West Central Africa, suggesting their own concepts of time were governed by lunar cycles rather than by the Gregorian calendar.[16]

Enslaved Haitian freedom-seekers in the United States sometimes also cited French abolition law as the basis for their freedom, and in addition to the sojourner clause, Magdalen and Zare also asserted that they were free due to the French Abolition Decree of 1794. This decree, which was issued as a direct result of the process that had begun in Cap-Français at the moment of Magdalen and Zare’s departure, had been passed after they left the colony. Their argument depended implicitly not on a claim to freedom by virtue of their presence on free soil, but on a claim to French citizenship. If they could be counted as French citizens, then the law would apply to them regardless of location. Asserting liberty under French abolition law was never a sure path to freedom in the United States. Sue Peabody has found only four cases of formal freedom suits based on the French abolition decree in the U.S. between 1792 and 1830, of which just two were successful. The outcome depended in part on the willingness of lawyers to take up enslaved clients’ claims to freedom under French law, and on whether or not judges were willing to recognize the French abolition of slavery as a valid legal statute that could be upheld on U.S. soil.[17] This willingness may have been in particularly short supply by the late 1790s, when Franco-American diplomatic relations had deteriorated to the point of undeclared warfare. In Philadelphia, local abolitionists were equally equivocal on the use of the abolition decree. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society lawyers who took up Magdalene and Zare’s case decided not to pursue the abolition decree claim, likely because they were both unsure about how the law might be applied, and because they were not confident in how it might be received by a local judge. While the society had received information about the decree shortly after its passage, they remained unsure about how it might apply in the United States until the late 1790s. Even when its application had been clarified, the society received repeated legal advice to avoid using the decree in cases when clients also had claims to freedom that were based on local law, and thus had established precedent for being upheld.[18] In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Magalene and Zare’s lawyers chose to pursue their claim under the sojourner clause, despite the unorthodoxy of the lunar months argument.

The suit, however, was unsuccessful. When Magdalen and Zare went to court, the justices did not even finish hearing Chambré’s defense before declaring that they were “unanimously, of opinion, that the legislature intended calendar months,” and that there was “nothing illegal, or improper, in the conduct of Mrs. Chambrè[sic].”[19] Magdalen and Zare were ordered to return to their enslaver. From then on, they left no trace that I have found in the documentary record. Their story ends as abruptly and wrenchingly as so many others in the archives of Atlantic slavery. Their case demonstrates the possibilities, limits, and stakes of attempting to claim freedom in gradual-abolition Pennsylvania.

Like Magdalen and Zare, hundreds of other enslaved children, women, and men sought freedom in the United States after being transported by their enslavers from revolutionary Haiti. Their stories are fragmentary, surfacing briefly in a fugitive advertisement, a court record, or a notice of sale. Often, like Magdalen and Zare, their documentary traces end in bitter disappointment. They show us the contingency of Haitian revolutionary emancipation in the context of an Atlantic system where slavery remained legal, and in which enslavers could re-inscribe the status of the people they enslaved via captive mobility and flight from abolition.[20] At the same time, however, they reveal the determination of enslaved people in the Haitian revolutionary Atlantic to assert their own freedom overseas. Magdalen and Zare’s case demonstrates the interconnections between revolutionary Haiti, the early American Republic, and the broader Atlantic world: how two women from West and West Central Africa could be taken from their homes, experience revolution in colonial Saint-Domingue, and eventually press freedom claims in Philadelphia that rested on African, French, and Pennsylvanian understandings of the law. By reading the early Republic through their efforts, we gain new insight into how the legalities of slavery were shaped and contested by enslaved freedom-seekers in the Haitian revolutionary Atlantic.

Author

Frances Bell is a PhD candidate in History at William & Mary, and Predoctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African History and Culture. Her current project examines the relationship between mobility, freedom-seeking, and the law in the Haitian revolutionary diaspora in the early United States.

Notes

[1] Translated quotation from Extrait d’une lettre, sur les malheurs de Saint-Domingue, quoted in Jeremy D. Popkin, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Revolution (2007), p. 220.

[2] Popkin, “A New Look at the Events of June 20th 1793,” Journal of Haitian Studies, 15 (Spring/Fall 2009), pp. 152-167.

[3] Figures for the Cap-Français departees, as for much of the Haitian revolutionary diaspora, vary significantly. According to Winston C. Babb, “at least 10,000 left Le Cap” in 137 ships. According to Gary Nash, at least 2,307 free and enslaved people disembarked in Philadelphia between August and December 1793, primarily from Cap-Français. Popkin finds that 5,000-10,000 departed the city, “most of them white,” although given that many of the households on board including multiple enslaved individuals, it seems likely that significantly more were Black and people of color than is suggested by this. Winston C. Babb, “French Refugees from Saint Domingue to the Southern United States, 1791-1810” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia (1954), p. 375, 379; Gary B. Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 65, Explorations in Early American Culture (1998), p. 49; Popkin, “A New Look,” p. 153.

[4] James Alexander Dun, Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (2016); Leslie M. Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic: Haiti and the Birth of Internationalism in the United States (2022); Matthew J. Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution (2010).

[5] Estimates for the total number of people who arrived from revolutionary Haiti range from 15,000 to 25,000. See, for example, Margaret Wilson Gillikin, “Saint Dominguan Refugees in Charleston, South Carolina, 1791-1822: Assimilation and Accommodation in a Slave Society,” Ph.D diss., University of South Carolina, 2014, p. 1; Catherine Therese Christians Spaeth, “Purgatory or Promised Land? French Emigres in Philadelphia and their Perceptions of American During the 1790s,” Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1992, p. iii; White, p. 2. There are even fewer estimates for the number of enslaved people who arrived. In Philadelphia, Nash estimates that 816 enslaved passengers arrived from revolutionary Haiti between 1791 and 1794, one quarter of the total of 3,086 passengers. It is possible that the percentage of enslaved people taken to Philadelphia was lower than average among enslavers who were aware of Pennsylvania gradual abolition laws. Nash, “Reverberations,” p. 50.

[6] Isaac Weld, Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (1807), p. 176; Althéa de Puech Parham, ed., My Odyssey: Experiences of a Young Refugee from Two Revolutions, by a Creole of Saint Domingue (1959), p. 99.

[7] Ebenezer Smith Thomas, Reminiscences of the Last Sixty-Five Years, Commencing with the Battle of Lexington I (1840), p. 31.

[8] Francois Furstenberg, When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation (2014), p. 96; White, p. 40.

[9] “Mulatto Peter, run-away,” Federal Intelligencer and Daily Gazette, June 17, 1795, p. [2].

[10] “Ten Dollars Reward,” Federal Intelligencer and Baltimore Daily Gazette, Aug. 15, 1795, p. [4].

[11] The SC general assembly issued its first restriction on manumission in 1800, requiring that proposed manumissions had to be submitted by the enslaver to the local magistrate, who, together with a council of five freeholders (local property-owners) would approve or deny the request based on whether they thought the enslaved person would be able to support themselves when free. In 1820, this was restricted further: manumissions had to be approved by the state general assembly. Kennedy, p. 65; “Pre-Emancipation Records,” in “African American Genealogical Research at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History,” South Carolina Department of Archives and History, accessed August 11th, 2023, https://scdah.sc.gov/research-and-genealogy/resources/african-american-genealogy.

[12] General Assembly of Pennsylvania, “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” (1780), The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, accessed Oct. 21 2023, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pennst01.asp. For cases of legal freedom-seekers, see Small minutes as related by the difft. Blacks & not entered in minute Book, [n.p]. Folder 11, Box 13; Acting Committee Minutes, 1789-1797, AmS 0412; and Acting Committee Minutes, 1798-1810, AmS 042, all Series 1, Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, Collection 0490. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia [HSP].

[13] Journal of the First Session of the South House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which commenced at Philadelphia, on Tuesday, the fourth day of December, in the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-Two (1792), p. 55.

[14] Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (2017), pp. 61-67; George Washington to Tobias Lear, 12 April 1791. Founders Online, National Archives. Available online at: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0062 [ last accessed: 2/15/2024].

[15] “Eight Dollars Reward,” Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, July 8, 1794, p. [3]; Acting Committee Minutes, 1789-1797,” p. 311-312, 315, 316, 317, 325, Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, HSP.

[16] Keletso E. Atkins, “The Moon is Dead! Give Us Our Money!”: The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843-1900 (1993); Giordano Nanni, The Colonization of Time: Ritual, Routine, and Resistance in the British Empire (2012), p. 187; Sue Peabody, “Free Upon Higher Ground: Saint-Domingue Slaves’ Suits for Freedom in U.S. Courts, 1792-1830,” in David P. Geggus and Norman Fiering eds., The World of the Haitian Revolution (2009), p. 266.

[17] Peabody, pp. 268-275.

[18] Dallas, Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged, pp. 143-144; Dun, pp. 133-134; Acting Committee Minutes, 1789-1797, p. 321, 409-411, 468, HSP; Acting Committee Minutes, 1798-1810, 131, HSP.

[19] Dallas, Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged, p. 144.

[20] For the term ‘captive mobility,’ see Lloyd Belton, “’She refused to be left behind’: the sinews of modern day trafficking in the late illegal US-Brazil slave trade, ca. 1860s-1880s,” Slavery and Abolition, 44, (August 2023), pp. 496-518.