Civil War and the Haitian Revolution

For our first meeting, participants of the seminar read a chapter by David Armitage, “Every Great Revolution is a Civil War,” forthcoming in Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein, eds., Scripting Revolutions (Stanford, 2014). “When tracing the genealogy of the modern script of revolution,” Armitage argues, “we should seriously consider the hypothesis that civil war was the original genus of which revolution was only a late-evolving species.” Ever since our first meeting, I’ve been thinking about how we can situate Haiti in Armitage’s argument; I think it does fit, but the case needs a bit of special attention.

My immediate question when I began reading was “can slaves be part of a civil war?” It seems as though Algernon Sidney beat me to it in the 17th century. Sidney, Armitage reveals, sought to exclude wars involving slaves and free non-citizens from the category of “civil war” in order to refute Robert Filmer’s defense of monarchy. By narrowing the definition, Sidney was able to confine the period of civil wars to the Roman Empire and therefore provide evidence of the instability caused by monarchy. Because slaves were not citizens in Saint Domingue, my first instinct was to exclude the Haitian Revolution from the category of civil war. But the story is not quite as simple as slaves v. free people and I began to see the parallels and similarities that Armitage emphasizes between “civil war” and “revolution” since they are part of the same genealogy.

In 1791, enslaved people in the northern part of the French colony of Saint Domingue rose up in rebellion and began the event that we know today as the “Haitian Revolution.” Without any other choice, the French commissioners in the colony declared the abolition of slavery in 1793. The French National Convention ratified this decision in 1794 and applied it to the entire French empire and they also granted civil and political rights to all non-whites in the colonies. Up until 1793/4, therefore, the war had been between slaves/non-citizens and free people/citizens (the French revolutionary government had granted citizenship to free non-whites in 1791 but the measure had not been adopted by the ruling colonial elite).

Between1793/4 and 1798, however, the colony was entangled in a complicated series of battles involving local conflicts and international armies. British and Spanish armies, royalists, republicans, whites, former slaves, and former free people of color all fought with and against each other whenever it suited their immediate goals and needs. I’m struggling to think of this period as a civil war since the British and Spanish forces played such a central role and occupied territory in the colony. Can civil wars also include a central international dimension? Can Revolutions? Between 1799 and 1803, however, the conflict is much more clearly civil since the central military and political conflicts were between Toussaint Louverture and André Rigaud and then between Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Napoléon’s army under Charles Leclerc and Donatien Rochambeau.

What I find incredibly interesting, is that at least one observer at the time claimed that the conflict between Haiti and France after 1804 should be considered a “civil war.” In a debate surrounding the prohibition on trade with Haiti in the United States in 1806, Senator Samuel White of Delaware proclaimed a lengthy speech in support of continuing the trade with Haiti.[1] To help make his case, White tried to prove that prohibiting trade with Haiti was contrary to the law of nations. The status of Haitians as free citizens (according to the 1794 law), White argued, meant that the battle between St. Domingo and France was not a “rebellion” but instead a “civil war.” He cited Emmerich de Vattel in support of this argument. “Custom appropriates the term of civil war,” White read from Vattel’s writings, “to every war between the members of one and the same political society. If it be between part of the citizens on the one side, and the sovereign, with those who continue in obedience to him, on the other; provided the malcontents have any reason for taking up arms nothing further is required to entitle such disturbance to the name of civil war, and not that of rebellion.”[2] White cited resistance against political and personal slavery as a very just cause for war. Once he had established that the conflict should be considered a civil war, White argued that in such scenarios neutral nations were to treat both parties equally. White did not win his case in Congress and the United States prohibited trade with Haiti in 1806.[3]

Armitage argues that many “self-conscious revolutionaries… were well aware [that] the scripts of civil war and revolution had much in common and were difficult to disentangle.” I too am having difficulty disentangling the two – if it can be done – and I welcome any additional thoughts on the issue.

[1]Mr. White’s Speech in the Senate of the United States, on the bill interdicting all intercourse between the United States and the island of St. Domingo; February 20, 1806,” ([no publication information], 1806).
[2] White, 11; White cites from Vattel’s chapter on Civil War: Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Natures, Applied  to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, Joseph Chitty, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1834), 424; Lauren Benton highlights that thirteen years later US President James Monroe defined the “status of Spain’s former colonies as belligerents in a civil war.” Lauren Benton, “Strange Sovereignty: The Provincia Oriental in the Atlantic World,” Mexico 20/10, La Modernidad en el Atlantico Iberamericano; see also Jaime E. Rodriguez O., The Independence of Spanish America, (Cambridge, 1998).
[3] This paragraph is a modified excerpt from my dissertation, “’So Many Schemes in Agitation’: The Haitian State and the Atlantic World, (Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University, 2012).

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4 Responses to Civil War and the Haitian Revolution

  1. Erin Zavitz says:

    Thinking through the case of the Haitian Revolution in terms of David Armitage’s argument, Julia Gaffield presents an intriguing entanglement of revolution and civil war. I am particularly drawn to her example of U.S. debates on trade with Haiti and how the conflict was designated a civil war. Senator White hoped the definition would allow for trade to continue between the two countries. His argument was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, I wonder what other impacts this classification might have had on Haitian diplomacy and debates over recognition.

    Over a decade later, British Foreign Secretary George Canning sent consul Charles Mackenzie to Haiti with specific instructions to record information on its relations with France. This was not a new request; debates on Haiti’s status are scattered throughout British Foreign Office correspondence. Returning to the letters, newspaper articles, and other documents concerning Haitian and British relations, how might the entangled notions of revolution and civil war enhance our understanding of the Haitian Revolution and the first decades of independence? Did defining the conflict as a civil war change how foreign powers viewed Haiti? For Senator White, it appears so, but what about other cases?

    • Julia Gaffield, PhD says:

      Thank you for your comment, Erin! I haven’t seen any references to the Haitian Revolution as a “civil war” in the British case but they call Haitians “brigands” for the first years after 1804. To me this suggests “rebellion” rather than civil war. For the British, however, I’m not sure that it would have mattered since France was their enemy and therefore they weren’t trying to make the same case as White that was based on the law of nations. I’m wondering if the French ever used “civil war” or if they simply emphasized that Haiti was a rebellious colony.

  2. Matthew Linton says:


    Your post raises a number of interesting questions. I think the most significant question is whether you want to define “civil war” by the definition of civility or civilization used in the 18th century or a more contemporary definition? From your post it appears earlier definitions of “civil” would exclude slaves – or “uncivilized” peoples in general – from participating in a civil war. The concept of civil war seems to indicate a rough equality between the two sides. It is clear that the French authorities did not see black Haitians as equal. At the same time, the Haitian conflict has many traits that we associate with contemporary civil wars such as a common language, membership in Vattel’s “same political society,” and recognition of a common sovereign. But would it be anachronistic to apply these categories to pre-20th century conflicts? It seems that at least one of your sources, Samuel White, doesn’t think so.

    I also wonder whether the linguistic distinction between revolution and civil war is only a matter of perspective. One woman’s revolution is another’s civil war, just as one woman’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. Is there a revolution that couldn’t also be understood as a civil war? In some cases, like the Chinese Revolution of 1949, both terms are used: the Chinese Civil War gave birth to the Chinese Revolution.

    A further question involves relations between definitions. How different was being a revolutionary and a brigand in the 18th century? I know in 19th century Prussia Jacobin was used as a kind of all encompassing term for those with liberal ideas. For an Englishman, perhaps a brigand and a revolutionary were two interchangeable terms for criminal. I’m not sure since I’m not immersed in the documents, but the flexibility of terms may be worth examining.

    • Julia Gaffield, PhD says:

      Thank you for your comment, Matt! You raise a number of important questions.

      I am using the original definition of civil war as articulated by Armitage: “Such upheavals were civil in the sense that they were fought between fellow citizens (cives), within the bounds of a single political community.” My reason for wondering whether enslaved people in Saint Domingue would qualify, therefore, is because they were not citizens. The common language is a bit tricky, but certainly an interesting point – if Kreyol/Creole was the language spoken in the colony, can we lump it together with French? It would be interesting to try to differentiate the different armies by language spoken (since all spoke Kreyol and only some spoke French) – but this would probably be an impossible task!

      I absolutely agree that the different labels are a matter of perspective, but as Samuel White’s argument shows, the different perspectives could have real legal and economic consequences.

      The term “brigand,” according to David Geggus’s research, was a term used by the British to label all nonwhite enemies in the Caribbean (David Geggus, “The Enigma of Jamaica in the 1790s: New Light on the Causes of Slave Rebellions,” WMQ 44, no. 2 (April 1987): 274–99, esp. 281 n. 28.). It is interesting that it had both subversive and racial dimensions.

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