Haiti’s Founding Document, Inspired By the Declaration of Independence, Found in London

A recent discovery by an inquisitive graduate student is a major contribution to both the history of Haiti and the study of the international significance of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.

            A story in the March 31, 2010 edition of the New York Times reports that Julia Gaffield, a Duke University graduate history student, discovered the only surviving copy of  Haiti’s 1804 Declaration of  Independence. Gaffield made the discovery in February while examining early nineteenth-century correspondence collected in Great Britain’s National Archives in London. The eight-page pamphlet is the only known surviving copy of the Haitian Declaration distributed by the newly independent government to other countries as an official announcement of the island’s separation from France. The original final draft vanished for unknown reasons not long after the founding of the Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804. 

            Not surprisingly, there is keen interest in Haiti to bring the copy home. “It is a very important document for our country,” said Wilfrid Bertrand, director-general of Haiti’s National Archives, in an interview with the Associated Press. “It has every bit the same importance as the American Declaration of Independence.”

            For obvious reasons, the find also is considered a ray of hope and a much-needed source of pride for Haiti, a long-suffering nation before the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed about 230,000 Haitians on January 12.  Poverty, political turmoil, and governmental corruption have plagued the nation for decades, leading most to forget (if they ever knew) that Haiti has the distinction of being the first independent black republic in the world.

            Furthermore, Haiti’s declaration is one of many declarations inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence. David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, writes that the first draft of the declaration was written by an admirer of Jefferson familiar with the American state paper. However, the principal reviser of the Haitian declaration thought Jeffersonian language too bloodless and insipid to capture the sentiments of former slaves declaring their freedom.

Louis Boisrond Tonnerre, as portrayed on a 1954 Haitian postage stamp.

“All that which has been formulated is not in accordance with our true feelings; to draw up the Act of Independence, we need the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for a writing desk, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for pen,” said Louis Félix Mathurin Boisrond Tonnerre, who served as a secretary to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitian Revolution.  Not surprisingly, the American reaction to the Haitian Revolution was to equate it with slave revolt, leading Thomas Jefferson to refuse official recognition of the republic out of fear that such a move would inspire slave uprisings in the United States. (However, Jefferson had ordered the shipment of arms and supplies to the Haitian rebels because he feared a French foothold too close to the U.S. mainland.) In 1862, Abraham Lincoln finally offered formal recognition to Haiti, a year after the shots were first fired in a war he would later proclaim was fought to secure “a new birth of freedom” in the hemisphere’s leading slave-holding republic.

          Ironies abound in the history of Haiti’s struggle for freedom and its links to American concepts of freedom and liberty. However, Jefferson’s refusal to extend recognition to an island nation seeking independence is not the only chapter in the story of the Declaration of Independence and its influence on revolutions such as Haiti’s. Like the United States, the authors of the Haitian declaration cast their arguments in terms of overthrowing despotism and tyranny in the name of liberty and human rights; like the United States, their declaration was a statement of exiting an empire, in this case the French empire of Napoleon I, an entity that is the astounding aftermath and abrogation of much of the French Revolution.  The United States and Haiti are one of many revolutions in the Age of Revolutions, events that tolled the end of monarchies during one of the major geopolitical changes of the last 200 years. We have moved from a world of empires to a world of sovereign states – no small accomplishment when you consider how entrenched monarchy is in world history. As Jefferson wrote in 1795, “this ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe.” It is good that the good people of Haiti, so wracked by national crisis and by natural disaster, have an important reminder of their global significance to look to once again.
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