by Robert Louis Stein
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
Rutherford, 1985 ISBN # 0-8386-3218-1
Leger Felicite Sonthonax, son of a prosperous French merchant, was a born-again Revolutionary. He rose in the ranks during the French Revolution and in 1792 was sent to Saint Domingue as part of the Second Civil Commission. This was a group of three men sent to oversee the interests of France in Saint Domingue. Sonthonax conceived the mission of the Commission as having two primary aims:
These were two extraordinarily difficult tasks. The slaves had just revolted in the north and held most of the plain. It was feared that they would move toward independence. The whites of Saint Domingue were strongly resisting giving any rights to free men of color, and there was a great deal of discussion among the whites of declaring independence for France. Thus the problem was to return the slaves to the plantations and to save Saint Domingue for France.
Sonthonax took over. He formed close associations with the free men of color and worked tirelessly for their full citizenship. However, the main goal was always to preserve the colony for France. He exiled many radical whites and made great progress in giving citizenship to the men of color. He didn't defeat the slave rebellion, but was able to contain in to the northern plain.
By early 1793 Sonthonax had greatly succeeded three primary aims: pacifying, or at least containing the slave rebellion; defeating the primary white resistance to rights for free men of color; holding the colony for France.
In February 1793 France declared war on Britain. This presented a new problem for Sonthonax, preparing to save the colony from foreign invaders. His most famous action was related to this Republican aim of saving the colony for France. On Aug. 29, 1793 Sonthonax freed the slaves. Robert Stein says: "It was the most radical step of the Haitian Revolution and perhaps even of the French Revolution. Sonthonax took it alone and without hesitation."
Sonthonax seems to have been motivated by three things: a genuine belief that the principle of the French Revolution were incompatible with slavery (or racism of any form); the desire to further the French Revolution and bring Saint Domingue under the revolutionary banner; and the calculated move of soliciting the new freed men to the banner of France against the British invasion of the colony.
Things, however, did not go as Sonthonax hoped. The white colonists continued their fight against Sonthonax, and now were joined by many of the free men of color, who, while desiring their own full citizenship, had no desire to see slavery ended. The slaves on their part didn't trust Sonthonax (it was several months before France agreed with Sonthonax and formally freed the slaves), and they leaned toward independence from the French.
Sonthonax was recalled to France to defend his actions. When he returned in Spring, 1796 as head of the Third Civil Commission. However, he no longer trusted the loyalty to France of the free men of color and through his efforts toward the "citizens of Aug. 29th," the freed slaves. His efforts in the this period were similar to the earlier period--save Saint Domingue for France and extend full citizen rights to the freed slaves.
Obviously he lost. The slaves ultimately chose independence from France and turned against Sonthonax. Toussaint Louverture arranged to have Sonthonax sent back to France and after he left on Aug. 24, 1797 there was a steady movement toward Haitian independence.
Leger Felicite Sonthonax is a controversial figure of the revolutionary period. His critics denounce him as being vain, power hungry and duplicitous. Thomas Madiou, one of Haiti's most famous historians, writing in the middle of the 19th century reported that the old people spoke very well of Sonthonax claiming that he was "needed to regenerate the new freedman."
Robert Stein's wonderful and readable book is not quite a biography of Sonthonax, though it is that too. Rather, it is a history of the Haitian and French Revolutions from 1792 to 1797 told from the perspective of Sonthonax' involvement. While every page, every story is Sonthonax' story, nonetheless the book works as a general history of the two revolutions, and is simply excellent for understanding the interrelationship between the two revolutions.
Stein's portrait of Sonthonax is generally quite favorable. He seems Sonthonax as a dedicated French Republican, a patriot wanting to save an important asset for the Republic, a principled believer in the Rights Of Man, wanting to extend them both to the free men of color and the slaves. On the other hand, he does not protect Sonthonax from his own mistakes or failures of character.
Certainly this is a scholarly work, a specialized book and isn't for everyone. For many general readers it may well be more than you ever wanted to know about the Haitian and French Revolutions. Yet it is an enjoyable and imminently readable book. All serious students of Haiti should read it. The book is still in print and should be available through your local book store.
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