Historian is first to write a scholarly biography of Toussaint Louverture in 80 yearsHistorians in the News
tags: Haiti, Toussaint Louverture
For nearly 80 years no scholar has written an English-language biography of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. This fact is even more remarkable when you consider Louverture’s contemporary equals: a group so small it may not extend beyond Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington. He was born a slave and became a world leader; even in his own time biographers reached back to the Romans, to Spartacus, for a comparison. Louverture is a unique figure in the modern era, and yet he has had some trouble getting due credit.
Philippe Girard, a professor of history at Louisiana’s McNeese State University, steps into the gap. His book Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life is the kind of book you might think already exists. It’s a straightforward biography of one of the Age of Enlightenment’s Great Men, a designation that Louverture pursued and one that always seemed to elude him in important ways. Why that was does not confuse us now, and it did not confuse him then: “If I were white I would receive only praise,” Louverture lamented of his place in world politics, “But I actually deserve even more as a black man.” In an era when rebels and usurpers became statesmen and landowners, it was an obvious injustice that he and only he could be excluded. ...
As Louverture seemed to know, he was a better bourgeois ruler than his contemporaries. He was Abraham Lincoln and George Washington combined, emancipation and independence in quick succession. He played the middle, between visions of universal freedom and the exigencies of a class system. In Girard’s telling, what he wanted more than anything, was the recognition and respect due to a man of his accomplishments. As a black man and former slave, he never got it. He repeatedly rescued imperiled whites, as if the noblesse would follow from the oblige. When Thomas Jefferson—a slaveholder and bigot—was elected in the US, he sought to isolate Louverture economically and diplomatically. “I wrote several letters to you already,” Louverture wrote Napoleon in 1800, “and I never received a response from you.” Napoleon was able to capture, expatriate, and jail Louverture in France, where he died in 1803. The revolution continued without him, but Haiti’s independence was never Louverture’s priority.
A book like Girard’s might have been near the top of Louverture’s list. For a man born a slave to star in his own biography centuries later, not as a slave, but as a leader and a statesman is an accomplishment without match. He was, as Girard says, “a man of his time,” a phrase that excuses the half-measures of great men. Perhaps the most accurate thing to say is that Toussaint Louverture was merely a Great Man.
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