Mongey on Girard, 'Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life'

Philippe Girard
Vanessa Mongey

Philippe Girard. Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 352 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-09413-4.

Reviewed by Vanessa Mongey (Newcastle University, UK) Published on H-Haiti (December, 2017) Commissioned by Grégory Pierrot

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In a lecture delivered shortly after the onset of the Civil War, US abolitionist Wendell Phillips conjured up the memory of Toussaint Louverture. His speech was to be “at once a biography and an argument—a biography, of course very brief, of a Negro soldier and statesman … one of the most remarkable men of the last generation.”[1] The study of the tumultuous events collectively known as the Haitian Revolution has considerably grown in the 150 years since Phillips’s speech, and Girard’s biography participates in the recent historiographical reassessment of the Haitian Revolution by focusing on its most famous leader: Toussaint Louverture. Tailored for a wide readership, Girard’s book explores the many faces of the iconic historical figure. This biography probes into the mystery of the life of, in Phillips’s words, “one of the most remarkable men of the last generation,” who manages to emerge from the book more elusive than ever.[2]

Girard has produced a clear, straightforward, and entertaining narrative that should satisfy most readers, not an easy task when considering the existing material on Louverture. After all, Haiti has one of the highest per capita rates of historians. Research on Louverture by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians remains foundational, but it often lionized Louverture as a heroic figure committed to the emancipation of slaves and the independence of Haiti. Early Haitian historians like Thomas Madiou and Beaubrun Ardouin were more critical of him, while C. L. R. James James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) and Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture (1981) hailed Louverture as a precursor of black nationalism and anticolonial struggles. Recent works have stressed Louverture’s conservatism and showed that he was a product of the contradictions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Pierre Pluchon’s biography, for example, embraced a controversial vision of Louverture as a man of the ancien régime, a planter and a politician who was more intent on self-promotion than on emancipation.[3] Girard’s extensive knowledge of archival material and recent scholarship makes his book stand out among the rapidly expanding scholarship on the Haitian Revolution.

Historians have portrayed many faces of Louverture along the years and there is something for all sides of the Louverture wars in Girard’s vivid and compelling narrative, not just in the way Girard authoritatively dispels many myths—such as Louverture as a heroic figure committed to liberty for all—but also in the way his critical narrative of this most demanding of historical figures reveals the leader’s many guises. As Girard cautions, “Anointing Louverture as an abolitionist saint is a mistake but so is depicting him as an elite individual completely cut off from the realities of slavery” (p. 74). The structure of the book reflects the author's intentions. His concise, digestible chapters are organized around twenty key themes, or rather identities, for Louverture: aristocrat, revolutionary apprentice, slave driver, politician, and diplomat, and god, among others. The last chapter, “Icon,” summarizes how Louverture’s memory was constructed by his family, by historians, and by black nationalists. Girard’s book serves as a reminder that the raw partisanship and personal hostility we see today is far from unprecedented. As Girard points out, France and Haiti share an uneasy ownership of Louverture’s legacy. His name is now enshrined in both the Haitian and the French pantheons—a reflection on his dual identity as proud governor of the French empire and reluctant founding father of the Haitian nation.

Although this thematic approach makes Girard jump back and forth in time on several occasions, the book flows rather well and showcases the many faces of a single man. In a chaotic conflict involving France, Great Britain, and Spain, as well as local ethno-social groups and precarious alliances, Girard keeps Louverture at the center of all the action. He portrays Louverture as a deft politician and military leader who did not hesitate to pragmatically renege on his promises in pursuit of wealth and power. This side of Louverture as a “deceitful” opportunist is most clearly on display in the tactfully titled chapter “Diplomat” that recounts how Louverture, eager for British aid, initially supported and then betrayed a plot to start a slave rebellion in Jamaica in 1799. Preserving his and his family’s freedom and prosperity was paramount to Louverture, as Girard shows in some of the book’s most engaging chapters, but so was preserving Saint-Domingue’s freedom and prosperity. Louverture not only wrested control of the colony from his rivals Sonthonax and Rigaud, he also became its wealthiest planter at a moment when slavery was abolished. His and the colony’s economic health became entwined, which explains why Louverture embraced the militarization of plantation work, facing resistance and resentment from formerly enslaved workers. Like many of his contemporaries, Louverture did not trust the people. Girard provides a fascinating account of the ways Louverture and the colony’s ambitions fused together, leading to what he calls “reactionary policies” (p. 211), notably article 17 of the 1802 Constitution that insisted that the importation of field workers was necessary for the well-being of Saint-Domingue’s plantations. According to British sources, Louverture secretly planned to import West Africans as indentured servants to work on the plantations, and even sent an envoy to Jamaica to purchase laborers. Girard finds it necessary to insist that “enlightened dictatorship was [Louverture’s] model. Not the Enlightenment” (p. 209). But many Enlightenment philosophes praised enlightened despotism as part of a reforming and radical agenda. Most famously, Voltaire placed many of his hopes for political progress in centralizing absolute monarchs like Frederick the Great. Girard further points out that Louverture was no Lockean advocate of representative government, but the great theorist of natural liberties himself owned stock in slave-trading companies. These apparent contradictions between what Girard calls a “one-man rule” and “the republican principles of liberty and equality” (p. 209) were embedded in the very fabric of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions. When Girard uses Louverture’s statesman persona as a sinister foreshadowing of Haiti’s future turmoil, one might wonder why the same conclusions could not be drawn for other countries with authoritarian “founding fathers,” whether it be Napoleon in France, Simon Bolívar in Colombia and Venezuela, or even Thomas Jefferson in his willingness to fiddle with constitutional procedure to add Louisiana to US territory or Andrew Jackson’s authoritarian tendencies and Native American removal policies. Saint-Domingue/Haiti did not have a monopoly on authoritarian, cunning, and multidimensional political figures.

In Girard’s telling, Louverture is a former slave yearning for recognition and respect. He was a “social climber and self-made man” (p. 5) like many other colonists in Saint-Domingue, but he fulfilled his ambitions in a manner that would have made Machiavelli proud. In this monumental biography, however, Louverture’s frequently callous behavior is integrated into a sympathetic portrait of the General as a family man. Depicting how Louverture once exchanged an enslaved woman from the Aja nation for his surrogate mother when his family was in danger of being dispersed, Girard comments on the “morally ambiguous nature of the arrangement” (p. 106) but speculates that the arrangement was Louverture's response to the threat of his family being dispersed. Louverture’s loyalty, in Girard’s book, ultimately lays with himself and his family.

Girard gives us a few fascinating glimpses of the relationship between Louverture and his sons. Due to a lack of archival material, we do not learn much about his wife, Suzanne. The author relies on the explanatory device of Louverture as a family man to give a certain coherence to his actions. As he rose in colonial society thanks to his family networks, Louverture’s paranoia permeated every social interaction, sometimes with good reason, as even one of his sons and his brother turned on him. In Girard's portrayal, as these family relationships dissolved, Toussaint increasingly turned into a pragmatist driven by his ego and personal ambitions.

There is much to praise in this sophisticated deconstruction of myths surrounding Louverture. Louverture is another example of a highly influential individual who, thanks to his intelligence, family networks, military and political savvy, had a decisive impact on the modern era. However, as is the risk with biographies, Girard’s book unwittingly reinforces Great Man theory by portraying individuals and groups who did not share Louverture’s ever-shifting goals or did not gravitate in his orbit as peripheral figures. Only two of Louverture’s rivals deserve attention in Girard’s eyes: civil commissioner and abolitionist Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and General André Rigaud. While Girard offers great and fascinating details to explain how Louverture outmaneuvered anyone who challenged his rise to power, he does not give us any sense of his rivals’ ideologies and motives. Sonthonax is summarily dismissed as a “doctrinaire Jacobin” (p. 167) and Rigaud as merely Louverture’s “mixed-race rival” (p. 178). Louverture is the sun and everyone appears to live in his shadow. But by portraying him as a shapeshifter, Girard reveals how much Louverture reacted to, as much as initiated, major events in Saint-Domingue, France, and the United States. His role in the August 1791 slave revolt, as Girard points out, remains a mystery. Some contemporaries have argued that he devised the uprising behind the scenes, but the evidence tends to indicate that he played no role in the early stages of the rebellion. Girard, however, after he oddly argues that “uneducated slaves could not philosophize on the Rights of Man … but they got the gist of it: ‘The white slaves killed their master,’ is how they understood the French Revolution,” asserts that Louverture was “apparently the revolt’s mastermind,” speculating that he hid his involvement to protect his family (pp. 108-109). By connecting Louverture to most major and minor events of the revolution, Girard’s biography participates in the Great Man narrative of history that same way so-called Founders Chic does. The recent renewed interest in the overwhelming white male and elite founders of the US Republic has complicated our understanding of these heroic figures as divisive and deeply flawed figures: they bickered, they betrayed their principles, they backstabbed each other, but they never stepped away from the center of the stage. Putting Louverture at the heart of the unraveling revolution, Girard's book pushes less-celebrated actors, and particularly women and African former slaves, back to the margins. Thus while a short paragraph in the chapter “Planter” does mention that women formed the bulk of the labor force after Louverture tried to implement a forced labor system in 1800, their contribution, and even their resistance, to this system is absent from Girard’s account.[4]

But this is a biography, after all, and Girard is consistent in retaining his focus on how Louverture navigated his world and how he made himself a unique figure in the modern world. It is above all a stirring story of a controversial, or rather, polarizing, figure. Girard is careful not to overdramatize his already dramatic enough subject. This book achieves many things, notably in synthesizing recent discoveries on Louverture’s life, like the fact that Jean-Jacques Dessalines worked as a slave under Louverture’s orders for two years. Girard evokes the controversy that pitted him against French historian and chair of Haiti at the University of Bordeaux, Jacques de Cauna, over the discovery of Dessalines and Louverture’s early connections: he writes that “Dessalines’ ties to Louverture were independently revealed in Jacques de Cauna … and Philippe Girard” (p. 280n18). The two biographers published their discoveries in 2012: de Cauna, having announced it on his website in March 2012, published an article in the June issue of Outre-Mers and Girard in the July issue of William and Mary Quarterly.[5] This controversy is an interesting case study for the sometimes fraught relationships between French and US scholars on Haiti: the latter having the advantages of a larger audience as well as a better structural support from institutions and publishers (Girard’s Toussaint Louverture is a trade book published by Basic Books). Caught in the middle, Haitian scholars are repeatedly ignored or have to pick a side. One can only hope that accounts on the complexities of less celebrated Saint-Dominguans are soon to follow.


[1]. “Wendell Phillips’ greater speech,” Weekly Anglo-African, May 4, 1861.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Gabriel Debien, Jean Fouchard, and Marie-Antoinette Menier, “Toussaint avant 1789: Légendes et réalités,” Conjonctions 134 (1977): 65-80; David Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture and the Slaves of the Breda Plantation,” Journal of Caribbean History 20, no. 1 (1985-6): 30-48; Jacques de Cauna, Toussaint Louverture: Le grand précurseur (Bordeaux: Editions Sud-Ouest, 2012); and Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: Un révolutionnaire noir d’Ancien Régime (Paris: Fayard, 1989).

[4]. Philippe Girard’s own “Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–04” in Gender & History 21, no. 1 (2009): 60-85; Carolyn Fick, Making Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution From Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991); and Lyra D. Monteiro, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” The Public Historian 38, no.1 (2016): 89-98.

[5]. See Jacques de Cauna, “Lettre ouverte à M. Philippe R. Girard et aux nouveaux flibustiers du 21ème siècle,” Le Nouvelliste, November 4, 2013, Girard’s response in the form of a letter to the readers is not available online, but Cauna responded to it in “Droit de réponse de Jacques de Cauna,” Le Nouvelliste, November 20, 2013, 

Citation: Vanessa Mongey. Review of Girard, Philippe, Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life. H-Haiti, H-Net Reviews. December, 2017. URL:

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