Maginn on Gaffield, 'The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context and Legacy'

Julia Gaffield, ed.
Andrew Maginn

Julia Gaffield, ed. The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context and Legacy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. 296 pp. $39.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-3788-5.

Reviewed by Andrew Maginn (Howard University) Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2020) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: 

While at the National Archives of the United Kingdom in February 2010, Julia Gaffield made an incredible discovery of a document feared lost to history: one of the original government-printed versions of the Haitian Declaration of Independence. At the same archive, a little over a year later, Gaffield’s success was matched by finding a broadside of the same declaration. These findings have had a profound impact on the scholarly community as evidenced by a conference on this topic in 2013 at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. The edited volume, The Haitian Declaration of Independence, a result of that conference, invites everyone to reflect upon the great strides made in Haitian studies through this find, as recounted by leading scholars.

The eleven essays in The Haitian Declaration of Independence are split into three sections that provide insight “on the creation and dissemination of the declaration, on its content and reception, and on its afterlives in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries” (p. 10). As the authors explore these themes, they provide the reader with a snapshot of the latest historiography and methodology on the early Haitian republic. One important element of this text is the contemporary historical debates that occur between the contributors. For example, the question of authorship of the declaration excites some lively discussion. While Deborah Jenson credits the leader of Haiti in 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, with most of the intellectual content of the document, both David Geggus and John Garrigus give more credit to its scribe, Louis Félix Boisrond-Tonnerre. It is through such strong debates within the essays that scholars learn the importance of the Haitian Declaration of Independence. 

The first section, “Writing the Declaration,” contains four essays that provide important insights into the motivation, text, and authorship of this pivotal historical document. The essay by David Geggus provides a clear entry to the discussion, ensuring the reader understands that the declaration found in 2010 reflects a unique revolution. This is followed by a chapter by Garrigus, which examines the man he considers to be the intellectual author of the Haitian Declaration of Independence, Boisrond-Tonnerre. Garrigus adds to the historiography by providing insight on Boisrond-Tonnerre’s family, education, and connections, using French colonial records as well as Boisrond-Tonnerre’s published narrative. Patrick Tradieu analyzes Haitian publications between November 1803 and January 1804 to assist in understanding the early Haitian state. This includes a discussion of Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s November 29 proclamation, another document currently lost to history, whose importance in comparison the Haitian Declaration of Independence has been debated throughout historiography. Deborah Jenson’s essay closes the section, broadening the scholarly discussion of this volume by analyzing the “alphabetic and print culture” within Dessalines’s Declaration of Independence using the conceptual metaphor theory (p. 73).

The second section, “Haitian Independence and the Atlantic,” contains three essays that reflect on the uniqueness of the Haitian founding in both writing and action. Malick W. Ghachem provides a wonderful introduction by examining how the legal aspect of the declaration can be interpreted as a “collection of pronouncements or acts” that separated Haiti from colonial racial plantation slavery (p. 97). This mission within the founding document highlights a major difference between the Haitian Revolution and other revolutions that marked the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jeremy D. Popkin’s chapter, using the recently discovered memoir of Norbert Thoret, reflects on the anti-French aspect of the Haitian Declaration of Independence that in turn provided a justification for the 1804 massacres of the French who remained in Haiti. This anti-French mentality also appears in Philippe Girard's contribution. Girard examined the text of the declaration to prove that Dessalines, while wanting to maintain “national sovereignty and individual freedom” within Haiti, did not see reason to spread the Haitian Revolution to “interfere with his neighbors’ internal labor system[,]” slavery (p. 137). 

The four essays in the third section, “The Legacy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence,” review the impact of this pivotal document following 1804, on culture, internal politics, and international relations. Julia Gaffield focuses on the lack of international recognition of Haitian independence by examining trade between Haiti and the United States. Jean Casimir examines the internal sovereignty of Haitian citizens within their local communities, modeled upon the enslaved communities of Saint-Domingue, that were neglected by the national government made up of Eurocentric Haitians. Laurent Dubois explores how creole-language vodou songs provide insight into this period of independence. This is accomplished through the telling of Revolutionary events, as well understanding how Haitians coped with violent loss that occurred during the conflict as songs providing “a space through which to respond, process and heal” (p. 210). Erin Zavitz concludes the volume with a reflection on the transformation of public memory of Dessalines as well as Haitian Independence Day celebrations into the twentieth century, using newspapers, travel accounts, and secondary sources. 

All the essays in this volume offer sound analysis of the early period of the Haitian state and some, in addition, offer important historiographical and methodological innovations. John Garrigus’s well-researched essay, for example, alters scholarly understanding of Boisrond-Tonnerre, who is usually seen in a negative light. Philippe Girard’s research corrects the historical narrative by examining Dessalines as a statesman and how his decision not to export the Haitian Revolution was a practical one that protected the Haitian state and an attempt to create foreign relations. Jean Casmir counters the historiography that suggests the Revolution was a completed one by showing how the post-1804 Haitian state was not concerned with the welfare of the working population. He also notes the glaring absence of family and gender within the national ideology. The methodology of Haitian studies is furthered by essays like Deborah Jenson’s, which gives scholars an additional way to examine the historical literature. Likewise, Laurent Dubois, through analysis of creole-language vodou songs, sheds light on a neglected source that needs to be utilized to understand Haitian history from the bottom up. Patrick Tradieu also urges scholars to broaden their scope by examining Spanish and Latin American archives, which have traditionally been neglected by scholars of Haitian history. 

While the majority of the essays of this volume are focused on the source, the Haitian Declaration of Independence, several only examine theme(s) related to it. While these later articles are well written and add to the discussion, it would have been beneficial to the reader to see more of the declaration utilized or alluded to in support of their conclusions. In addition, while all the essays are a boon for scholars of Haitian history, undergraduates and nonspecialists will struggle with some of the them. These observations aside, this volume is a reflection of the strong scholarship in the field and provides an excellent foundation for future research.      

Citation: Andrew Maginn. Review of Gaffield, Julia, ed., The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context and Legacy. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL:

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