Did the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions achieve the goals of the enlightenment?
At the risk of sounding America-centric in responding to the question “did the American, French or Haitian Revolutions achieve the goals of the enlightenment,” one could logically conclude that only in the United States were those goals achieved. The Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a radical departure from reliance on strict interpretations of Church orthodoxy in favor of empiricism and scientifically-grounded analyses. While some of the Enlightenment’s most prominent and thoughtful figures were French – e.g., Rene Descartes, an early Enlightenment figure; Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau – the French Revolution did not create the kind of environment in which the age’s ideals could best be practiced. On the contrary, the Reign of Terror was about as anti-climactic from a liberal democrat perspective as one could possibly get, whereas the United States revolutionary movement was founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment. In other words, the French Revolution occurred at towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the goals of that period having predated the revolution. The United States, in contrast, was formed on the basis of those goals, with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other key figures having been heavily influenced by the aforementioned French philosophers, especially Montesquieu.
In the case of Haiti, the revolutionary movement that ultimately succeeded in overthrowing the French colonial administrators and the white elites who ran the country on the backs of their black slaves was similarly influenced by prominent figures of the Enlightenment. Being a French colony, these educated mixed-race and black revolutionaries, most prominently Toussaint L’Ouverture, owed an intellectual and philosophical debt to leaders of the French Revolution and those who inspired it, but, as with France, the liberal democratic ideals associated with Enlightenment reasoning were pushed aside in deference to the baser instincts of people who have been enslaved and grown tired of it. Unlike the American and French Revolutions, the Haitian Revolution was a slave revolt, as opposed to being a revolt against monarchical excesses. More of an independence movement than a revolution, the philosophical underpinnings of an enlightened government were not as pervasive an influence despite the leadership of L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacque Dessalines, Jean-Baptiste Belley, and others, as in the United States. And, as with the Reign of Terror that resulted from the chaos of the French Revolution, the Haitian independence movement carried out a massacre of white settlers that was decidedly unenlightened.
If the American and Haitian Revolutions had anything in common besides the intellectual influences of French Enlightenment figures, it was the role of blacks in each country. The American Revolution, admirable though it was in its intent and execution, nevertheless had the serious blemish on its record known as slavery – an issue that would not be resolved for many years. The institution of slavery was contrary to the democratic ideals of the enlightenment. In Haiti, the fact that the newly-established government was black-run may have allowed for the opportunity for liberty, but the nation would continue to suffer for the skin color of its natives. No European or North American government was interested in helping the newly-liberated blacks of Haiti to establish a functioning society reflecting both indigenous cultures and Enlightenment-inspired ideals. Haiti would be celebrated as the first nation formed out of a slave revolt, but that is little solace to a nation that remains the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
To reiterate, then, the goals of the Enlightenment, including the freedom of academic pursuit, the elevated role of reason, and the establishment of liberal democratic institutions, were most closely attained, in the short term, by the United States during and following its revolution. The French Revolution would not really resolve its contradictions for hundreds of years, but the scientific, economic, philosophic and political goals of the Age of Enlightenment certainly survived the era of Robespierre, with France emerging one of the world’s greatest centers of culture and reason. For Haiti, alas, the story does not have a happy ending. Revolutionary figures were inspired by the Enlightenment, but the goals of that age were scarcely realized under the formidable weight of endemic poverty, disease and ignorance.