The American, French, and Haitian Revolutions had much in common, as each was inspired by a desire to overthrow a ruler and bolstered by Enlightenment thought. They were all part of the “Age of Revolutions”—a historical period (1774–1849) marked by a significant number of revolutionary movements inspired by the ideas...
The American, French, and Haitian Revolutions had much in common, as each was inspired by a desire to overthrow a ruler and bolstered by Enlightenment thought. They were all part of the “Age of Revolutions”—a historical period (1774–1849) marked by a significant number of revolutionary movements inspired by the ideas of philosophes like John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Beccaria.
Enlightenment ideas began after the Scientific Revolution in Europe, when people began to question tradition. Enlightenment thinkers questioned divine right theory and the rule of absolute monarchs. John Locke wrote Two Treatise of Government (1690), which posited that all men are born equal with the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and property.” Locke also said that a ruler should derive their right to rule from the consent of the people, and that the people should overthrow any ruler who did not preserve the people’s unalienable rights.
Enlightenment ideas were spread in the Salons of Paris, and with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, Enlightenment texts were printed in the vernacular and circulated widely. The educated middle class read these new and exciting ideas. They were eager to question tradition and to change or dissolve the longstanding royal dynasties of Europe that had ruled via absolute monarchies for centuries.
The American Revolution (1776) was the first revolution of the three. It started because the American colonists were tired of the tyrannical King George III, who was taxing the them without allowing for the colonists to have proper representation in England’s parliament. The Founding Fathers of America were very much influenced by Enlightenment ideas, as can be seen in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration used Enlightenment ideas to bolster its list of grievances, mostly from Locke. Likewise, the American Constitution uses ideas from Locke (unalienable rights and consent of the governed), Montesquieu (checks and balances/separation of powers), Voltaire (freedom of speech), and Beccaria (due process).
Bourbon French King Louis XIV was a foolish spender, wasting billions in modern money on constructing a fancy palace at Versailles and adorning himself in velvet, gold, and jewels. He was interested in weakening England (a longtime rival) and thus contributed financially to the American Revolution, leaving France in debt. When Louis XVI came to power, France was in deep financial trouble. In order to fix the nation’s finances, Louis XVI decided to try and tax the nobility, who were generally not taxed.
This did not go over well, and the nobles forced him to call a meeting of the Estates General (1789). The Third Estate (97% of the population) eventually took control of the revolution, starting the National Assembly and meeting in secret on a tennis court. They created the Declaration of the Rights of Man, similar to the Declaration of Independence, listing grievances against the king. It was rife with Enlightenment ideas and very much influenced by the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.
Eventually, Napoleon took power at the tail end of the French Revolution and created a dictatorship and wide-ranging French Empire. Haiti was a French colony and was the first European colony in Latin America to undergo a successful revolution (1804). Francois Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture was a French general and former slave, known for leading the Haitian Revolution. He was a son of well-read and educated parents who encouraged him to read and learn. He was very interested in Enlightenment thought and read the philosophes voraciously.
The Haitian Revolution influenced other independence movements throughout region such as the revolts of Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin. Sadly, Toussaint could not see his revolution till the end because Napoleon captured him and held him in a French open air prison until he died in 1803, one year before his successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared Haiti a sovereign state.
Overall, all three of these revolutions were influenced heavily by Enlightenment thought, but they were each politically different, with slightly dissimilar goals. The American Revolution was largely focused on preserving the unalienable natural rights of citizens. The French revolutionaries were interested in fairer taxes and freedom of press. In Haiti, the insurgency of L’Ouverture was focused on racial equality and ending slavery. It is notable that L’Ouverture was a former slave and lead slaves against the French, which cannot be said for any other revolutions. Even the other ones in Latin America were led by Creoles (Spaniards who were born in Latin America).
Although these inspiring ideas all fell under the scope of the Enlightenment, different ideas inspired each revolution specifically based on that country's sociopolitical climate. However, all three revolutions were similar in that they were driven by people questioning tyrannical governments and traditional power structures based on new ideas.