What are commonalities and differences between the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions?

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The American, French, and Haitian Revolutions share the commonality of being influenced by Enlightenment thought and a desire to overthrow oppressive rule. However, they differ in their specific goals and political outcomes. The American Revolution sought to preserve citizens' natural rights, the French Revolution aimed for fair taxes and freedom of press, and the Haitian Revolution, led by former slaves, strived for racial equality and the abolition of slavery. Each revolution was driven by the specific sociopolitical climates of their respective countries.

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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...

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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.

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There were similarities and differences between the French, American, and Haitian Revolutions. One similarity is that in each revolution, people were fighting for freedom from some kind of oppressive rule, at least in the minds of those who were fighting for their freedom. In the United States, the Americans were fighting for freedom from the rule of Great Britain, which many people viewed as oppressive. In France, people revolted against the abuses of the French king and the very high taxes that the people had to pay. In Haiti, slaves were revolting in order to win their freedom and, eventually, to keep their freedom. In both the United States and Haiti, the people were fighting for their freedom from an imperial power.

One significant difference is that the revolution in Haiti, which began as a fight to end slavery, was mainly a revolution led by slaves. 90% of the people in Haiti were enslaved. In just a few years, Haiti went from a country with a very high percentage of slaves to a country with no slaves at all. The Haitians fought valiantly for their independence from France. It was pretty clear that if the Haitians lost, slavery would return to Haiti. Napoleon was beginning to undo some of the actions that had ended slavery in Haiti.

There were similarities and differences between the French, American, and Haitian Revolutions.

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Each of these revolutions was very complex, so any brief answer will be very incomplete. That said, there are several points of comparison and contrast that we can look at. We should also bear in mind that these revolutions were interrelated. France's expenditures on the American Revolution helped create the crisis that led to the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution occurred directly as a result of the turmoil in France, of which Saint-Domingue was a colony. 

One major point of comparison would be that each revolution was influenced to some extent by Enlightenment ideals. We see this in the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, both of which express Enlightenment ideas about fundamental human rights. But the Haitian revolutionary leaders were also influenced by Enlightenment thought. Toussaint L'Ouverture, in particular, was deeply read in the French Enlightenment. Each revolution had liberty as its central goal, with both the Americans and the Haitian Revolutionaries struggling for independence from the mother country. Each revolution also involved a staggering amount of violence in a protracted war. 

A major difference was that the Haitian Revolutionaries (eventually) sought freedom for slaves. This was a major reason why the United States under Thomas Jefferson refused to give recognition to Haiti, and in fact the French under Napoleon attempted to crush the Haitian Revolution for this reason. Some historians have argued that the American Revolution featured less internal disagreement and strife than the French and Haitian Revolutions, but others tend to disagree, citing many places (like the South) where the Revolution was basically a civil war between Whigs and Loyalists. 

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