The Revolutionary War

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What are some similarities and differences between the American and Haitian Revolutions?

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The American and Haitian Revolutions share the common principle of individual sovereignty. However, they differ in their causes, leadership and effects. The American Revolution, sparked by financial and territorial disputes, resulted in a transition of power from the British to the American upper class. In contrast, the Haitian Revolution was rooted in racial and slavery issues, leading to a major social upheaval with former slaves founding the nation. The leadership styles of George Washington and Toussaint Louverture also vastly differed, influencing the stability of their respective nations.

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The differences in the revolutions in America and Haiti are far more numerous than any similarities. They were different in their causes, leadership, and effects.

America's Revolutionary War (1775–1783) had financial and territorial causes. After 1763, London expected the Americans to pay taxes. Numerous taxes were implemented, and they were loathed by the Americans. The colonists thought the taxes were unfair because they did not have direct representation in the British Parliament. Also, the colonists thought London impinged on their sovereignty by keeping them out of the frontier areas and by setting up British garrisons in the colonies.

The key factors in Haiti prior to its revolt in the 1790s were race and slavery. The French colony was divided into black slaves (about half-a-million), Europeans (32,000), and mixed-race or mulattoes (24,000). Living and working conditions for the slaves were abhorrent, and they were seething with resentment. The mulattoes were frustrated because they were not accepted into the 'European' society in Haiti. Fighting broke between the Europeans and the mulattoes, and then the slaves revolted. The complex conflict, which lasted for a decade, was longer than that in America.

George Washington and Toussaint Louverture emerged as the military and political commanders of America and Haiti, respectively. Even though both had been successful battlefield commanders, they were very different men. Washington did not want to be king, and he was even loath to become the first president of the new nation. However, Toussaint became a dictator who removed his enemies. Toussaint was highly intelligent, and he abhorred slavery. But his erratic leadership caused instability, and that instability continues in present-day Haiti. Washington retired and died peacefully; his successor inherited a stable nation. Toussaint, on the other hand, met a violent death, and his successors eventually took over a destitute nation.

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The common thread uniting the American Revolution with the Haitian Revolution is the concept of individual sovereignty—that the right to rule comes inherently, and only, from the consent of the governed. The upper classes in the thirteen colonies, as well as the diverse population of Haiti, were fighting for that same fundamental principle.

Other than that, and the violence that ensued, they are two fundamentally different revolutions.

The American Revolution reflected a transfer of power from the aristocracy in England to the upper class in the US. It did not reflect a transfer of power within US society itself. For the average citizen, and certainly for the slave, life largely went on as it had before the revolution. In fact, the American Revolution did such a poor job of addressing social grievances that unrest soon followed, immediately in the form of Shay's Rebellion and later in the form of the Civil War. 

The Haitian Revolution, on the other hand, reflects a major overturn in the social order. The Haitians overthrew the French, and Haiti went on to be a country founded by former slaves. 

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Both the American Revolution, which started in 1775, and the Haitian Revolution, which started in 1791, were inspired by Enlightenment ideas about natural rights—that is, rights that were inherent and could not be taken away. The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, which in turn inspired the revolution in Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, which was a French colony.

The revolutions were fundamentally different, however, in that the Haitian Revolution was directed by slaves and its aim was the abolition of slavery. This was a very radical goal, and the American Revolution was far less radical. While the outcomes of the American Revolution were the dissolution of the colonial status of America and its independence from Great Britain, it was a less radical revolution. The Haitian Revolution resulted in the ascendancy of a formerly less elite people, but the American Revolution did not result in the abolition of slavery, as the Haitian Revolution did. Instead, Haiti became an international pariah after its revolution and was not formally recognized by France until 1825. Haiti was not recognized by the United States until 1862, one year before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. 

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Both the Haitian and American Revolutions were motivated to some extent by ideas of natural rights.  In Haiti, planters justified demands for their own independence in these terms, free men of color did the same, and ultimately slaves did too. Both struggles involved violent domestic conflict, especially the Haitian Revolution and the American Revolution in the southern backcountry.

Both involved, of course, immense slave populations, but slaves rose up to win independence and freedom in Haiti, while thousands fled to British lines during the American Revolution. Ultimately, however, the Haitian Revolution was followed almost immediately by violent civil war, while the American Revolution was followed by a counter-revolutionary Constitution that was intended to squelch much popular political participation, dissent, and disorder.

For obvious reasons, the Haitian Revolution excited slave populations in America (Gabriel's Revolt in Richmond has been linked to the Haitian Revolution as well as to the turmoil caused by the disputed ending to the election of 1800) and terrified American slave owners, including many, like President Thomas Jefferson, who had been revolutionary leaders themselves.

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