Understanding the Law
February 5, 2010
Three great revolutions of the 18th century

The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, directed a great deal of attention to the country and its history. It also called to mind the impact of three great revolutions in the 18th century: the American Revolution – 1775, the French Revolution – 1789, and the Haitian Revolution – 1791. The American Revolution occurred first and exerted tremendous influence on the French people, but the Americans were influenced by ideas of both French and English philosophers during a period called the Enlightenment.{{more}} I will, therefore, take the time to put these great revolutions in perspective.

The American Revolution

Before the outbreak of the American Revolution, ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity were disseminated, but these ideas were not extended to the slaves who worked on the plantations owned by the colonists. The American Revolution took the form of a great rebellion directed against the colonial powers, and in some instances the Americans used slave power in the battle against the British soldiers for their own advantage. In the end, they successfully dispelled the enemy and secured their freedom and independence. The French supported the Americans in the war against Britain, and after their mission was completed, French soldiers returned to a life of hardship and poverty, many of them no doubt wondering how much freer they were in their own country.

The French Revolution

The most important role of the American Revolution is that it provided an example of a successful revolution. It inspired the people of France into action, for while the aristocrats (upper class) in France flourished, the lower class and emerging middle class suffered. It was this emerging middle class (supported by the lower class) that led the fight against the upper class. They were unavoidably improvident. A crop failure and a harsh winter reduced many to starvation. They could no longer be sustained by the old order.

In 1789, the French people broke out in a rebellion against the old system that had suffocated them for so long, and although the political and social factors played an important role in the upheaval, the economic conditions were decisive in driving hungry people to rebellion. The monarchy and other symbols of oppression were swept away in the tidal wave of that revolution. A long period of uncertainty followed, with movement to a republic to constitutional monarchy and to an empire under Napoleon. One hundred years after the cataclysmic events, admiration for the Americans continued and the French people gave the United States a gift of the Statute of Liberty (Lady Liberty) to mark the centennial celebration of the declaration of Independence. It was built in France and reassembled on a base built by the Americans on an island in the harbour of New York. Today it stands as a symbol of their freedom.

The Haitian Revolution

It was not long after the French Revolution that the Haitian slaves rose up in rebellion against their masters. Unfortunately, their progress was hindered by the embargoes that were placed against them to inhibit trade with other countries and the compensation that they had to pay to France crippled their economy. There was no house-warming gift to mark their declaration of freedom. Haiti remains poor because it was denied the support it needed for sustenance. When the slaves fought for their freedom, they had no allies to assist them as the Americans had in the support they received from the French.

Help Haiti to help itself. Condemnation serves no good purpose.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
E-mail address is: [email protected]