Exporting the Revolution: Grégoire, Haiti and the Colonial Laboratory, 1815–1827

  • Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 169)


The failure of the French Revolution proved intensely disappointing for Henri Grégoire. His bitterness at seeing the coronation of Napoleon and the return of the Bourbons grew even more profound after an infamous set of elections in 1819. Elected to the Chamber of Deputies as part of a republican protest against the monarchy, Grégoire saw his election nullified by conservatives who called him a regicide. This exclusion confirmed Grégoire’s fears that he could have no further impact on France. The Revolution, to which he had devoted so much of his life, “gladly sacrific[ing] my fortune and my health,” was soundly defeated.1 Adopting more and more the scholarly vita contemplativa; Grégoire tried to remind his countrymen of the ‘true’ principles of Christianity and republicanism, through his research and writing.


French Revolution Interracial Marriage Mixed Marriage Republican Government Gender Prejudice 
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  1. 1.
    Grégoire, “Aux bons citoyens du départment de la Meurthe. Paris, 6 août 1790,” Le patriote français (Paris: 1790), p. 3.Google Scholar
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    Grégoire had said in the published version of his 1788 Essai, “If the Jews were only savages, it would be easier to regenerate them. … But they have acquired ignorance which has depraved their intellectual faculties” (Essai sur la régénération physique, morale et politique des Juifs, ouvrage couronné par la Société royale des Sciences et des Arts de Metz, le 23 Août 1788 (Metz: Devilly, 1789), p. 171). See also Rita Hermon-Belot’s discussion of the presence of Jews posing “a real intellectual problem” for Grégoire and other Christians (“L’abbé Grégoire et la conversion des Juifs” in Les Juifs et la Révolution française: histoire et mentalités, éd. Evelyne Oliel-Grausz and Mireille Hadas-Lebel (Louvain: E. Peeters, 1992), p. 22).Google Scholar
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    While leaving many aspects of his thinking unexplored, Necheles provided a very useful narrative overview of Grégoire as “patriarch of Haïti” (The Abbé Grégoire 1787-1831. The Odyssey of an Egalitarian (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1971), ch. 12. Yet most other studies of Grégoire have not analyzed this period. One exception to this tendency is a lecture celebrating the abbé given by Duraciné Vaval in the 1930’s (“L’abbé Henri Grégoire dans ses rapports avec Saint-Domingue et Haïti. Conférence prononcée le 31 mai 1931” in Revue de la Société d’histoire et de géographie d’Haïti 2, no. 4 (1931). Another is a short essay by Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink (“‘Negrophilie’ und Paternalismus: die Beziehungen Henri Grégoires zu Haïti (1790-1831),” in Der Karibische Raum zwischen Selbst — und Fremdbestimmung: Zur Karibischen Litteratur, Kultur und Gesellschaft, ed. Reinhard Sander (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1984), pp. 99-108). I was not familiar with the latter when I delivered the original version of this paper at the Clark Library, and am grateful to Professor Lüsebrink for introducing me to it. Some of the points I make in this essay, such as Grégoire’s use of Haiti as a laboratory for his ideals, his mixture of anticolonialism and paternalism, and Haitians’ selective reception of his work, are also raised by Professor Lüsebrink.Google Scholar
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    Cf. the articles by Julia Clancy-Smith, Mrinalini Sinha, Antoinette Burton, and Nancy Paxton in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, eds. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
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    The color difference between the North and South was not absolute, but one of degree. Most of Christophe’s top leaders were of mixed-race, like leaders in the South. Still, many of them had sided with the nouveaux libres (former black slaves) during the earlier civil war. Moreover, though the majority of the army chiefs in the South were mixed-race, the majority of officers in the North were black (see David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 55 and passim). Google Scholar
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    The collection in which this document is found (Ms. 15049) was acquired by the Arsénal only in the 1970’s. Two letters in the collection, however, had been reprinted in 19th Century histories of Haiti — by Haitians (Madiou, Ardouin). While not all of the Grégoire documents in Ms. 15049 are about Haiti, there is a strong reason to presume that the Haitian ones were sent there by Grégoire and remained there until recently.Google Scholar
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    Boyer to Clarkson, 30 July 1821, reprinted in ibid., pp. 229-230.Google Scholar
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    See ibid., 246, and Clarkson to Zachary Macaulay, 19 November 1821, reprinted in ibid., pp. 237-240.Google Scholar
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    “Copie d’une lettre du grand juge d’Hayti daté du 25 7bre 1818 an 15 de l’indépendance. A ma chère soeur” and letter from Colombel to Grégoire, 9 novembre 1819, both in Ars. Ms. 6339, fol. 60, 73.Google Scholar
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    On Boyer’s gift of a large shipment of Haitian coffee, see the correspondence in Ars. Ms. 15049. Grégoire, who did not drink coffee and shunned luxury items, was embarrassed by Boyer’s generous gift; he feared his enemies would interpret it as a payoff. Still, he dared not offend the President by declining it. He thus distributed a small part to other abolitionists, so they could taste the fruit of free black labor, and sold the rest to raise money for a group of mixedrace men from Martinique who were imprisoned in France.Google Scholar
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    Grégoire to Boyer, 22 juin 1821, Ars. Ms. 15049/169. The next paragraph is also based on this letter.Google Scholar
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    De la liberté, pp. 10, 31, 34. In reference to “our mistaken brothers” whose “ancestors deserted the Catholic Church,” Grégoire confidently asserted, “their descendants will perhaps return as the Jews will to he who their ancestors pierced” (30).Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Grégoire to Boyer, 5 novembre 1824, Ars. Ms. 15049/194. Grégoire, like many other post-Thermidorian intellectuals, had long advocated the jury system as a foundation for stable republican government. See for example Grégoire’s joy at learning that regenerated Africans had been taught to serve as jurors in his Notice sur la Sierra-Leona et sur une calomnie répandue à son sujet contre le gouvernement français. Lûe … dans la séance de la Classe des Sciences politiques et morales, le 2 Pluviôse, l’an 4, Extrait de la décade philosophique (n.p., 1796), p. 5. See also the essay prize awarded by Grégoire’s section of the Institut national’s Class of Moral and Political Sciences in 1802 on how to strengthen the jury system in France (Mémoires de l’Institut national des sciences et des arts. Sciences morales et politiques [2e classe] IV (1801): p. 16).Google Scholar
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    Grégoire to Boyer, 22 juin 1821, op. cit. The next paragraph also stems from this source.Google Scholar
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    Grégoire, Manuel de piété, p. 103.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Grégoire to Colombel, 22 août 1821, Ars. Ms. 15049/195 and Grégoire to Pescay, 25 mai 1824, Ars. Ms. 15094/198. See also the interior regulations of the Lycée, which Grégoire kept in his library (BSPR Rev. 171/51). On Grégoire’s earlier fascination with education, see Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, “Regenerating France, Regenerating the World: The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution, 1750-1831,” PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 1998.Google Scholar
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    See references to “Mylady Moncashel” in Grégoire to Fabroni, 22 fructidor an X, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, B F113, no. 1; and the women included on the Commitee of Public Instruction’s list of grants, which Grégoire was responsible for preparing (M. J. Guillaume, Procès-verbaux du Comité d’Instruction Public de la Convention nationale [Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1907], VI: 426-427, 447-448.Google Scholar
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    “Doctrine du Christianisme,” BSPR Rev. 177, ch. 1, 7. This quote combined Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11. Given that Grégoire’s version incorporated all the categories listed in Colossians, but added to it the male/female distinction of Galatians (the only one of the three verses which included “man and woman” as categories to be erased), Grégoire’s inclusion of gender difference as an arbitrary one seems all the more deliberate. Grégoire would also direct Haitians to recite the Galatians passage in his Manuel de piété, pp. 24-25.Google Scholar
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    De la noblesse de la peau, 217. The quote “L’âme n’a pas de sexe” was a frequent one in patristic literature (Guilia Sissa, “On parvient péniblement à enfanter la connaissance” in L’exercice du savoir et la différence des sexes (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1991), 37). According to this tradition, however, the soul stayed unsexed only as long as the body did not engage in sexual activity. It had a secular counterpart in Poulain de la Barre’s famous line “L’esprit n’a point de sexe,” which feminist historians have called one of the earliest French “feminist” texts (François Poulain de la Barre, De l’égalité des deux sexes (Paris: Fayard, 1984)), originally published in 1673).Google Scholar
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    Essai sur la régénération, p. 182.Google Scholar
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    Wollstonecraft’s closest associates when she lived in Paris were also close friends or colleagues of Grégoire, such as Joel and Ruth Barlow, Helen Maria Williams, and the Girondin circle around Condorcet and Madame Roland (see Emily W. Sunstein, A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft [New York: Harper & Row, 1975], pp. 218-219, 231; and also the recent exhibition at the New York Public Library, Visionary Daughers of Albion: A Bicentenary Celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley). On Grégoire’s reading Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, see reference to her in his De l’influence du christianisme sur la condition des femmes (Paris: Baudouin, 1829), 3rd ed., 106nl. For more on Grégoire’s views on women, see my Regenerating France, Regenerating the World. Google Scholar
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    Lettre aux Philanthropes (Paris: 1790), 19; Grégoire to Brissot, n.d. [spring 1791], AN, AP 446 AP 7 (Brissot Papers). Grégoire hardly idealized mixed-race women, though; he noted in his letter to Brissot that “I do not believe that our islands abound in vestal virgins and Lucretians.” I am extremely grateful to Jeremy Popkin for telling me about this letter and for providing me with a transcription of it, since these papers are no longer open to the public.Google Scholar
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    See Grégoire to Mme. Inginac, 26 avril 1825, Ars. Ms. 15049/192; Grégoire to Clarisse Descloches, 8 septembre 1821, Ars. Ms. 15049/174; and his other letters to them in the same collection. Manuel de piété, p. 15.Google Scholar
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    De l’influence du christianisme sur la condition des femmes, pp. 122-125; Grégoire to Mme. Inginac, 21 octobre 1825, Ars. Ms. 15049/191 and the letters cited in the previous note; and F.-A. Aulard, La Société des Jacobins. Receuil de documents pour l’histoire du club des Jacobins à Paris (Paris: Librairie Jouaust, 1889), III: 179.Google Scholar
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    Goodman, Civility without Sexes: Thoughts on Gender and Conversation, unpublished ms. (communicated by author), p. 4. Goodman’s work builds upon Sylvana Tomaselli’s classic article on the linkage between women and culture (“The Enlightenment Debate on Women” in History Workshop Journal 20 (1985), pp. 101-124). Grégoire was perhaps borrowing the idea of woman as civilizing force from Buffon, whose work Grégoire so often cited. See Buffon, De l’Homme, ed. Michèle Duchet (Paris: Maspero, 1974), pp. 132-133; quoted in Lieselotte Steinbrugge, The Moral Sex: Woman’s Nature in the French Enlightenment, trans. Pamela E. Selwyn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 85. The fervency of Grégoire’s calls to Haitian women to spread civilization may have been in part a reaction to post-indepdendence Haiti’s dearth of missionary nuns; as Dale Van Kley pointed out at the Clark conference, the Jansenist tradition which Grégoire increasingly claimed as his own had looked to women religious as a source of civilization and morality. Still, it seems likely that Grégoire’s emphasis on lay women’s civilizing role was not only a transferal of nun’s duties in their absence, for his stress on the family as the basic unit of the new republican Utopia meant that lay women’s civilizing actions would be crucial.Google Scholar
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    See Manuel de piété, pp. 6, 15; De la noblesse de la peau, pp. 20, 22.Google Scholar
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    Grégoire, De l’influence du christianisme sur la condition des femmes, 96n2. While Grégoire disagreed with Rousseau on this point, it is important to note his having read and engaged with the latter’s work.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). Scott notes that, during the session when citizenship was granted to former male slaves, the conventionnels publicly recognized and applauded a black woman in the gallery who was crying with happiness. She argues that “It was no accident … to make a black woman the sign of the entry of black men into the ranks of citizenship. The men’s difference from women served to eradicate differences of skin color and race among men …” (9).Google Scholar
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    Considérations sur le mariage, p. 17.Google Scholar
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    See Archives départementales de Loir-et-Cher, F592, fol. 4; and “Questions religieuses,” Ars. Ms. 15049/140. During this period, Grégoire was also involved in promoting the cause of Greek independence from the Turks. On Grégoire’s comparisons between “les enfans de l’antique Grèce et les enfans de l’Afrique,” see Grégoire to Colombel, 30 août 1821, Ars. Ms. 15049/196; and Grégoire to Boyer, 20 août 1821, Ars. Ms. 15049/170.Google Scholar
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    “Doctrine du Christianisme,” BSPR, Rev. 177, Ch. “9.11.”, pp. 6, 8.Google Scholar
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    See Necheles, p. 243.Google Scholar
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    Grégoire, Epître aux Haïtiens (Port-au-Prince: De l’Imprimerie du Gouvernement, 1827), pp. 14, 15.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 9n.Google Scholar
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    It continued, “Ton nom, ô fraternal abbé, qui fit valoir/D’une façon combien large, opportune, intègre/L’intellect et les droits meurtris du monde nègre!” [Vaval, “Dédicace à l’abbé Henri Grégoire” in Histoire de la littérature haïtienne, ou ‘L’âme noire’ (Port-au-Prince, 1933)]. [“Your name, o fraternal abbé, which highlighted/in such a great, timely and honest way/the intellect and trampled rights of the Negro world”].Google Scholar
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    Price-Mars, Silhouettes de Nègres et de Négrophiles (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1943, 198. Price-Mars led an ethnological movement which celebrated the African traditions which the Haitian elite had long sought to replace with European ones. He specifically rejected the idea (which Grégoire in fact adhered to) that Haitians had “no history, no religion, and no morals and that their only hope was to acquire these things from Europeans” (on Vaval and Price-Mars, see Nicholls, esp. 155-156, 231, 289).Google Scholar
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    See David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975); and John Ashworth, David Brion Davis, and Thomas L. Haskell, The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). In this collection, Davis argued that opposition to slavery across the seas shifted focus away from the problems of the poor in Europe: “As a social force, antislavery was a highly selective response to labor exploitation. It provided an outlet for demonstrating a Christian concern for human suffering and injustice, and yet thereby gave a certain moral insulation to economic activities less visibly dependent on human suffering and injustice” (61). See also Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa. Volume One (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    See Lafayette-Boyer correspondence, Department of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 4611 Boxes 14, 25 and 27. I am grateful to Margaret Nichols for enabling me to consult these documents.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Grégoire’s critique of the moral effects of “société,” De l’influence du christianisme sur la condition des femmes, pp. 127-129.Google Scholar
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    See Grégoire to Inginac, 20 août 1821, Ars. Ms. 15049/171. For more on Grégoire’s Revolutionary language politics, see David A. Bell, “Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei: Language, Religion and the Origins of French Revolutionary Nationalism”, in American Historical Review 100 (1995), pp. 1403-1437; and Michel de Certeau, Jacques Revel and Dominique Julia, Une politique de la langue. La Révolution française et les patois: l’enquête de Grégoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1971). Bell has recognized that Grégoire’s language initiatives had religious, in addition to political, aims.Google Scholar
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    Vaval, op. cit., pp. 27-28. See also Vaval’s claim that Boyer closed schools Christophe had opened (Vaval, “Boyer,” Revue de la Société d’Histoire et de Géographie d’Haïti 23, no. 85 (1952), pp. 1-16). Many modem Haitian historians do have problems, however, with Christophe’s agricultural policy, which kept the rural masses on the farms.Google Scholar
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

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  • Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

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