A Guide to Sites, Museums, and Memory

Slavery in the Age of Revolutions

View of the 40 days of fire of the plain houses at Cap-Français
View of the 40 days of fire of the plain houses at Cap-Français. August 23rd, 1791.

Beginning in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and passing through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, a wave of revolutions and independence movements emerged in Europe and the Americas. This “Age of Revolution” encompassed the advent of new republics in the United States, France, Haiti, and Spanish America. These independence and anti-imperial movements all followed different paths, but many held as a core belief some focus on individual rights. The presence of slavery in or the importance of slavery to the sites of revolutionary unrest created a powerful dilemma, if not a paradox. How should a movement embracing impulses toward rights and sovereignty deal with the issue of slavery?

In each of these four places—the United States, France, Haiti, and Spanish America—the result was different, sometimes dramatically so. In Saint-Domingue, for example, the enslaved population sought and secured freedom for itself, creating the new and emancipated nation of Haiti. In the United States, the rhetoric of rights did not dismantle slavery—that task would be delayed for several generations. Revolutionary France ended slavery only to restore it later. In the Spanish Americas, many enslaved people saw some relief, but many others could only hope for freedom.

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  2. American Revolution >