From the mists of the past, biographers are extracting and fleshing out the ghostly figures of the Haitian Revolution. Robert Stein has done this for the Jacobin commissioner and abolitionist, Léger Félicité Sonthonax.
There has been a tendency among historians, myself included, to cast Sonthonax as an evil archangel in a titantic struggle with the good Toussaint L’Ouverture, a sort of revolutionary dualism. But Stein has softened and celebrated the part Sonthonax played in the Haitian Revolution. Apparently Sonthonax had a deeper commitment to abolition than historians supposed. He associated closely with Brissot de Warville and French abolitionism before his arrival in Saint-Domingue. Though pushed by events to free the slaves, Sonthonax felt a compatibility between emotional conviction and political expediency. Nor did Sonthonax despise whites from the outset of his mission to the French colony. Only when he viewed whites as counterrevolutionaries and threats to abolition did he oppose them. Even then there is no substantial evidence that the French commissioner wished to destroy the whites as Toussaint claimed.
In his economic program, Sonthonax opposed only counterrevolutionary exiles (emigrés) regaining their property. But until a list of emigrés was constructed, no white exiles could possess their land claims. Toussaint opposed Sonthonax on this point. Instead, Sonthonax introduced a leasing program of state-administered plantations until ownership could he established. Stein needed to clarify this issue of the missing list. Without one, all white exiles suffered the fate of emigrés. Could it be that Sonthonax saw the missing list as opportunity for power and vengeance?
While devoting a chapter to the relationship between Toussaint and Sonthonax, Stein raises more questions than he answers. Who determined military strategy against Britain in 1797? The author maintains that Sonthonax did, but more than likely Toussaint would not have allowed important military matters to rest with the commissioner. Did Toussaint expel Sonthonax as a sacrifice to a French legislature grown surly? Stein presents an unconvincing argument that he did.
The finale of Sonthonax’s life impinges further on Stein’s thesis that the Jacobin agent was a pure revolutionary, driven by altruistic motives. Why, after Napoleon’s decision to reinstate slavery in the empire became apparent, did Sonthonax not make a powerful public statement of protest? Certainly many Frenchmen would have listened. But instead Sonthonax dedicated his declining years to “feathering his nest,” fawning over Napoleon, and acting like a present-day yuppy.