BOOKS AND ARTS SEPTEMBER 10, 2007
is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration.
Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
By Madison Smartt Bell
(Pantheon Books, 333 pp.,
Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
By Elizabeth Brown Pryor
(Viking, 658 pp.,
Two hundred years ago, the Anglo-American slave trade was formally abolished, culminating a struggle that was several decades old. Slavery was so deeply anchored in the Atlantic world, its defenders and beneficiaries so formidably placed, that nascent abolitionists in metropolitan centers such as London, Philadelphia, and Paris set their sights chiefly on the trade rather than the institution of slavery itself. If the slave trade were to cease, they imagined, slaveholders would have to show more concern for the well-being of their slaves, and a gradual process of amelioration might then be initiated, resulting at some point in complete emancipation.
Yet by the time the British Parliament and the American Congress got around to ending their involvement in the slave trade in 1807-1808, the Atlantic slave system had already been dealt major blows, principally by abolitionists closer to the ground. During the American Revolution, thousands of slaves owned by Patriots (including some owned by Jefferson, Washington, and Madison) fled to British lines in quest of freedom. And even before American independence had been won, new states in New England and the Middle Atlantic--responding to the unrest of slaves and the circulation of revolutionary ideas--had commenced what turned out to be a protracted emancipation.
But by far the heaviest and most consequential blow against slavery was delivered on the island of St. Domingue, the jewel of the French colonial empire, where in August 1791 slaves launched a massive rebellion. And unlike slave rebellions that came before and after in the Americas, the rebellion in St. Domingue succeeded. Over the course of more than a decade, slaves, in complex alliance with free people of color, managed to defeat the armies of France, Britain, and Spain; abolish slavery; kill or drive off their owners; and establish an independent republic. Their extraordinary feats during the 1790s and what they achieved by 1804 are known to us as the Haitian Revolution.
The Haitian Revolution sent shock waves across the Atlantic world. It struck fear into the hearts of slaveholders, raised hope in the minds of the millions still enslaved, and reconfigured politics in Europe and the Americas. Hostile observers from near and far, including heads of state, viewed the making of Haiti as a contagion to be contained, if not destroyed, and they would try mightily through force of arms, economic sanctions, and diplomatic isolation to do just that. But nowhere were the repercussions of the Haitian Revolution more profound--and in ways that have rarely been recognized, let alone appreciated-- than in the United States.
What the slaves did in Haiti intensified the developing conflict over slavery in the United States, and may have made the Civil War more likely. These biographies of Toussaint Louverture and Robert E. Lee allow us to see some of these interconnections, and they suggest that the fortunes of these men, great military and political leaders of the 1790s and 1860s respectively--and great rebels in their distinctive ways--may indeed have been linked. They also put into rather surprising perspective the historical stature of each man.
Neither the Haitian Revolution nor Toussaint Louverture is a household name in the United States, at least outside certain communities of African descent. They are rarely found in American history textbooks (at the high school or college level), and even well-educated high school students will likely go to college--and perhaps graduate from college-- without having heard of either. "Toussaint Louverture can fairly be called the highest-achieving African American hero of all time," Madison Smartt Bell observes at the outset of his biography. "And yet, two hundred years after his death in prison and the declaration of independence of Haiti, the nation whose birth he made possible, he remains one of the least known and most poorly understood among those heroes. "
Bell's fascinating book may help to remedy this circumstance. Until fairly recently, there were few works in English dealing either with Toussaint or the Haitian Revolution more generally, and historians of the French Revolution, with which events in Haiti were intimately related, ignored or gave passing reference to them. C.L.R. James's still-towering The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, written in 1938, for many years stood virtually alone in the English-language literature. But owing in good part to a rapidly developing concern with "Atlantic history," the past decade or so has witnessed something of a turnabout, with important works on the Haitian Revolution produced by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Carolyn Fick, David Geggus, Julius Scott, and Laurent Dubois. Madison Smartt Bell has himself been a figure in this trend, completing a highly praised fictional trilogy (he is best known as a novelist) on Toussaint and the great slave rebellion during this same period. But Toussaint Louverture is the first substantial biographical account in English since James's Black Jacobins, and it is a worthy successor.
Bell could not have had an easy time of it, because Toussaint did not leave a substantial body of personal papers. And no wonder. Notwithstanding the heights of power and influence that he ultimately attained, Toussaint claimed remarkably humble beginnings. He was born a slave, sometime between 1739 and 1746 (no record of his birth has been found), on the Breda plantation, not far from the port city of Cap Franais on the northern plain of St. Domingue. At an early age, Toussaint Breda (as he was first known) was put in charge of the livestock, which enabled him to gain expertise as a horse-trainer and veterinarian, and eventually renown as an equestrian. Perhaps for these reasons, he was, by 1772, elevated to the position of coachman for Bayon de Libertat, who had become manager of the Breda estate.
By all accounts Toussaint developed a close personal relationship--a friendship of sorts--with Bayon de Libertat, which likely played an important role in his being manumitted in 1776 and gaining a comfortable footing as a free man of color. Although he continued to live on the Breda estate, Toussaint came to own several properties as well as a slave, whom he quickly set free; and while he could not claim the resources of the wealthy gens de couleur (free people of color), he soon had, in Bell's words, "a surprising number of common interests with members of the white planter class." When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Toussaint would seem to have been identified with St. Domingue's slaveholding regime.
Appearances, of course, can be misleading. We do not know when Toussaint Breda became involved with those plotting rebellion in St. Domingue. Nor do we know how Toussaint initially imagined what he was doing. What we do know is that the Haitian Revolution was a complex political process, played out on local and international stages, in which the goals of different groups of instigators moved in directions that none would have predicted or necessarily desired.
There were, in fact, few harbingers of rebellion or revolution in St. Domingue before the 1790s. Unlike much of the British Caribbean, where the eighteenth century saw a series of maroon wars and slave revolts, St. Domingue was relatively quiet. Aside from endemic maroonage and a slave plot in 1757, the political cauldron was on low simmer, and St. Domingue became the world's leading producer of sugar and coffee. By 1789, nearly half a million slaves-- most African-born and survivors of the Middle Passage--worked on the estates, outnumbering resident whites and free people of color (about 30,000 each) by at least seven to one. Many of the wealthiest white planters (grands blancs) were absentees, living principally in France and drawing their checks, and many of the men who sat in France's National Assembly either owned property in the colonies or had ties to the colonial trade.
By the 1780s, however, there were rumblings of discontent both in Paris and in St. Domingue, and these may have become more explosive on their own. The outbreak of revolution in France provided volatile new tinder. The opportunity was seized first not by slaves but by the gens de couleur, who suffered civil and political disabilities despite their wealth and service in the colonial militia. Influenced by the apparently egalitarian sensibilities of the French revolutionaries, they sought equal standing with whites--not an end to slavery-- and, when rebuffed by the National Assembly in 1790, raised a rebellion in St. Domingue that was brutally crushed.
Slaves on the northern plain were soon looking to press their own advantage. It was not emancipation but amelioration that they sought--an end to the use of the whip and three free days a week rather than two; and when they met secretly in the forest at Bois Caiman in midAugust, they thought that the king of France might be on their side, thwarted on the island by their recalcitrant masters. The conspirators were mostly privileged slaves, many of them drivers or commandeurs, representing thousands of slaves on the plantations in the surrounding area. Among them were Boukman Dutty, Jean-Franois Papillon, and Georges Biassou. A week later, on the night of August 22, they led the slaves in rebellion.
Bell does not know whether Toussaint was with the conspirators at Bois Caiman (he doubts it) and is similarly unclear as to Toussaint's whereabouts during the initial stages of the rebellion (he surmises that Toussaint remained at the Breda plantation for about a month). But he regards Toussaint as "a deeply secret co-conspirator," and claims that sometime during the fall of 1791 Toussaint left the Breda estate and headed into the mountains, where he joined a band of rebel slaves led by Biassou. There he first served as Biassou's secretary (he was able to read and write) and then gained the title of medecin general (general doctor), obviously combining his veterinary skills with a knowledge of herbal medicine. All the while, he maintained communications with the rebellion's other leaders with a confidence suggesting he was one of them.
Initially, the slaves fought the military forces of their masters and of France with a fury more reminiscent of rioting than of an organized campaign. Boukman was a Vodou priest, as Biassou and many other leaders were alleged to have been (but not Toussaint, who was Catholic). Bell describes their early forays as "jihadlike onslaughts." Yet as the rebels' casualties mounted, they increasingly embraced--apparently with Toussaint's influence--guerrilla tactics common to West African warfare (Toussaint's father was born in West Africa, of elite status, before being enslaved and shipped to St. Domingue), bewildering French troops used to battling on open fields.
By December the rebellion seemed to have run aground. Boukman was killed in battle and decapitated, his head displayed in the public square of Cap Franais, and the other leaders, including Toussaint, looked to sue for peace and to save their skins. In exchange for their own freedom, for the abolition of the whip, for one extra free day each week, and for a general amnesty, they offered to return their rebel troops to the plantations as slaves. It was a move that reflected not only their desperation, but also the limited aims of their rebellion thus far. Had the slaveholding authorities in St. Domingue agreed to the deal-- and there was precedent for doing so--the episode might have been over, and Toussaint relegated to one of history's very minor supporting roles.
Instead the authorities rejected the rebel offer with contempt, and the rebel leaders had little choice but to go back on the offensive. Within a year, they had come to embrace as their goal liberty for all of the enslaved, and Toussaint had emerged as general of their army. At the same time, the revolutionary government in France finally decided to extend civil and political equality to the gens de couleur, and sent a group of commissioners to St. Domingue, led by Leger Sonthonax, to enforce its decree. Before long, Sonthonax had his hands full, not only with disgruntled whites who despised the prospect of racial equality, but also with the security of St. Domingue and its institutions. For in early 1793, following the execution of Louis XVI, both Britain and Spain declared war on France, and the Spanish, from their base in neighboring Santo Domingo, hoped to attract the armed slave insurgents to their side by offering them freedom. Jean-Franois, Biassou, and Toussaint, along with ten thousand troops, quickly took them up on it, and while Jean-Franois and Biassou would hold superior military rank in the Spanish army, Toussaint began to develop some autonomy there, too.
The Spanish offer of freedom in return for military service now forced the hand of the French officials in St. Domingue. Sonthonax and his commissioners first agreed to manumit any slave who would fight for France, and then, by late summer, moved toward a general emancipation accompanied by the rights of French citizenship. Suspicious of Sonthonax's authority, the rebel leaders remained loyal to the Spanish and their king, but as if to steal Sonthonax's thunder Toussaint issued his own proclamation on August 29, 1793, two years after the rebellion had commenced: "I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St. Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause."
Toussaint Breda's self-transformation into Toussaint Louverture ("the opening") has been the subject of prolonged, and unresolved, speculation. Bell, who considers Toussaint a "master manipulator of layers of meaning," claims that Louverture has a "Vodouisant resonance," invoking the spirit of gates and crossroads. At all events, Toussaint as Louverture truly took history's stage.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Bell's biography is his attention to the political and military dynamics of revolutionary St. Domingue. Readers who might think (as most would) that slaves and people of African descent more generally were outside the arenas of formal politics and military affairs in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic will have to re-evaluate their views. In Bell's account, the slaves and the gens de couleur of St. Domingue emerge as political actors every bit as significant as those who owned the plantations or made policy in European and American capitals. And Toussaint Louverture comes to us as a political and military genius--formally untutored though he was--and a remarkably modern man.
The challenges that Toussaint faced would have confounded, and likely defeated, the most skilled, experienced, and cosmopolitan of leaders. We probably will never fully know how he managed to meet them. But by drawing upon the available sources, Bell gives a meaningful, and largely convincing, sense of this, one that emphasizes Toussaint's hunger for power and confidence in wielding it, his extraordinary political intuition, his ruthlessness, and his vision for the future of St. Domingue that lent coherence to many of the things he tried to do. The only figure of the age with whom Toussaint could have been compared was the one who ultimately brought him down: Napoleon.
Toussaint began to disentangle himself from the Spanish and his rebel allies early in 1794. It may have been the behavior of Jean-Franois and Biassou, who had begun to trade in slaves, and it may have been that the Spanish military did not show him sufficient favor; but the official embrace of emancipation and citizenship by the government in revolutionary France in February 1794 undoubtedly played an important role, and by mid-April Toussaint was fighting for France. With him came Henry Christophe (who, like Toussaint, had been free), Moyse, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines (both of whom had been slaves). With a series of impressive moves, Toussaint made relatively quick work of the forces under Jean-Franois and Biassou. By the summer of 1795 the Spanish had signed a treaty of peace with the French, and Jean-Franois and Biassou had retreated to Spain and Florida, respectively. Their followers then joined Toussaint, who, for his successes, was promoted to brigadier-general by France.
It was a rather stunning accomplishment for a man who had not even served in the colonial militia. Bell recounts that Toussaint became notorious for such rapid movements that at times he and his troops seemed to be in several places at once. His maneuvering was so adept that he was able to achieve bloodless victories, and his preference throughout was to win by means of diplomacy rather than force of arms. But, if necessary, he pressed on, cleverly and relentlessly. Soon he sent the British forces packing as well, and became commander-in-chief of the French army in St. Domingue. In admiration, French General Etienne Laveaux called Toussaint "the savior of the constituted authorities" and "a black Spartacus, the negro Raynal predicted would avenge the outrages done his race."
A Spartacus though he may have been, Toussaint did not seek a world turned upside down. While he remained resolutely committed to the freedom of St. Domingue's slaves, he also believed that their emancipation could be secured only if the island were able to prosper and to defend itself. And that, for Toussaint, meant restoring the plantations and the staple economy, proving "to France and all the Nations" that "Saint Domingue would recover all its riches with the work of free hands." He wanted the freedpeople to return to the sugar and coffee estates and work steadily for wages, and he was ready to use the iron hand of the military to keep them at it and even to encourage the return of grands blancs estate owners, who had fled into exile, to help rebuild plantations destroyed or damaged by the rebellion.
Toussaint's rise to power and his desire to have St. Domingue fully involved in the Atlantic economy quickly made him a political figure of international consequence, and established the basis for a developing relationship with the United States. It was not a relation of ideological affinity, but of economic and political selfinterest, which nonetheless promised genuine cooperation. Toussaint hoped to maintain a longstanding and substantial trade, and he offered protection to Americans and their ships; the Federalist administration of John Adams looked to cater to their merchant constituents and weaken the French. Indeed, St. Domingue was allowed to evade the embargo that the United States had imposed on French shipping, and Toussaint was quietly encouraged to declare independence from France--which he resisted. It was, Bell writes, a "risky game--but Toussaint was playing it with consummate skill."
Toussaint's skills and power would be further tested within St. Domingue itself. Although the gens de couleur, led by Andre Rigaud and based chiefly in the island's south and west, shared Toussaint's economic vision and had been allied with him for some time, they feared his steady empowerment and intention- -correctly, as it turned out--to extend his authority over all of St. Domingue. But when growing tensions exploded into a brutal civil war in 1799, Toussaint humbled his new adversaries. He rallied his black troops by warning them that "the mulattoes ... want to make the rest of you go back into slavery," escaped several ambushes, and enlisted support from the French, the British, and the Americans. By the summer of 1800, Rigaud had taken flight. Toussaint announced an amnesty, but he left Dessalines to inflict more lethal reprisals.
Toussaint celebrated his victory over Rigaud by marching into Santo Domingo and later by writing a new constitution that formalized the abolition of slavery, declared St. Domingue both free and French, outlawed racial discrimination, and made Catholicism the only officially recognized faith. But the constitution also imposed a draconian labor regime and made Toussaint governor for life (which Alexander Hamilton, in correspondence, had urged him to do). This was not, to be sure, the sort of freedom that most former slaves had in mind (none were involved in writing the constitution); they wanted plots of land to farm on their own account. Thus, in the fall of 1801 rebellions swept the northern plain--organized with the aid of Moyse--which Toussaint, along with Dessalines and Christophe, mercilessly suppressed.
Even more serious trouble was brewing in other parts of the Atlantic. Napoleon Bonaparte, who had become ruler of France in 1799, was not amused by Toussaint's initiatives. Although Toussaint insisted that he would remain part of the French commonwealth, Bonaparte saw Toussaint's invasion of Santo Domingo and proclamation of a constitution as dangerous moves in the direction of independence. When Thomas Jefferson, who was adamantly hostile to Toussaint's regime, defeated the Federalist John Adams in 1800, Napoleon got the green light to act. He sent a very large expedition to St. Domingue under the command of his brother-in-law, Emmanuel Leclerc, with secret orders to re-impose slavery and to arrest and deport all black officers, including Toussaint.
Neither Toussaint nor his lieutenants initially understood what was in store for them, but they mounted an impressive defense, which Bell chronicles with a fine military eye. Indeed, while Leclerc won a series of victories, those victories were not secured, and his troops began to succumb to the tropical diseases that had long made the Caribbean a white man's grave. Still, his woes were not obvious to Toussaint and his comrades, who instead came to believe that their time was running out. In April 1802, Christophe suddenly submitted to French authority in return for the maintenance of his military rank, and before long Toussaint rode into Cap Franais with Dessalines and three hundred of his horsemen ready to surrender so long as his generals would be incorporated into the French army and he could go off to live quietly on his property at Ennery.
It is not at all clear what kind of future Toussaint imagined for himself and his revolution as he rode off to Ennery. Resistance continued, French soldiers remained on the move, and, savvy as he was, Toussaint could hardly have felt that his safety or the prospects of a free and French St. Domingue were assured. Perhaps that is why he agreed to meet with a French officer, ostensibly about troop placements, hoping to find a diplomatic solution to the continuing crisis. It was a big gamble, and he lost. Toussaint showed up for the meeting with a small guard; he was seized and quickly put aboard a vessel sailing for France. Once there, he was transported to a mountain fortress where, on August 22, 1802, almost eleven years to the day after the slave rebellion in St. Domingue erupted, he began a miserable imprisonment. He died the following April in his frigid cell, never having received the trial he desperately wanted.
But the revolution that Toussaint had come to lead did not die with him. When word reached St. Domingue of the French restoration of slavery in neighboring Guadeloupe, the officers who had served Toussaint--Christophe and Dessalines chief among them--deserted the French and re-ignited rebellion. Increasingly decimated by disease, the French army quickly collapsed, Leclerc along with it. Soon they would be sailing out of Cap Franais, paltry remnants of the 80,000 who had arrived less than two years earlier, another great European power humbled militarily by lowly slaves and free people of color. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines, appropriating the Indian name "Ayiti" for the island, proclaimed the independence of Haiti, the second new nation in the Americas.
Robert E. Lee was born, in 1807, into a world that Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution had helped to make. In the early 1790s, exiles from the slave rebellion in St. Domingue--grands blancs, wealthy gens de couleur, and some of their slaves--began arriving in Lee's native Virginia, as they did in Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans, and influencing the cultural life and political discourse. In 1800, Gabriel, a slave blacksmith in Richmond, organized a large rebellion, aborted at the last minute, that revealed knowledge of what had occurred in St. Domingue. Most significantly, in 1803 Napoleon, having abandoned dreams of a colonial empire in the Americas after his disastrous defeat in St. Domingue, sold the huge territory of Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson and opened a new phase in the developing struggle over slavery's future in the United States.
Unlike Toussaint, Lee is a household name, the subject of many hundreds of volumes, a cultural and political icon. What other historical figure waged war against--committed treason against--his own government, met with defeat, escaped punishment for his offenses, and was then lionized by foe and friend alike, eventually regarded in many quarters (at least among the white folk) as a national hero? Scholars, even those of northern birth and undoubted Union sympathies, have celebrated Lee's integrity, commitment, creativity, military genius, and his ability to battle against great odds, as well as the reverence of his troops for him. Most historians have overlooked, excused, or denied his involvement with slaves and slavery, and have avoided blaming him either for political irresponsibility during the secession crisis or for the bloodbath that the Civil War became. Their views have been influential, especially with the public. "History," one of Lee's biographers solemnly writes, "needs Robert E. Lee whole."
Elizabeth Brown Pryor proposes to give us just that. Reading the Man may have the feel of a postmodern study, but it is rather a series of what Pryor calls "historical excursions" driven by a collection of Lee's private letters that she inadvertently stumbled upon. The book's chapters begin with lengthy excerpts from some of those letters (not as many as you might expect), and they frame, thematically, what follows. Pryor is interested in mixing the private Lee and the public Lee, and her book reads more like a conventional biography than an exercise in hermeneutics.
But do we really need another huge life of Robert E. Lee? There is not very much in Reading the Man that will be new to specialists, or to the many devotees of Lee who have pored over myriad biographical accounts and, especially, studies of his Civil War exploits. For its first hundred pages or so, I myself wondered what the point of this book might be, not because it was poorly done but because it seemed so familiar. Then Pryor moves onto important historical and interpretive terrain with a far more discerning and critical eye than most of her scholarly or popular predecessors, and forces readers to confront a series of troubling issues. Given her largely sympathetic perspective on Lee, the result is all the more devastating.
Robert E. Lee's origins could not have been more different from Toussaint Louverture's. Toussaint was born into slavery, Lee into one of Virginia's (and America's) prominent slaveholding families, with as impressive a set of social and political connections as could be had. Lee's father, "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, was a Revolutionary War hero, close to George Washington, who served in Virginia's House of Delegates, the Continental Congress, and as governor of the state before he married into the famous, and fabulously wealthy, Carter clan. But by the time Robert was born, his father's many financial adventures had begun to backfire, thus initiating what Pryor calls the family's "downward spiral." Before Robert was two, Light-Horse Harry had gone to jail for debt, and by the time his son was seven Harry had fled home, never to return. Robert seems to have been deeply affected.
The Lees' slide left Robert's mother with income chiefly from a Carter family trust, and although Robert knew that their circumstances were insecure, he did manage to receive a splendid education and effectively followed in some of his father's footsteps by enrolling at West Point (against the wishes of his mother). There he made a number of lifelong friends-- including P.G.T. Beauregard, Leonidas Polk, and Albert Sydney Johnston--and, owing to his mathematical gifts and to West Point's cutting-edge science curriculum, he ended up in the Army's Corps of Engineers, with assignments taking him to important projects west and south. Along the way he married Mary Custis (a distant relation), granddaughter of George Washington and daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, a wealthy, slaveholding planter who grew up at Mount Vernon and owned an 1,100-acre estate on the Virginia side of the Potomac that he chose to call Arlington.
Pryor uses Robert E. Lee's extant letters, which begin in 1824, to paint a picture of him as husband, father, companion, physical presence. He and Mary were studies in contrasts--he "patient, painstaking, and often passive," she "quick, creative, and volatile"--but, as if using his own father as a negative reference, he was intensely devoted to and emotionally involved with his seven children. (Overly so, it seems: none of his four daughters ever married.) He was also tall and handsome, and relished the female attention that he regularly attracted (apparently without ever straying). Most important, perhaps, we learn that the Mexican War proved to be a seminal event in Lee's life, when he first felt the "seduction of warfare" and "became a warrior."
Although the Mexican War is generally regarded as one of our "little" wars, quickly concluded and often overlooked, such an impression is incorrect. The war was a first trial by fire not only for Robert E. Lee but also for Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Jefferson Davis, and a host of other West Point graduates who would gain fame during the Civil War. It was a major theater of conquest, as the United States laid claim to a large portion of northwestern Mexico--what is now our Southwest--including California. And much as the acquisition of Louisiana did, it shifted the great political question of the day away from the issue of slavery in the states (over which there was considerable agreement as to constitutional interpretation) to the issue of slavery in the federal territories (over which there was much confusion and increasingly deep division).
Lee was extremely reticent about his political views. His father was a Federalist, and he appears to have been a Whig (both parties favored a strong and activist central government) until around 1850, when, according to Pryor, he began to sympathize with the Democrats (who favored state rights). But we do not know how he ever voted, and we have no evidence of his participation in party politics. In some respects, Lee's ideals--in good part a product of his experience as an engineer--seemed close to those of an emerging middle class: he appreciated innovation, self-advancement, and self-control. In other respects, they reflected the worlds of the military and the landed gentry, with emphases on order and hierarchy. He was very much a nationalist as well as a Virginian. Although he appears to have found slavery distasteful, his attitudes and behaviors fit in well with those of many other slaveholders.
Lee, in sum, was a muddle of contradictions; and he resolved most of them badly. He owned or had an interest in slaves for about as long as he could hold onto them. He believed that black people were better off as slaves in the United States than they would have been had they remained in Africa, and that they should appreciate their circumstances. He thought that slavery was far more of a burden to white people than it was to black people, and he especially disliked slavery's inefficiencies and messiness. He detested abolitionists and blamed them for the country's woes. He was a white supremacist. And when he was instructed to emancipate nearly two hundred slaves as executor of his father-in- law's estate, he did everything possible to postpone it.
Lee's contradictions were most consequential in the secession crisis. During the 1850s, he appeared to symbolize what was left of national cohesion: he served as an officer in the military arm of the federal government of the United States, and even did a brief stint as superintendent of West Point. He enjoyed the fruits of what government largesse had to offer, benefited from a federally sponsored education, and helped to advance the nation's imperial designs; and, although he embraced President Franklin Pierce's bitter denunciation of abolitionism in 1856, he also described secession as "anarchy," as "nothing but revolution."
Why, then, did he resign his post in the U.S. Army, even after the newly elected President Lincoln offered him command of all Union forces, and join the slaveholders' rebellion against the federal government? The answer is that Lee's loyalties to the United States conflicted with his loyalties to Virginia, and he always said that, if required to choose, he would choose his home state. While most scholars recognize this dilemma and regard it as a matter of political principle that they can respect, Pryor is a much tougher critic. Lee, she argues, had several options open to him. He could have stayed in the United States Army, as about 40 percent of Virginia's officers did (including Winfield Scott); he could have sat the war out, supporting neither side, as some other officers did; or he could have made an effort to keep Virginia in the Union or broker a peace, as both statesmen and relatives pleaded with him to do. Instead he "fell back on his old passivity" and "remained resolutely out of the discussions"; when the time came, he threw his lot in with the Confederacy. Whereas Toussaint Louverture became a rebel against slavery, Robert E. Lee became a rebel in its defense, in close accord with the reactionary secessionists, Pryor tells us, on most everything save secession itself.
The misgivings about secession and the Confederacy that Lee may have harbored were jettisoned very early in the war when the Union Army seized and occupied Arlington, the Custis and Lee family estate. "It is hard to overstate the effect the seizure of Arlington had on the Lees," Pryor writes. "From this time forward their identification with the fate of the South never wavered." Indeed, when he assumed command of what would come to be called the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, Lee displayed an aggressiveness, a combativeness, and an intent to destroy his enemy that would remain hallmarks of his military disposition.
The price of his bellicosity would be very high. As commander of a rebel army that was outmanned and outgunned by the Union side, he might have taken a page from Toussaint Louverture's playbook (or, for that matter, from George Washington's) and waged a defensive guerrilla-style war, a war of attrition, hoping to wear the Union down and force it to recognize the Confederacy. Instead, he looked to go on the offensive and to inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy's armed forces, imagining that northern morale would then quickly deflate. Thus, he chose to invade the North twice and, rather inauspiciously, to attack at Gettysburg, only to be driven back after suffering immense losses. Lee was so confident in his leadership, so self-assured, so taken with the smell of battle, that he often ignored the advice of his generals (he was quick to censure subordinates) and plunged ahead. What the Confederate general D.H. Hill said of the Seven Days could well apply to Lee's entire tenure at the helm of the Army of Northern Virginia: it was "not war--it was murder."
With a brilliant combination of military and diplomatic tactics, the rebel Toussaint defeated three national armies; but the rebel Lee, intent on achieving military victory even at the cost of staggering casualties, failed to defeat one. It was in defeat, of course, that Lee seems to have left his greatest mark. He laid down his sword at Appomattox and told his men to do the same, to go home, and to take the oath of allegiance to the victorious Union. He showed them "a way," as Pryor puts it, "to carry on with self-respect" and to avoid more bloodshed. Although a federal judge in Norfolk recommended that Lee be indicted for treason, no such indictment came and he finished out his life as president of Washington College in Virginia. Arlington had become a Freedmen's Village and then a national cemetery.
Yet the thoughts and the doings of the post-Civil War Lee are often obscured in the cloud of his ostensibly dutiful retreat and reconciliation. Pryor seeks to smoke them out. Lee's conservatism, she shows, may have hardened, and his distaste for African Americans and for majority politics may have intensified. In private writings that "throb with controlled rage," he justified "complete" state sovereignty, advocated restrictions on the elective franchise, thought blacks incapable of managing on their own and feared their potential political power, and backed the policies of conservative Democrats. Sponsoring a meeting of former Confederate generals and other leaders at White Sulfur Springs, he joined their call for an end to the "oppressive misrule" of Reconstruction and a return to the "kindness and humanity" of slavery. Chillingly, he would claim that the war had settled only the question of power, not the question of principle. Lee's students at Washington College seem to have thought so, too: they organized a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
From his exile on St. Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte reflected on his decision in 1802 to subdue Toussaint Louverture and the slave rebellion in St. Domingue. "It was a great mistake," he conceded. "I should have contented myself to govern it through the intermediary of Toussaint." Indeed, Napoleon insisted that he believed this all along but had yielded "to the opinions of his State council and his ministers, dragged along by the howling of the colonists, who formed a large party in Paris." Perhaps. Yet in raising the might-have-beens of history, the exiled emperor nonetheless allows us to appreciate the significance of the moment.
It is, in fact, difficult to imagine Napoleon permitting something of a co- partnership with Toussaint Louverture. It is easier to imagine, historically, that he would have succeeded in defeating Toussaint and re-instating slavery in St. Domingue as he did in Guadeloupe and Martinique, or that the slave rebellion would have been defeated much earlier, weeks or months after it exploded on the northern plain. In either case, Atlantic slavery would have been rejuvenated and France would have held on to Louisiana, leaving the United States to satisfy its ambitions within far more confining borders or to wage war against France to enlarge them. Without western territories for slaveholding and non-slaveholding interests to compete over, emancipation might have unfolded throughout the entire country as it did in the northern states: very gradually, with compensation of varying sorts for slaveowners and limited civil and political standing for freed slaves. And Robert E. Lee might have been left redirecting river currents with the Army Corps of Engineers, as he was doing in the late 1830s.
As it happened, Napoleon's failure to destroy the Haitian Revolution and his sale of Louisiana simultaneously energized American expansionists, who were especially prominent among slaveholding Democrats--every piece of territory conquered or otherwise acquired by the United States between the Revolution and 1850 came under the auspices of a slaveholding president--and reminded southern slaveholders of the risks of political weakness. The stage was set for an intense struggle over who would control the American state, and for a slaveholders' rebellion once that struggle seemed lost to them. It was set, too, for the emergence into history of Robert E. Lee.
Had Toussaint managed to evade Napoleon's trap, it is possible--though hardly likely, given the forces arrayed against him--that Haiti's (or St. Domingue's) future might have been put on a more stable and promising basis. At all events, Toussaint Louverture and his revolution cast a giant shadow over the history of the Americas and marked a road, however difficult and treacherous, from slavery to modernity. Next to Toussaint, Robert E. Lee seems rather modest in historical stature, and getting to know him whole alerts us to the dreadful road down which he wished to lead us.
By Steven Hahn