Philadelphia not Philanthropolis: The Limits of Pennsylvanian Antislavery in the Era of the Haitian Revolution


IN THE WINTER OF 1796, Benjamin Giroud visited Philadelphia. Giroud was a Frenchman who had become an owner through marriage of a coffee plantation in Saint-Domingue, the embattled French West Indian colony that within a few years would declare its independence as the republic of Haiti. At the time of Giroud's trip, however, such a development seemed unlikely. Having been the scene of violence and disruption for the previous seven years, in late 1796 the colony was entering a period of relative stability. The white royalists who had leagued with the Spanish and British to separate the colony from France had fled or were in retreat. The free colored population, who had long struggled for civic equality, had been transformed into a reliable source of support by decrees recognizing them as French citizens. Most significantly, the insurgent slaves, who beginning in August 1791 had collectively rejected and dismantled the system of chattel slavery that sustained the colony's plantation economy, had been largely brought into the French fold by the 1794 policy of general emancipation. The decree of February 4, 1794, which ended slavery in all French possessions, had its origins in Saint- Domingue and was a ratification of the series of harried efforts to co-opt the insurgents by the French commissioners, Légér-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, as they struggled against various planter, royalist, and British factions. It offered liberty in exchange for armed service in defense of the revolution. Expanded by the National Convention in Paris, French emancipation was immediate, uncompensated, and universal in its application. By the time of Giroud's trip, black and colored troops, fighting for France and led by Toussaint Louverture, had defeated the Spaniards and stymied the British. Giroud was an officer in the new commission of metropolitan officials headed by Sonthonax and was sent to take advantage of this success.

Benjamin Giroud was also a member of Les Amis des Noirs, a society of antislavery activists that had sprung up in Paris in 1788, achieved some

noisy eminence during the early days of the republic, and then largely disappeared when its membership was purged during the Terror. Though Les AMis never advoated immediate emancipation, now that French policy had turned in that direction, the group revived. Giroud came to Philadelphia as a French republican and as an abolitionist, identities that overlapped if they were not precisely coterminous. He came to America looking for allies.