The Comparison of French and Haitian Revolution

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Revolutions, in a political sense, are commonly defined as “...sudden and seismic shift[s] from one form of government to another” (National Geographic). They tend to display four common characteristics; dissident elites, mass frustration, shared motivation, and state crises. The effects of these characteristics tend to create radical change at the end of revolutions regardless of whether it’s positive or negative change. This concept is strongly reflected in the Haitian and French revolutions, which were one of the most interconnected and significant in history. Having occurred towards the end of the 1780s, they created radical change that would affect their advance in history. However, the egalitarian ideas that the revolutions were based upon were spoiled by the consequential conflicts that took place. Despite the fact that revolutions help to propel ideas that are necessary to create significant change within countries, most revolutions are not “worth it” due to the violence, monetary strain, and socio-economic expenses that follow.

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The French and the Haitian revolutions were caused by Social instability that was formed by the mass frustration of lower-class citizens of France and the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Though these populations were seeking to improve their standards of living and protect their rights as citizens, their rulers had other plans. Right before 1789, France’s ruler King Louis XVI placed heavy tax burdens upon the majority of the third estate, who made up 97% of the French population (inferior population), because of France's debt. “The government was spending half its revenues just to pay the interest on the money it already owed” (Our Human Story). The third estate were the sole class that suffered as the 1st and 2nd estates did not pay taxes. The significant unfairness between the estates caused discontent among the third estate, creating social instability among the estates and French society, it became one of the main causes of the French Revolution. Similarly, in 1789 in Haiti, the majority of the African-born slaves worked on plantations as Saint-Domingue produced 40% of Europe’s sugar and 60% of its coffee. The slaves endured long hours, backbreaking workdays, infections from tropical diseases, and commonly died from malnutrition or starvation (Britannica). They were treated poorly by their owners who were often French colonists; however, some were Africans who could afford slaves. The maltreatment of this mass population created tension between the gens de color (French colonists) and the slaves, fragmented the social classes, and resulted in the social instability in Saint-Domingue. Although the Haitian revolution truly only had one main cause while the French had multiple, like debt and weak leadership, the social instability in these communities built-up to the beginning of the French and Haitian revolutions, as a shared motivation to demolish the hierarchy within each country caused the inferior populations to revolt.

When the citizens of France and Haiti couldn’t procure the change they wanted immediately, they resorted to violence, thus sparking the revolutions. The revolt from the third estate caused the Storming of the Bastille, where they raided a French prison for weapons and freed prisoners. This was considered the “spark” of the revolution that would lead France down a path of violence and death. After King Louis’ execution, France took a turn for the worse as Maximillien Robespierre took charge amidst the chaos of France. He – along with the Jacobins, who were radical extremists – unleashed a ten-month bloodbath where they killed “enemies of France” (TED-Ed) to suppress the slightest dissent. The third estate figured that they would be able to create change in France by using violence to acquire it but, what they didn’t realize was that the change would come but, at the cost of loss, and death of an estimated 1,400,000 people (The Sociology of Revolution). Likewise, on the island of Saint-Domingue, where the maltreatment of slaves was worsening, the slaves had heard a rumor that the King of France (King Louis XVI (Before his Execution)) had freed them. When there was no immediate change, a revolt was led in 1791, by a Vodou priest called “Boukman, whose army revolted and attacked planters’ estates in the countryside. The violence during the Haitian revolution occurred because no change was created immediately, so the slaves forced change upon the French colonists, however, the colonists fought back resulting in more violence that created a significant death toll. Both of these revolutions took the route of violence to achieve their goals which caused significant loss of soldiers and citizens’ lives. This further diminished the abilities of the countries to protect themselves in the long-run.

Despite their different outcomes, both the French and Haitian revolutions comparably didn't achieve their goals. The French Revolution had no short-term or immediate improvements to their lives, however, the Haitian Revolution did. After the violence that occurred during the Reign of Terror, Napoleon Bonaparte was a leader that helped stabilize France post-revolution. He swooped in amidst the chaos in France to restore order. ( Even though France had just gone through an entire revolution for this change in the government system, Napoleon’s government was more like a dictatorship rather than a democracy The outcome of the revolution made no significant change for France. The French didn’t fully achieve independence, they had formed poor connections with other countries and there was loss of soldiers, innocent civilians, and money, leaving France economically strained. In Haiti, however, after all the violence and bloodshed they did gain independence from the French and abolish slavery. It became one of the only successful slave revolts ever. In that process, though, they destroyed the country’s infrastructure and its agriculture switched from plantation farming to a less lucrative subsistence farming, further driving the economic instability of the country. The outcomes of both the revolutions varied; however, the French and Haitian revolutions negative outcomes ultimately outweighed it's positive effects.

The French and Haitian revolutions were both similar in the way the revolution was carried out, partly because the revolutions were interconnected. However, they had incredibly different outcomes. The shortcomings of these revolutions ultimately outweighed some of the positive changes that were created, justifying the argument that revolutions are not worth it. The French revolution was a circular revolution rather than a transformative one. Although they fought for a new governmental system and ultimately did overthrow the monarchs, Napoleon took charge, reinstating a governmental system – dictatorship – that was not like the democracy that was desired. The short-term effects of the French Revolution were quite negative, resulting in widespread loss of life and economic depression. Napoleon’s rule also led to the Napoleonic wars which added to the several years of violence to follow. In the long-term, France was able to recover from the unfortunate events post-revolution; however, the island of Haiti did not. Conversely, in the short-term, Haiti achieved its goals of Independence and the abolishment of slavery; however, this was at the cost of its infrastructure. Post-revolution Haiti, much like France, had insufficient trade relationships with other countries which meant Haiti could not earn money through importation or exportation, which was their largest source of income. Along with this financial burden, the revolutionaries of France surrounded Haiti in 1825, where they demanded that Haiti pay reparations for protection and ultimately left them indebted. After this revolution, they were unable to recover, resulting in one of the poorest countries in the world today. The Haitian and French revolutions outcomes strayed far from its goals, emphasizing how unpredictable revolutions are and therefore not worth it. 

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