Lothrop Stoddard’s “The French Revolution in San Domingo,” Part 1

This is a foreword that I wrote for Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo, published in 2011.

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Lothrop Stoddard on the French Colonists in San Domingo

Historian Frank Moya Pons, writing in The Cambridge History of Latin America, describes Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo as “a book now out of fashion because of its racism, although retaining some interest.” [1]

Interesting indeed, because it reflects the racial views of an important set of American intellectuals in the early twentieth century. There was a time when evolutionary thinking was widely considered to be the key to racial self-defense.[2]  Although it didn’t play a role in the Congressional debates (itself an indication of the rapidly changing intellectual context), evolutionary thinking was prominent among some of the elite intellectual proponents of immigration restriction in the 1920s. This was the heyday of eugenics—motivated by concern about deterioration of the gene pool because modern civilization had increased the moral and intellectual burdens of life at the same time that natural selection had been relaxed because of advances in medicine, hygiene, and nutrition. Lothrop Stoddard’s The Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man exemplifies these trends.[3]

Race is indeed central to Stoddard’s volume. Written at a time when the science of race, race differences, and eugenics were at their height, Stoddard sees the conflict as fundamentally about race. But his view is that of a race realist. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary intellectuals, he sees race for what it is: a gargantuan fault line that separates humans.

However, Stoddard never comes across as a cheerleader for the Whites in their conflicts with Blacks and mulattos. Indeed, the Whites are described in highly unflattering terms—an important corrective to the view one might glean from previous chapters emphasizing the high-mindedness of Whites in the anti-slavery movements. Many are “shady characters”—opportunists out to make money and without any moral scruples. Heavy drinking and gambling are pervasive. The Whites are the consummate individualists. They are not a people but “only a mass of individuals.”  Poor Whites were adventurers, unable to compete with slave labor and therefore forced to make a living by any means necessary. However, we also see strains of moralistic idealism noted in previous chapters as a characteristic of northern Europeans.

It’s difficult to have sympathy for the White planters. They live in a world of “material crudity … intellectual poverty and mental isolation.” They are surrounded by outrageous retinues of slaves, living like an Oriental potentate. Stoddard quotes a contemporary observer, Moreau de Saint-Mery: “That crowd of slaves which hangs upon the master’s lightest word or sign, lends him an air of grandeur. It is beneath the dignity of a rich man to have less than four times as many servants as he needs. The women have an especial gift for surrounding themselves with a useless retinue.”

The rich Whites are unsocial and quarrelsome with their neighbors. Another observer, DeWimpffen describes the “pretensions, either ill-founded or ridiculous; jealousies of each other’s fortune, more ridiculous still; disputes about boundaries . . . and finally trespasses committed by the negroes or the cattle — occasion such a misunderstanding, or such a coolness, that all reciprocal communication is out of the question. Consequently, as nothing is so savage as the recluse who is not so by choice, you must not be surprised that each owl rests in his hole, and that so little sociability reigns among men who have few or no sociable qualities.”

These Whites had a sense of preserving their racial uniqueness while at the same time the males among them were energetically creating a mulatto caste by procreating with Black slaves and by taking mulattos as concubines. The common understanding was that any trace of Black blood would show up among descendants and bring shame to the family, even if the parents were not recognizably Black. While creating mulatto children was commonplace and socially accepted, there was a horror at marriage with a mulatto (marriage with a Black being completely out of the question). Marriage to a mulatto resulted in ostracism and derision. Particularly interesting is that elaborate genealogies were kept so that Whites could advertise the racial purity of their ancestors.  Racial consciousness was intense: “Creole or European, poor white or planter, smuggler or governor, — all remembered that they were white; all were determined that the white race should keep white and should rule San Domingo.” Stoddard writes of “the racial fanaticism of San Domingo” that proved stronger than national loyalty: When the French government no longer supported them, they defected to the English.

Was Stoddard possessed of an invidious “racism” in his attitudes toward Blacks? Several of his statements are sure to ruffle modern sensibilities. For example, he cites a contemporary observer who noted that African women were only too happy to be concubines of their masters. These women “are proud of having children by white men. Also, they cherish the hope that the fathers will free them or buy their liberty.”

This is the sort of statement that is doubtless considered “racist” by most contemporary readers. However, I see it as eminently plausible given that it is clearly in the self-interest of the women to engage in such relationships and given what we know about the fragility of marriage bonds among sub-Saharan Africans.  Why would an observer lie about this?

Similarly, Stoddard quotes a contemporary observer who noted “that, until the Revolution, nearly 600,000 blacks, continually armed,” obeyed without a murmur a handful of masters. Especially, as this superiority was not purely ideal. The negroes themselves recognized it by daily comparing the activity, energy, knowledge, and initiative of the whites with the degree of those same qualities in themselves and in the mulattoes.”

Stoddard cites an author who, he writes, “ably summed up the opinions of writers who have observed the negro in his African home”:

The negro is a grown-up child, living quite in the present and the absolute slave of his passions. Thus his conduct displays the most surprising contradictions. He is trifling, inconsistent, gay; a great lover of pleasure, and passionately fond of dancing, noisy jollification, and striking attire. His natural indolence is unparalleled, — force and cruelty alone can get out of him the hard labor of which he is capable. This, together with an inordinate sensuality, an ineradicable tendency to thieving, and absolute lack of foresight, a boundless superstition favored by a mediocre intelligence, and timidity in face of imaginary terrors combined with great courage before real danger, appear to be the causes of the negro’s lack of progress and of his easy reduction to slavery.

Such statements on the traits and abilities of Blacks conform to contemporary stereotypes as well. The central features of this stereotype — low intelligence and a relatively poor impulse control (low conscientiousness) — conform well to Prof. J. Philippe Rushton’s recent work, Race Evolution and Behavior: A Life History Perspective.[4] Stoddard presents these observations as factually based, he rejects the “partisan” views of anti-slavery people who saw Blacks as noble savages, and pro-slavery writers who regarded them as less than human.

Nevertheless, despite having generally negative views of Blacks, Stoddard was quick to point out the talents of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Black leader, commenting on his intelligence, leadership ability, and on the strategic savvy of this “extraordinary man.” When L’Ouverture achieved power, he understood that the superior intelligence of Whites would be useful in rebuilding the island: Even the Blacks acknowledged the superior intelligence and energy of Whites. When Whites were eventually excluded from the island, there was the predictable descent into African-style political oppression and economic failure.

Stoddard is quite clear on the moral implications of chattel slavery: African slavery was the curse of San Domingo. It is an “evil institution.” Slaves suffered “a life of hard and unremitting toil. From dawn to dark the field-gangs pursued their monotonous round of labor, exposed to the burning tropic sun, spurred on by the whips of the black ‘commanders’ under the overseer’s eagle eye.” The burden of the slaves’ labor combined with poor diet and high infant mortality was so great that they did not reproduce themselves. Nearly a million were brought to the island by 1789, but deaths exceeded births by 2½%.

Controlling the slaves therefore required a sort of sociopathy on the part of Whites—complete lack of empathy about causing and witnessing human suffering on a daily basis: “to extract continuous labor from such essentially indolent beings as the negroes, an iron discipline was necessary.” Such lack of concern for others was doubtless facilitated by ingroup/outgroup psychology, an evolutionary adaptation that would make it easy to consider slaves as an outgroup and therefore less than human, or at least possessing qualities such that their oppression had no moral implications.

Such a system can only survive by instilling constant fear. In the words of a commentator quoted by Stoddard, “the sense of that absolute, coercive necessity which, leaving no choice of action, supersedes all question of right.” Indeed, the authorities excused the most horrific tortures on the theory that “the safety of the colony depended on acquitting the masters of crimes against their slaves, “thus affirming the solidarity of all whites as against the slaves.” Race mattered.

But beyond moral issues, slavery of Africans merely bought short-term prosperity for the island and a few individual Whites “at the cost of [the] whole social and economic future.” Indeed, how could anyone think that a system in which African slaves outnumbered Whites 15 to one would be stable far into the future?

The clear violation of normative Western notions of morality became an issue in France where ideologies of abstract human rights had become the intellectual basis of revolution against the old regime. An anti-slavery society, “Amis des Noirs” was formed with a considerable involvement of elite revolutionaries: Lafayette, Mirabeau, Condorcet, and Robespierre. This society “affiliated with the network of secret revolutionary organizations then springing up over France, embraced abstract principles, and already formulated the ‘Rights of Man.’”

Notice the reference to “abstract principles” of human rights. This is a prime example of moral universalism so typical of the uniquely European form of intellectual discourse. Individualist cultures frame moral issues in universal terms. Morality is defined not as what is good for the individual or the group, but as an abstract moral ideal — e.g., Kant’s moral imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This occurs because individualism implies an equality of interest—that everyone has interests, but no one has a privileged moral position, what philosopher John Rawls termed the “veil of ignorance.”[5] Arguments on morality therefore must necessarily seek an abstract sense of morality, independent of the interests of any particular individual; groups have no privileged moral standing at all. Pro-slavery arguments that slavery is good for individual Whites or for Whites as a group therefore fall on deaf ears  because they fail to attach any moral significance to Blacks either individually or as a group

On the other hand, collectivist cultures such as Judaism have a highly elaborated moral code that privileges ingroup membership. Slavery is not an evil in itself. Rather, there are different ethical codes on how slaves may be treated depending on whether the slave is a fellow Jew; the same goes for criminal offenses.[6] In collectivist cultures, group membership, typically the kinship group, is critical to moral evaluation: “What’s good for the Jews.”

Moral idealism is a powerful tendency in European culture, apparent, for example, in the German idealist philosophers and the American transcendentalists discussed in Chapter 6.[7] Universalist moral ideals are erected and then steps are taken to achieve the moral vision by changing the world, often accompanied by a great deal of moral fervor, as among the French opponents of slavery discussed below.[8] This pursuit of moral ideals accounts may well account for some of the dynamism of Western history: Societies are always imperfect and in need of moral expurgation. American history has been sparked with such crusades, from the anti-slavery fervor of the nineteenth century to the crusade against alcohol in the 1920s to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The same can be said of England, with the Puritan crusades of the seventeenth century and periodic crusades on behalf of moral rectitude thereafter, culminating now in much of the rhetoric underlying anti-colonialism and contemporary political correctness.

The moral universalism characteristic of individualism is a liability in the struggle with other groups. Individualists are prone to acting against their own people on behalf of a moral principle, as in the American Civil War where a great many Yankees were motivated to go to war against the South in order to eradicate the slavery of Africans as a moral evil.[9] Such people place their moral ideals above ties of racial kinship and are willing to go to great lengths to punish people like themselves because they violate moral ideals.

Here is US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens expressing a typical sense of moral idealism that remains common among Europeans: 

“The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders like Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln, schoolteachers like Nathan Hale and Booker T. Washington, the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan, and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach,” he wrote in an unusually lyrical dissent [in a 1989 flag burning case]. “If those ideas are worth fighting for—and our history demonstrates that they are—it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection.[10]

Ideas are worth fighting for, but Stevens has no interest in advancing the cause of White people as a racial kinship group. Here he idealizes non-White Filipinos fighting alongside Whites and Whites fighting Germans in order to secure a set of principles. He is not concerned about his race, presumably because he thinks that what’s important is that certain ideas will continue to guide the country even if (as seems likely) people like him are fated to become a small minority of the country. For Stevens, these ideals are more important than the racial composition of the country.

The moral crusade on behalf of human rights was also center stage in the events described by Stoddard. In 1789, a delegation of the “Colons Americains” (an organization of mulattos from San Domingo) appeared at French Assembly demanding that they “be allowed to enjoy all the privileges of citizenship, not as a favor but as a natural right. … The President replied amicably that ‘no part of the nation should ask for its rights from the Assembly in vain.’”  It’s revealing that appeals to natural rights had huge emotional impact on the legislators: “the Amis des Noirs, with their ringing appeals to Revolutionary principles and their backing of sympathetic galleries, were certain sooner or later to sweep the Assembly off its feet and to gain some decisive victory.”

Go to Part 2.

[1] Frank Moya Pons, “The Independence of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” in Leslie Bethell (Ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin America: Bibliographical Essays, Vol. XI. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 234-237).

[2] This section is based on my foreword to Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo (London: Wermod & Wermod, 2011; Stoddard’s book was originally published: New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914).

[3] Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922)

[4] J. Phillippe Rushton, Race, Evolution and Behavior: A Life History Perspective. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994).

[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap imprint, 1971).

[6] Kevin MacDonald, A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, with Diaspora Peoples. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2002; reprint of the 1994 book published by Praeger (Westport, CT), Chapter 6.

[7] Kevin MacDonald, “American Transcendentalism: An indigenous culture of critique.” The Occidental Quarterly 8 (91–106, 2008).

[8] Kevin MacDonald, “Evolution and a Dual Processing Theory of Culture: Applications to Moral Idealism and Political Philosophy.” Politics and Culture (2010[Issue 1], April).


[9] MacDonald, “American Transcendentalism: An indigenous culture of critique.”

[10] Jeffrey Toobin, “After Stevens: What Will the Supreme Court Be Like without Its Liberal Leader?” The New Yorker (March 23, 2010).


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