The Haitian Revolution and the Insurrection Act

If you’re one of my students, chances are good that you have at some point either asked yourself or even asked me, “what does any of this have to do with my life?” Unfortunately, this week Donald Trump has provided an opportunity to give an answer.

On Monday, Donald Trump threatened to use the 1807 Insurrection Act to send the military to “defend life and property” in US cities if mayors and governors weren’t able to “dominate” protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer (and a long, long history of similar murders of Black people by police and vigilantes, most recently including Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery).

The Insurrection Act, in a nutshell, gives the President the power to deploy troops to put down, well, insurrections, as well as “assemblages or rebellion against the authority of the United States.”* Trump could reasonably argue that he has the legal authority to do as he proposes,** though that doesn’t of course mean that it is a good or ethical idea.

So much for what the law is. What does it have to do with the Haitian Revolution? Well, the tip-off is that the law was passed in 1807. As others have noted, one of the big events in early-1800s news of “insurrections” was the Haitian Revolution (for Hamilton fans,*** there was also concern about Aaron Burr maybe wanting to overthrow the government).

Keep in mind that not only was the Haitian Revolution, in general, a frightening example for US slaveholders of how they could lose the shameful institution that gave them their position and wealth, there were two more ominous connections. First, among US slaveholders who were supporters of Thomas Jefferson (President at the time) were a good number of white refugees from the 1791 revolution in French St. Domingue (now Haiti). They’d already had to flee this revolution once. Second, while Toussaint Louverture had generally pursued policies of reconciliation with former slaveholders in St. Domingue, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led Haiti to independence, ordered the massacre of all remaining French whites on the island in 1804. White slaveholders in the US were afraid that Dessalines’ example might be repeated in the US.

While I wasn’t able to find absolutely hard evidence that any leaders of US uprisings of enslaved people were directly inspired by the Haitian Revolution, it is very plausible that they were – there were dense information networks throughout the Caribbean and the Atlantic world at the time (link goes to a book, but an excellent one if you have a chance to pick it up).

In particular, Gabriel Prosser led an aborted rebellion in Virginia in 1801, and was widely believed to have been influenced by the example of Toussaint Louverture in St. Domingue (he made no statement at his trial and I haven’t been able to find any writings of his or other testimony to confirm that he was, but it’d be weirder if he wasn’t). The Insurrection Act was passed in a context where many people were very worried that people they’d enslaved might rise up and kill them, and they wanted the federal government to be able to support them with military force if that happened, because it wasn’t clear if state and local militias would be up to the task.

The Haitian Revolution continued to provide inspiration for violent rebellions against slavery in the US up until slavery’s abolition in the wake of the Civil War. Similar to Gabriel Prosser, I haven’t been able to find any hard evidence that Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion was inspired by the Haitians, but it’s inconceivable that he wasn’t aware of the revolution there, and white Southerners certainly thought that he was. John Brown, the militant white abolitionist, was an open admirer of Toussaint, and took inspiration for his 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, VA from Toussaint’s guerrilla warfare tactics (there’s a more scholarly discussion of Brown and Haiti in this article, which is paywalled unfortunately, but email me if you’re a student).

Interestingly, despite its origins in panic to preserve a racist system, the Insurrection Act has been used throughout US history on both sides of our internal struggle with racism. It was used to enforce civil rights for Blacks in the South just after the Civil War, to fight the Ku Klux Klan in 1871, and to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1957. On the other hand, it was used to enforce order during the uprisings after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and after the beating of Rodney King in 1992. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which limits the use of federal troops, might seem like a welcome restraint now to people worried about Trump (see the note below) but it was originally created to prevent the federal government from supporting Reconstruction-era state governments and protecting rights of free Blacks. Both Acts are examples of the long-standing tension in US history between supporters of a strong federal government and a weak one, and how that tension has interacted with racist and white supremacist structures in our society over the years.

A couple “fun” footnotes:

* The NPR article, while overall informative, misstates the ability to use the Insurrection Act to respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks – which would be especially worrisome, given that Trump has recently said he’d declare Antifa – that is, all antifascist activists – a terrorist group. It’s true that in 2006 the Insurrection Act was amended (PL 109-364; see sec. 1076 on p. 322 of the PDF), after Bush wanted to deploy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina but was blocked by the fact that the Governor didn’t request federal military assistance. However, in 2008, the Act was re-amended to remove references to terrorism and natural disasters from the considerations that permit use of the Insurrection Act (see sec. 1068 on p. 325). Goes to show: when you read things that surprise you, you should check them out further!

** If you are interested in the history of use of force by the US government against its citizens (and you should be!), you are probably wondering (as I did!) how this interacts with the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of federal troops to enforce domestic law. The real answer is: it’s complicated. If you’re really interested, the excellent Lawfare Blog has a much more thorough discussion than I’d be capable of (and they conclude, by the way, that Trump may not have legal authority here). The short answer is that the Posse Comitatus Act doesn’t prevent the President from deploying troops domestically when there’s a specific rule in the Constitution or the law letting him do so, and the Insurrection Act is one such law. To do so, the President would have to show that what is going on is one of the things specifically mentioned in the Insurrection Act – he couldn’t just refer to “law and order” generally, or even “life and property,” as that would make it look like law enforcement by the military. Most likely, he’d argue that what’s going on is an insurrection or “domestic violence” making it impossible to enforce federal law or depriving people of their Constitutional rights.

*** Don’t be an Alexander Hamilton fan. I know the musical is pretty rad, but he’s the one who suggested that Toussaint name himself governor-for-life.

Woodcut image of Nat Turner’s Rebellion from the Library of Congress.