The Catholicism of Toussaint

The Catholicism of Toussaint


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Toussaint, while still a slave, insisted upon making one Suzanne Simon his wife

with full ceremony of the Church.  Later he wrote: “Sundays and holidays,

we went to Mass — Suzanne and I



The Catholicism of Toussaint L’Ouverture

By Francis S. Moseley

The reader will recall that the renowned Negro, Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803) rose from slavery to become the leader of a successful insurrection on the island of San Domingo, emancipator of his people, founder of constitutional government, and the first president of the Republic of Haiti. —Ed. Note.


We do not think of the Negro as a Catholic people — even though the majority of Negro Christians are Catholics, even though the greatest Negro leader of all time was a Catholic.  This is probably because we have heard about the Negro mainly from non-Catholics.

Ever since Wendell Phillips left Harvard to become the leading orator of the abolitionists, we have heard about Dominique Francois Toussaint, the Haitian liberator.  We have heard of him from Phillips himself and from the two Protestant ministers who were Toussaint’s American biographers, Beard and Mossell.  And we heard him from Wordsworth, who celebrated him in a sonnet.  None of them conspired to keep us in ignorance of Toussaint’s Catholicism.  On the contrary, his Catholicism is one of their most perplexing problems.  “This man was a Catholic,” they say, “and yet — ” Yet he was a liberator, the leader of the only successful slave rebellion the world has ever known.

Phillips is aghast at Toussaint’s Catholicism: “This man was a Negro.  You say that is a superstitious blood.  He was uneducated.  You say that makes a man narrow-minded.  He was a Catholic.  Many say that is but another name for intolerance.  And yet — Negro, Catholic, slave — he took his place by the side of Roger Williams, and said to his Committee: ‘Make it the first line of my Constitution that I know no difference between religious belief.’ ”  Dr. Mossell is no whit less horrified: “Toussaint L’Ouverture was a Roman Catholic [shocking thought!] and we shall see, perhaps, more that is surprising in his religious character than what is marvelous in his military genius.”

The tradition which has been built up would make it appear that there was something indecorous, indelicate, about Toussaint’s being a Catholic: surely such a man as this should have been free from the spiritual shackles and the intellectual restraints of Rome!  The tradition would have been us believe that Toussaint’s Catholicism was a pure accident of birth, which we must not hold against him, and which, if someone had but brought it to his attention (in all its ludicrous inconsistency), he would have been the first to disavow.  Like so many other traditions, it has one disconcerting flaw: it is directly opposed to the facts.

What are the facts?  Briefly, they are first, that Toussaint, the son of an African newly converted from paganism, was educated in his Faith by a man of high purity and (for the time and place) high learning — one Pierre Baptiste, to whom the Catholic of piety and of scholarship; secondly, that he was directly inspired to take up his life’s work through his reading of Catholic literature, literature which denounced slavery on philosophical and theological grounds and specifically called for a liberator who would abolish it; thirdly, that the whole conduct of his life, his military campaigns, his reading and writing, his constant and frequent attendance at Mass and devotions, his high moral character (very unusual among both the whites and the blacks in Santo Domingo during the slave days), his married life — all were in perfect keeping with a full consciousness of his own Catholicism and would be perfectly unexplainable in anyone but a Catholic; and finally, that he died a Catholic death, forgiving his many enemies and charging his son to “forget that France murdered your father.”

These are the facts.  That they are not better known is explained partially by what Wendell Phillips tells us and partially by what he leaves unsaid:  “All the materials for his biography are from the lips of his enemies” is the classic phrase which American schoolboys have been committing to memory ever since that famous occasion in 1861 when Phillips first uttered it.  He might have added: “All his biographies are from the pens of those who cannot understand the main motive-force of his life.”  Only a Catholic could paint a really sympathetic portrait of this man whom Wordsworth immortalizes as “the most unhappy man of men.”  That no American Catholic has yet taken up the work is a minor disgrace to American Catholic letters.  Until a Catholic pen equal to the task of delineating this great figure finally sets to work, we shall have to be content with the poet, who, if he does not give us an appreciation of Toussaint, the Catholic, at least memorializes his Catholic achievements.  In 1802, just after Toussaint, in a French jail, had begun the last year of his life, Wordsworth wrote the following lines:

Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!

Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough

Within thy hearing, or thy head he now

Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den: —

O miserable Chieftain!  Where and when

Wilt thou find patience!  Yet die not: do thou

Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:

Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,

Live, and take comfort.  Thou hast left behind

Powers that will work for thee: air, earth and skies:

There’s not a breathing of the common wind

That will forget thee: thou hast great allies;

Thy friends are exultations, agencies,

And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

“Great allies” indeed, and none greater than the long line of Catholic thinkers and men of action who prepared the assault on slavery which it was Toussaint’s privilege to make effective.  Two men were responsible for the happy circumstance which brought this influence into his life.  One was the humble Pierre Baptiste, who taught him to read and gave him a love for books.  The other was almost equally unknown, a French Abbe by the name of Raynal, whose book (Histoire Philosophique et Politique des Etablissements et du Commerce des Europeens dans les Deux Indes) he chanced one day to read.  There is a long passage in the book which refutes all the conceivable justification of slavery both from a Scriptural basis and from reason, a passage which finally ends in a prophecy.  

For the abolition of slavery, Raynal said, “a courageous chief only is wanted.  Where is he — that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children?  Where is he?  He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth, and raise the sacred standard of liberty.  This venerable signal will gather ‘round him the companions of his misfortune.  More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment.  Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero, who shall have reestablished the rights of the human race; everywhere will they raise trophies to his honor.”

We need not imagine the effect of this book on Toussaint: we can read its effects in the history of Santo Domingo.  An enumeration of a few of the incidents of his life will make abundantly evident to us, what to Toussaint must have been a matter of course—the practical Catholicism which inspired his every action.

In 1791, when he was 18 years of age, he was catapulted into a military career by an insurrection.  His first act was to protect the flight of his master and mistress whom he always regarded with deep affection.  Coming into power, he declared a general amnesty, protected the whites and selected a Council, only one member of which was a Negro.  No Garveyism here.  None of your Communist “Black Republic” schemes.  He was a true partisan of interracial action.

The day following his entrance into Port au Prince after the evacuation of the English, he ordered a Te Deum sung in the church.  The entire population joined in the religious celebration of victory.

Although the Negroes in Santo Domingo rarely bothered (or were not encouraged) to contract formal marriages, preferring, because of the expense, to enter into alliances merely by agreement, Toussaint, while still a slave, insisted upon making one Suzanne Simon his wife with full ceremony of the Church.  Later he wrote: “Sundays and holidays, we went to Mass — Suzanne and I: after an agreeable repast we passed the day at home and we terminated it by prayer in which we both took part.”  He had two sons, whom he named Isaac and Placide.

Seven Frenchmen who once attempted to assassinate him were arrested, Phillips tells us.  “They expected to be shot.  The next day was some saint’s day.  He ordered them to be placed before the high altar, and when the priest reached the prayer for forgiveness, Toussaint came down from his high seat, repeated it with him and permitted them to go unpunished.”  Another tale Phillips ran across, he relays as follows: “When people came to him in great numbers for office, as it is reported they do sometimes even in Washington, he learned the words of a Catholic prayer in Latin, and repeating it, would say, ‘Do you understand that?’  ‘No sir.’  ‘What? want an office, and not know Latin?  Go home and learn it.’ ”

He was given L’Ouverture as a surname.  One account of its origin is that someone, referring to his ability to open gaps in an enemy’s line, said of him, Cet homme fait l’ouverture partout.  (This man makes openings everywhere).  Whatever its origin, it has come to sum up his achievements and his greatness.

Toussaint, without his Catholicism would still have been Toussaint, but he would never had become L’Ouverture.

Source: Interracial Review (October 1937)

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update 6 January 2012




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