Haitian Declaration and Constitution : Anti – Slavery

William (Tradd) Stover

I found these two documents really interesting and unique from anything I have analyzed before. I say they are unique because of the cleanly stated, staunch outlaw off slavery that is stated in multiple areas of both pieces. Clearly, those sort of statements do not exist in the U.S founding documents. Rather, America makes claims that can be interpreted in different ways such as labeling all men as free. Well, this raises the question: what is a man?

In the Haitian Declaration, the commander in chief states that slavery is horrific and shall never be practiced again within the first few lines of the work. “Independence or death” is a phrase used multiple times throughout the document. This is interesting because on initial glance, this looks and sounds like something the U.S declaration would say. The idea of being free is relevant, and even crucial, to both nations, but it is simply the connotation of the word “free” that brings about a difference. Haitians want to be free in somewhat of a more literal sense. They want to be free from the chains that have held them down, oppressed, and bloodied their people. On the contrary, colonial Americans want to be free from an overbearing government, one that patriots deem unfair. This similarity in form but difference in context is really interesting and telling of some of the differences between each culture.

The Haitian Constitution is in many ways similar to that of the United States. Most notably, it lists powers that the president, or in this case Emperor shall possess. I noticed that the powers shared between the two are quite similar. The structure of the document is also quite similar to the U.S version in that it is separated into sections with articles. One of the main differences, again, is the clear outlaw of slavery. The second article reads, “slavery is abolished forever’. That is about as clear cut as possible. This idea of what the word free really stands for comes into play once again.

Another blatant and extreme difference is the feelings that these Haitian documents show toward France. The Declaration speaks of “pursuing forever the traitors and enemies of your independence” and “Eternal hatred of France”. There is an incredible theme of revenge here that is much more evident than in the United States Declaration.

These two documents make for an interesting read. I enjoyed comparing and contrasting these from the ones drafted by the U.S. It is striking in some ways how similar, yet fundamentally different these documents are from what I am used to reading and studying. This writing is very powerful and useful still today.

Presentation Versus Representation

In hindsight, the historical context from which I analyzed the US Declaration of Independence is quite lacking in comparison to the literary perspective. The most prominent thing that I kept coming back to was the emptiness of the wording used. Phrases such as “one people,” all men are created equal,” and “powers from the consent of the governed.” I see all of these as merely a presentation; they do not truly represent the “one people” of the US. These were written down to provide a sense of unification, equality, and shared power — in reality they are far from that. This entire document is put on as a sort of act to show power in writing rather than in action. While this document was written and published no actions were made to ensure what was said was enforced. This declaration presents representation where there is none to be found.

Going back to the second phrase I quoted, “all men are created equal,” there enslaved West Africans who would have disagreed. Calling upon the erasure poem “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith, there is a line from this poem that reads “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. –taked Captive — on the high Seas — to bear–” (Smith). The irony being that this is the exact words of the Declaration the founding fathers wrote. Yet they could not see that they too were the same as they they enslaved. In my opinion, it was an insult to write such a phrase as “all men are created equal” as a presentation to the world how just the US is, while in reality, when it comes time to represent what they wrote, such justice is merely spilled ink.

Smith, Tracy K. “Declaration.” Poetry Foundation, Graywolf Press, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147468/declaration-5b5a286052461.

Representation

After reading through this twice, I still find Derrida’s, Declaration of Independence, I was still a little confused about some of his topics, but I feel like I got a pretty good grasp of some of his points. In Derrida’s text, he makes two good points about the signers of the Declaration that kind of link together into one bigger idea. This is the idea of representation, who is supposed to be representing who in this document.

In his text, to me, it seems that he has a problem with the concept of who each of the signers of the Declaration are supposed to be representing. It is pretty much common knowledge that each of the signers are supposed to represent the people of the state in which they sign under. But Derrida seems to be digging deeper into the idea that they aren’t necessarily representing the people, and that they are representing themselves and adding the people to their already decided ideas. (pg. 3) Which, if you give it thought, is kind of what happened.

Later on, on that same page in the next paragraph, he brings up the idea and questions whether the people who signed the document were already free or if they were being declared free at the same time as everyone they are representing through this document. This is an interesting idea because I personally have never given it much thought and never paid much attention in history classes to know if this was ever discussed, but it is interesting that he brings this up.

Tying that idea that the representatives were already free back to the idea of representation, adds to the idea that them deciding the contents of the Declaration were written to adhere to the wants and needs of the “representatives” and that they adjusted their ideas to make sure the people would be satisfied and not argue or disagree much with what they already decided.

Is Independence Found in The Declaration of Independence?

Throughout Jacques Derrida’s abundantly technical Declarations of Independence, he forces readers to question the legitimacy of the historic American document The Declaration of Independence. Embedded in Derrida’s work, there stands a fine line between what exactly constitutes physical and emotional freedom and the act of stating that oneself is now separated from the governing entity. This line is evidently blurred. Derrida expresses confusion at two major points in The Declaration of Independence, first of them being who is the final signer at the end of the document. It is not Thomas Jefferson, as he was the writer, nor is it the representatives alone, it is the representatives signing for the people, “It is the ‘good people’ who declare themselves free and independent by the relay of their representatives and of their representatives of representatives” (Derrida 9). This line illuminates that the people, even though the entirety of the population’s signature is represented by only a few people, are the ones who have ultimately declared themselves independent. This is where the lines become blurred for Derrida. He believes the independence that has been declared only stands true in the legitimacy of the signature; however, the people who were signed for did not contribute to The Declaration of Independence nor can unknown or silent views and opinions be taken as a vote on the side of what the most powerful want. Since the power stands in the signature, according to Derrida, is the American independence valid? Another prominent issue that arises is the act of declaring one’s own independence, “Is it that the good people have already freed themselves in fact and are only stating the fact of this emancipation in the Declaration? Or is it rather that they free themselves at the instant of and by the signature of this Declaration?”(Derrida 9). Derrida is questioning the occurrence of stating independence, is the sought after independence finally grasped within the people’s hands and The Declaration of Independence seen as an acknowledgement that they are, in fact, independent or is the writing and the signature of  The Declaration of Independence the first moment that they are declaring freedom. Since the people were never given the chance for an honest vote, Derrida is stating that the representatives writing this for the people, in their name, without the consent of the people, is overall invalid.