Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Haitian Revolution and the 1792 Kentucky Constitution

I just came across a reference to the Haitian Revolution that I certainly was not expecting. During the 1792 Kentucky constitutional debate a stir was raised by a delegate named David Rice.

Rice was a Presbyterian minister who came to Kentucky in the early 1780s from Virginia at the behest of a group of believers on the then bluegrass frontier. Rice arrived and went to work evangelizing. He helped start the Transylvania Synod and Transylvania Seminary, which would eventually become Transylvania University.

During the proceedings of the Kentucky constitutional convention in 1792 Rice made a speech on slavery and its inconsistency "with justice and good policy."  In the speech Rice argued that slavery took away a man's free will and put it in the hands of another, which was contrary to Biblical teaching. He also warned that slavery was brewing a future cataclysmic event in America that was then being carried out elsewhere.

"It cannot be consistent with the principles of good policy to keep a numerous, a growing body of people among us, who add not strength to us in time of war; who are under the strongest temptations to join an enemy, as it is scarce possible they can lose and may be great gainers, by the event; who will count so many against us in an hours of danger and distress. A people whose interest it will be, whenever in their power, to subvert the government, and throw all into confusion. Can it be safe? Can it be good policy? Can it be in our interest or the interest of our posterity, to nourish within our own bowels such an injured, inveterate foe; a foe, with whom we must be in a state eternal war? What havock would a handful of savages [Indians], in conjunction with this domestic enemy [slaves] make in our country! Especially at a period when the main body of the inhabitants were softened by luxury and ease, and quite unfitted by the hardships and dangers of war. Let us turn our eyes to the West Indies; and there learn the melancholy effects of this wretched policy. We may there read them written with the blood of thousands. There you may see the fable, let me say, the brave sons of Africa, engaged in a noble conflict with their inveterate foes. There you may see thousands fired with a generous resentment of the greatest injuries, and bravely sacrificing their lives at the alter of liberty."

Rice's painting of the Haitian Revolution as fight for liberty, so close on its beginning heels is quite interesting. It seems that his calling the insurgents "brave sons of Africa," and their cause "a noble conflict" would be viewed as incendiary language in a slave society. But, maybe, being just a year after the start of the island revolution, for Rice, it had not yet had enough time to be spun into an atrocity, but was still something to be admired. Regardless, the Haitian Revolution was known about in Kentucky early on and was used by some to try to end slavery in the commonwealth.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To read Rice's speech go to:
Google Books

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