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Mon, 04.02.1770

Alexandre Pétion, Soldier, and Politician born

Alexandre Pétion

*On this date in 1770, Alexandre Pétion was born.  He was a Black politician, soldier the first President of the Republic of Haiti from 1807 until his death.

Alexandre Sabès Pétion was born "Anne Alexandre Sabès" in Port-au-Prince. His father was Pascal Sabès, a wealthy white French father, and Ursula, a free mulatto woman. Like other free people of color with wealthy fathers, Pétion was sent to France in 1788 to be educated and study at the Military Academy in Paris. In Saint-Domingue, as in other French colonies such as Louisiane, the free people of color constituted a third caste between the whites and enslaved Africans. While restricted in political rights, many received social capital from their fathers and became educated and wealthy landowners, resented by the petits blancs, who were mostly minor tradesmen. Following the French Revolution of 1789, the gens de couleur led a rebellion to gain the voting and political rights which they believed were due to them as French citizens; this was before the slave uprising of 1791. At that time, most free people of color did not support freedom or political rights for enslaved Africans and free blacks. 

Years of Haitian Revolution

Pétion returned to Saint-Domingue as a young man to take part in the Haitian Revolution, participating in skirmishes with the British force in Northern Haiti. There had long been racial and class tensions between the gens de couleur and enslaved and free Blacks in Saint-Domingue, where the enslaved Black population outnumbered the white and gens de couleur by ten to one. When tensions arose between Blacks and mulattoes, Pétion frequently supported the mulatto faction. In June 1799, he allied in a failed rebellion in the South of Saint-Domingue. The town fell in March 1800 and the rebellion was effectively over. Pétion and other mulatto leaders went into exile in France.

In February 1802, France arrived with warships and 82,000 French troops to bring Saint-Domingue under more control. Petion, Boyer, and Rigaud returned with him in the hope of securing power in the colony. Following the French deportation of Toussaint Louverture and the renewed struggle, Pétion joined the nationalist force in October 1802. This followed a secret conference where Pétion supported Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the rebels took the capital of Port-au-Prince on October 17, 1803. Dessalines proclaimed independence on January 1, 1804, naming the nation Haiti. On October 6, 1804, Dessalines declared himself ruler for life, yet was assassinated on October 17, 1806. Pétion championed the ideals of democracy and clashed with Henri Christophe who wanted absolute rule. Pétion was elected President in 1807 of the southern Republic of Haiti. After the inconclusive struggle dragged on until 1810, a peace treaty was agreed to, and the country was split in two. In 1811 Christophe made himself king of the northern Kingdom of Haiti.

On June 2, 1816, Pétion modified the terms of the presidency in the constitution, making himself President for Life and suspended the legislature in 1818. Pétion seized commercial plantations from the rich gentry. He had the land redistributed to his supporters and the peasantry, earning him the nickname Papa Bon-Cœur ("good-hearted father"). The land seizures and changes in agriculture reduced the production of commodities for the export economy. Most of the population became full subsistence farmers, and exports and state revenue declined sharply, making survival difficult for the new state. Believing in the importance of education, Pétion started the Lycée Pétion in Port-au-Prince.

His virtues and ideals of freedom and democracy for the world (and especially slaves) were strong, and he often showed support for the oppressed. Petion was reported to be influenced by his (and his successor's) lover, Marie-Madeleine Lachenais, who acted as his political adviser. Pétion named general Jean-Pierre Boyer as his successor; he took control in 1818 following the death of Pétion from yellow fever on March 29, 1818. He is acknowledged as one of Haiti's founding fathers. After Henry I and his son died in 1820, Boyer reunited the country under his rule.

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