Taking Haiti to the Court of Empire: Blanchet v. Boyer, 1826-1827

By Elyssa Gage

In 1826, the French lawyer Louis-Antoine Blanchet took the Haitian President, Jean-Pierre Boyer, to court in Le Hâvre, France. Blanchet claimed Boyer owed him a salary for his work on the Haitian legal code. France had only recently recognized Haitian independence the previous year in 1825, so this case was a litmus test for Franco-Haitian relations. For over twenty years, since the Haitians claimed independence in 1804, the French continued to call it Saint-Domingue, a country of insurgents, and proposed plans to retake it. But even after the ordonnance of 1825 that “granted” Haiti independence (in exchange for an indemnity payment of 150 million francs), France sought to maintain its influence over the young republic. Blanchet’s case was without precedent. The future of the French Empire rested in the court. It was the first time that the French legal system faced a recognized former colony. A ruling against the former colony could “justify” reestablishing French authority over Haiti.

BSG_EST90RES_P5.jpg
Boyer. President de la République d’Haïti. A. Maury. Lith. de Villain, 1825.

Blanchet first came to Haiti in 1825 after he received a license to practice law. He served on the commission tasked with developing the Haitian legal system. He convinced the Haitian jurists to abandon their homegrown code in favor of adapting France’s Napoleonic code.[1] Blanchet argued that Boyer had appointed him as the preceptor of the Haitian jurists, who lacked any formal training, discounting the years of practice many of them had writing laws and drafting constitutions. Upon completion of the code, Blanchet claimed Boyer became more distant, took credit for Blanchet’s work, and refused to pay him. When he brought these claims to the tribunal of Le Hâvre, the court agreed to seize a Haitian shipment in port (which was part of the indemnity payment), but before it could rule on the matter of money owed, it had to determine whether it was even competent to hear the case against the head of a foreign state, whose independence had just been recognized by the French king.

Blanchet imagined himself and the French legal system as guardians of justice against Haiti’s judicial failings, incompetence, and despotism. When Boyer’s lawyers suggested that he take the case before Haitian courts, he claimed it would be impossible for him to receive fair treatment. Boyer’s malevolent leadership infected and incapacitated the judicial institutions of the entire nation. The Boyer of Blanchet’s account was both a farce and a despotic tyrant, threatening the lives of honorable men and helpless widows. Blanchet called for the French tribunal to right this wrong and deal a blow to the “despotism” of Boyer’s judicial practices.

In a memorable era, … France dictated laws to the Nations …. At that time, France imposed by victory …. A new glory, a softer and more durable glory was to succeed the brilliant triumphs of arms. It is now by the justice of its institutions that France governs the two worlds.[2]

For Blanchet and his supporters, Haiti needed the patriarchal, juridical oversight of the French Empire to save them from the Haitian President.

Given the degree to which Blanchet’s critique of Boyer paralleled contemporary racial discourse that painted blacks as lazy, barbaric, and despotic, it would be tempting to lump Blanchet with the party of colons from Saint-Domingue, who resented the acceptance of Haitian independence. However, his relationship to the former colony and people of color was more unique. Blanchet’s father and uncle had been signatories of the 1806 Constitution of the Haitian Republic, and his mother, brothers, and sister were living in Haiti at the time of the trial. He was also not a proponent of the color line that slave-owning planters fought to maintain in France’s remaining colonies or the racial prejudice against Haitians, “the error of which was demonstrated by the character and talents of so many men who walk[ed] together with the elite of civilization.”[3] It also appears that the first people he approached for aid in France were well-known allies of the Haitian cause, the Marquis de Lafayette and the abbé Grégoire.

Despite his attempts to argue that his accusations were not based on prejudice, his attacks of Boyer as one “whose character and behavior furnish the justification for all the prejudices” made the case a rallying point for both the defenders of people of color and the supporters of the colonial regime.[4] One of Boyer’s lawyers, François Isambert, explicitly framed the case as part of the fight for rights of free people of color in France’s remaining colonies. Isambert consistently defended the virtue and wisdom of the young republic and its president. He described Boyer as a man who had never committed any acts of violence, and whose great power in Haiti was due to the trust he inspired. Haiti had chosen to adopt them out of attachment to France. Blanchet played no significant part. Haiti was in fact an exemplar, for it was heir to the “most enlightened minds” of the French Revolution.[5] This exalted Haiti above Restoration France, which had “regressed” by returning to monarchy. At the same time, Isambert’s support for Haiti was dependent on its republicanism. Only through the Haitian Republic could Haiti successfully decolonize.

Blanchet lost this case in Le Hâvre, but a trace of this strange incident remains in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where Louis Antoine Blanchet is listed as the author or commentator of the Haitian legal code. This case exemplifies the lingering patriarchal and colonial legal tendencies of the French, which might best be captured by a Haitian critic of Blanchet:

Rejoice, Haïti, that this sun of erudition, this aster of jurisprudence, next to whom pale the lights of the greatest geniuses past and present, deigned to cast upon your shores the rays of his divine torch! Nothing less than his celestial appearance was needed for the nation of Haïti to also have its own Code of laws.[6]

Elyssa Gage is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Florida, studying justice and colonialism in post-revolutionary France. You can reach her at elyssa.j@ufl.edu.

Endnotes:

[1] Gélin Collot, “Le Code civil haïtien et son histoire,” in Du Code Noir au Code Civil, ed. Jean-François Niort (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005)308.

[2] Prudent Vignard, Procès entre M. Blanchet, acovat à la Cour Royale de Paris, et Son Excellence le Président de la République d’Haïti, (Paris: Marchands de Nouveautés, 1827), v.

[3] Vignard, 147.

[4] Ibid, 148.

[5] François André Isambert, Mémoire pour S. Ex. Le Président de la République d’Haïti, contre Maître Blanchet, Avocat, Sur la question morale de ce procès (Paris : Imprimerie de E. Duverger, 1827), 73.

[6] Le Télégraphe, n° 52, 31 Décembre 1826, an 23.

Further Readings:

Brière, Jean-François. Haïti et la France, 1804-1848 : Le rêve brisé. Paris : Éditions Karthala, 2008.

Collot, Gélin. “Le Code civil haïtien et son histoire,” in Du Code Noir au Code Civil, edited by Jean-François Niort, 299-315. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005.

Gaffield, Julia, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Gaffield, Julia, editor. The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Jennings, Lawrence. French Anti-Slavery : The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802-1848. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kwon, Yun Kyoung. “Ending Slavery, Narrating Emancipation: Revolutionary Legacies in the French Antislavery Debate and ‘Silencing the Haitian Revolution,’ 1814-1848.” PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 2012.

Sheller, Mimi. Democracy After Slavery: Black Publics and Peasant Radicalism in Haiti and Jamaica. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

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