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The First Haitian Constitution

Richard Albert, Boston College Law School

As we follow Haiti’s slow march toward democracy in the news, media reports often highlight that Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere and the world’s first independent black republic.

Yet what is often if not always missing is this: Haiti adopted one of the first written national constitutions in the modern era.

The first Haitian Constitution was adopted in 1801. By comparison, the United States adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777 and its Constitution in 1787, France adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, and Poland adopted its own Constitution in 1791.

With over twenty constitutions since 1801, Haiti offers a rich constitutional and political history for scholars interested in how and why constitutions emerge and expire. The first Haitian Constitution is a good place to start.

Why a Constitution?

In 1801, Haiti was still a colony in the French empire. Ten years earlier, in 1791, Haiti had launched a revolution against France. The Haitian Revolution later culminated with the declaration of Haitian independence on January 1, 1804.

The impetus for creating a Haitian Constitution in 1801 appears to have been threefold. Two parts were external and one was internal.

First, the United States had only recently adopted its Constitution, and Haitians were hoping to emulate the American model of revolutionary constitutionalism. In fact, Haitians sought and received the counsel of Alexander Hamilton, who advised Haiti’s Central Assembly on constitutional design.

Second, France was losing its grip on Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue. The first years of the Haitian Revolution had weakened France and diminished its resources. Haitians believed that a written constitution could help accelerate the achievement of independence and show the world that Haiti could govern itself.

Third, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s celebrated revolutionary general, led the fight to free Haitian slaves. He thought it important to entrench protections for equality, security, and property. He also wanted to define Haitian nationhood and identity, and believed a written constitution could help.

Yet L’Ouverture also appears to have been motivated by securing power for himself. The first Haitian Constitution confers upon him such vast powers that it has since come to be known by many as “Toussaint’s Constitution.”

With that as a very brief background to the adoption of the first Haitian Constitution, let us examine its text. (The English translation, by Charmant Theodore, is found here at the Louverture Project.)

The Structure of the Constitution

The first Haitian Constitution has thirteen major sections, one each on the following subjects:

  1. Territory
  2. Population
  3. Religion
  4. Mores
  5. Rights
  6. Culture and Commerce
  7. Legislative Authority
  8. Executive Authority
  9. Judicial Authority
  10. Municipalities
  11. Armed Forces
  12. Finances
  13. General Dispositions

On my reading, two important cross-cutting themes emerge from the text: (1) the concentration of governmental powers in the executive authority; and (2) the robustness of rights declarations. Let me offer a few examples of each.

The Concentration of Powers

It quickly becomes obvious why the first Haitian Constitution is known as “Toussaint’s Constitution.”

Article 28 names L’Ouverture governor for life. The text states “in consideration for important services rendered to the colony, in the most critical circumstances of the revolution, and upon the wishes of the grateful inhabitants, he is entrusted the direction thereof for the remainder of his glorious life.”

Article 30 moreover authorizes L’Ouverture to name his own successor. The language of the text giving him this exceptional power reveals how profoundly the people respected him and trusted his judgment:

In order to strengthen the tranquility that the colony owes to steadfastness, activity, indefatigable zeal and rare virtues of the General Toussaint-Louverture, and in sign of the unlimited trust of the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue, the Constitution attribute exclusively to this general the right to designate the citizen who, in the unfortunate event of the general’s death, shall immediately replace him. This choice shall remain secret; it shall be cosigned under sealed envelope and to be opened only by the Central Assembly, in presence of all active generals and chief commanders of departments of the army of Saint-Domingue.

Article 19 gives L’Ouverture the exclusive power to propose laws. Article 34 then gives L’Ouverture the power to promulgate laws, to make appointments, and to command the armed forces. Article 36 empowers him to propose constitutional amendments. Under Article 37, L’Ouverture is given the power to manage all state finances, though Article 38 requires him to report on receipts and disbursements semi-annually.

The Robustness of Rights Declarations

In addition to the concentration of powers in the hands of L’Ouverture, the first Haitian Constitution is notable for the robustness of its rights declarations.

Rights are featured prominently in the constitution. The constitution abolishes slavery in Article 3: “There cannot exist slaves on this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished.”

The constitution proclaims equality in Article 4, which makes all men eligible for employment: “All men, regardless of color, are eligible to all employment.” Article 5 also prohibits any classification based on any basis but merit: “There shall exist no distinction other than those based on virtue and talent, and other superiority afforded by law in the exercise of a public function.”

Article 12 protects freedom and liberty: “The Constitution guarantees freedom and individual security. No one shall be arrested unless a formally expressed mandate, issued from a functionary to whom the law grants the right to order arrest and detention in a publicly designated location.”

Article 13 defines as “sacred and inviolable” the right to property: “Property is sacred and inviolable. All people, either by himself, or by his representatives, has the free right to dispose and to administer property that is recognized as belonging to him. Anyone who attempts to deny this right shall become guilty of crime towards society and responsible towards the person troubled in his property.”

Article 63 protects the privacy of the home: “The residence of any person shall constitute an inviolable abode. During nighttime, no one shall have the right to enter therein unless in case of fire, flooding or upon request from within. During the day, one shall have access for a special determined object or, by a law, or by order issued from a public authority.”

Article 66 entrenches a broad right to petition the government: “Any person shall have the right to address individual petitions to all constitutional authority and especially to the Governor.”

There are other rights-related provisions in the text. But the final one I shall note actually denies rights, namely to non-Catholics with respect to the rights to free religious belief and expression. Article 6 establishes Catholicism as the official state religion, and furthermore designates it as the only religion that may be publicly professed: The catholic, apostolic, roman faith shall be the only publicly professed faith.”

The First Haitian Constitution After 1801

The first Haitian Constitution did not last long. One year after its adoption, French forces deported L’Ouverture back to France, where he died in 1803. L’Ouverture did not live to see Haiti achieve independence, which the nation declared in 1804.

Haiti adopted its second constitution in 1805. Haiti’s second Constitution named Jean-Jacques Dessalines the nation’s emperor and gave him many of the same powers that had been conferred upon L’Ouverture in Haiti’s first Constitution. Dessalines had succeeded L’Ouverture as the chief military general, and ultimately led the nation to its independence.

Those wishing to read more about Haiti’s constitutional and political history may profit from the following sources, which have been helpful to me in learning about Haiti’s first Constitution: (1) Gordon S. Brown, Toussaint’s Clause (2005); (2) Robert Fatton Jr., The Roots of Haitian Despotism (2007); (3) Claude Moïse, Une Constitution dans la Tourmente (1994); and (4) Julia Gaffield, Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801-1807, 41 Journal of Social History (2007).

The full text of Haiti’s first constitution may be found here, at the Digital Library of the Caribbean, in its original French.


Suggested Citation: Richard Albert, The First Haitian Constitution, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jan. 21, 2013, available at:

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Published on January 21, 2013
Author:          Filed under: Analysis

3 Responses

  1. Tom Ginsburg

    Thanks for interesting post, Richard, and I agree that Haiti’s experience is a wellspring of constitutional rights and other experience. Who knows what alternative possibilities might have occurred without extractive French reparations that essentially destroyed the Haitian economy?

    FYI, the 1805 Constitution is interesting also because it seems to deny whites the right to own property (art. 12) unless my translation is wrong.

  2. Thanks very much, Tom.

    You ask a really fascinating question. At the time Haiti needed those resources most, the young nation was forced to bleed them away.

    You also point to an interesting item in the 1805 Constitution. I’ve done a bit of reading about it today, and it seems that the provision you mention and others may have been the result of Dessalines’ effort to rid Haiti of any white, foreign and certainly French persons, in contrast to Haiti under Toussaint just a few years earlier, when the hope was that Haiti and France would maintain economic and political ties.

    Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Jean Valerus cJ

    Also, bear in mind that what many may be calling “whites” were specifically French slave owners. In contrast there were others who aided, fought and stayed in Haiti as legal land owning citizens – many of them were Polish, German and Italian, etc. Haitians told them after victory that they were Haitians now. As “black” as any other now…if you believe in race 😉 #HumansAintSerious

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