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1806-1818 - Pétion's Republic

Civil war divided Haiti into two distinct regions, the north ruled by Henry Christophe, a black, who crowned himself King Henry I, and the south by Alexandre Pétion, a mulatto. A protégé of Toussaint, Christophe wanted to restore the sugar plantation economy and reestablish international trade. By contrast, Pétion pushed for land reform in the south and established a region dominated by small family farms. Popularly known as "Father Good Heart," Pétion created a benevolent society that attracted significant migration from the harsher conditions of the north.

In the more permissive southern republic, where Pétion ruled as president-for-life, people's lives were not improving. The crucial difference between the northern kingdom and the southern republic was the way each treated landownership. Christophe gave ownership of the bulk of the land to the state and leased large tracts to estate managers. Pétion took the opposite approach and distributed state-owned land to individuals in small parcels. Pétion began distributing land in 1809, when he granted land to his soldiers. Later on, Pétion extended the land-grant plan to other beneficiaries and lowered the selling price of state land to a level where almost anyone could afford to own land.

Pétion's decision proved detrimental in the shaping of modern Haiti. Smallholders had little incentive to produce export crops instead of subsistence crops. Coffee, because of its relative ease of cultivation, came to dominate agriculture in the south. The level of coffee production, however, did not permit any substantial exports. Sugar, which had been produced in large quantities in Saint-Domingue, was no longer exported from Haiti after 1822. When the cultivation of cane ceased, sugar mills closed, and people lost their jobs. In the south, the average Haitian was an isolated, poor, free, and relatively content yeoman. In the north, the average Haitian was a resentful but comparatively prosperous laborer. The desire for personal autonomy motivated most Haitians more than the vaguer concept of contributing to a strong national economy, however, and defections to the south were frequent, much to the consternation of Christophe.

Pétion, who died in 1818, left a lasting imprint upon his homeland. He ruled under two constitutions, which were promulgated in 1806 and 1816. The 1806 document resembled in many ways the Constitution of the United States. The 1816 charter, however, replaced the elected presidency with the office of president for life.

Pétion's largely laissez-faire rule did not directly discriminate against blacks, but it did promote an entrenched mulatto elite that benefited from such policies as the restoration of land confiscated by Dessalines and cash reimbursement for crops lost during the last year of the emperor's rule. Despite the egalitarianism of land distribution, government and politics in the republic remained the province of the elite, especially because the control of commerce came to replace the production of commodities as the focus of economic power in Haiti. Pétion was a beneficent ruler, and he was beloved by the people, who referred to him as "Papa Bon Coeur" (Father Good Heart). But Pétion was neither a true statesman nor a visionary. Some have said that his impact on the nations of South America, through his support for rebels such as Simón Bolívar Palacios and Francisco de Miranda, was stronger and more positive than his impact on his own impoverished country.

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Page last modified: 02-08-2011 16:44:47 ZULU