A Saga of Revolution

Against the Current, No. 168, January/February 2014

Derrick Morrison

The Black Count:
Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
By Tom Reiss
Crown Publishers, New York, 2012, 414 pages, $27 hardback.

“THOMAS-ALEXANDRE DUMAS Davy de la Pailleterie, 14, stepped onto the dock in Le Havre on August 30, 1776. He was listed in the ship’s manifest as ‘the slave Alexandre,’ belonging to a ‘Lieutenant Jacques-Louis Roussel.’ This was a necessary ruse, because a young mulatto could not simply walk off a boat into France by himself. Antoine had bought back his son’s freedom from Captain Langlois and paid for his safe passage to Normandy in the company of an ‘owner.’” (55)

 So began the journey of this 14-year-old, who would later become General Alex Dumas due to the political, social, and economic upheaval known as the French Revolution. He would also become immortal in fiction in The Count of Monte Cristo, as the real-life prototype for the hero of the novel written by his son, the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas.

Deep Background Research

Tom Reiss chronicles the life of General Dumas, taking us on a trip through the 18th century; capturing life in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and France under the Capetian monarchy; analyzing the explosive contradiction of the French monarchy’s support of an anti-monarchical rebellion by 13 British colonies in the New World; and following our protagonist as he is catapulted to great heights by the French maelstrom and then brought to new lows by the subsequent Napoleonic political counter-revolution.

Thomas-Alexandre was born March 25, 1762, in the port city of Jeremie, Saint Domingue, the most lucrative colony in the New World. His father was a French noblemans from Normandy, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, his mother a slave, Marie Cessette Dumas. Thomas-Alexandre was their fourth child.

Reiss combines a deep bibliography with extensive field work. He visited Jeremie, which in the latter part of the 18th century became a “cultural mecca” (42) for free Blacks.

“While distancing themselves as much as possible from enslaved blacks and poor whites, free people of color learned to dance, ride, and fence like white colonists…. The colony so notorious for its treatment of black slaves was producing a mulatto cultural elite…. In the 1780’s, one of these men, Julien Raimond, moved to Paris and became a leading advocate for the rights of free blacks of the era, despite being the owner of hundreds of slaves.” (42, 43, 44)

The rise of Jeremie was due to the boom in coffee prices at the time, and Raimond — before 1791 — was no different than the American revolutionaries Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both of whom owned slaves and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Reiss also spent a lot of time in Villers-Cotterets, 50 miles north of Paris, the location of the Alexandre Dumas Museum — an institution devoted mainly to the General’s son, the writer and novelist Alexandre Dumas. The museum includes some material on the General and the General’s grandson, Alexandre Dumas the playwright.

Reiss found the General’s service records in the Chateau de Vincennes, a building housing the military archives of France (in a suburb of Paris).

When Antoine — or should we say the Marquis de la Pailleterie — wrapped up his affairs in Normandy, selling the chateau and the lands around it for a tidy sum, he took the chateau’s housekeeper as a companion and went to live near Paris, bringing with him the young Count Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie.

The Count was educated as a young nobleman, studying the classics and taking fencing lessons. Later he moved into Paris itself, bankrolled by the Marquis.

Reiss speculates a rift between father and son led the Count to enlist in the King’s army in June, 1786, at the age of 24. The Count suppressed his noble heritage, enlisting as a private, recording his name as Alexandre Dumas, signing it as Alex Dumas, and listing himself as the “son of Antoine and Cecette Dumas.” (91) The Marquis died less than two weeks later at the age of 72.

Dumas was later posted to Villers-Cotterets, where he met his future wife Marie-Louise Labouret, daughter of an innkeeper who was also the elected commander of the newly-formed National Guard. The year was 1789, the month August, and in the prior 30 days the Parisian masses had decided to make history by storming the Bastille.

Revolutionary War

In the spring of 1792, the French Legislative or National Assembly declared war on the Austrian Emperor, and the unit of now Corporal Dumas was posted to the border of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium today). In August Corporal Dumas saw action, captured some Austrians, and was cited in the Paris press. The same month also saw the overthrow of the monarchy and France proclaimed a republic.

By the end of 1792, the French government sponsored a series of “free legions” to enroll pro-republican refugees to fight alongside the regular army against the monarchies of Europe. Raimond and other free Blacks petitioned for a legion of men of color. The okay was given and Corporal Dumas was recruited into the “Free Legion of Americans and of the South” as a lieutenant colonel. (As far as the French were concerned, anybody from its Caribbean colonies was an American. Dumas was often called an “American.”)

By July, 1793, this legion was disbanded and Dumas was promoted to brigadier general in the Army of the North. A month later, Dumas was appointed a general of division with 10,000 troops under his command, and he headed the Army of the Western Pyrenees.

The National Convention, elected on the basis of universal male suffrage, was running the country, and the Committee of Public Safety emerged as the executive authority, staffed by figures such as Lazare Carnot, Louis de Saint-Just, and Maximilien Robespierre.

Towards the end of 1793, the Committee asked Dumas to command the Army of the Alps. Reiss did some field work in the Alps, following the tracks of our hero. By the spring of 1794 victory had been achieved over the armies supporting aristocracy and monarchy.

A proclamation to the Army of the Alps signed by Carnot declared, “Glory to the conquerors of Mont Cenis and of Mont Saint Bernard. Glory to the invincible Army of the Alps and to the representatives who have guided it on the road to victory! We cannot tell you, my dear colleagues, of the enthusiasm that has been created here as a result of the news you have announced…. We place the greatest confidence in you and in the energy and talents of the brave General Dumas.” (173-74)

Nonetheless, Dumas’ life was seriously endangered in the factional struggles within the Committee of Public Safety. In August 1794, a month after the eruption of a violent split in which Robespierre and others were executed, Dumas was appointed commander of the Army of the West.

His main task was to reorganize this Army in the aftermath of a vicious civil war in the Vendee region against royalist-led forces. He is credited with correcting some of the horrific abuses that had been committed by the army there.

In October, our hero was transferred out of the Vendee region and allowed some much needed rest in Villers-Cotterets with his wife and their daughter Alexandrine Aimee. During 1795, he was posted with General Jean-Baptiste Kleber and the Army of the Rhine, fighting monarchist forces in the name of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” (183)

From Republic to Military Rule

In 1796 the executive authority known as the Directory decided to overturn the Austrian Emperor’s control of northern Italy. The Directory, composed of five members, ruled France along with the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred. The Army of Italy was formed. Its commander was General Napoleon Bonaparte.

The key to Austrian control was Mantua, where 23,000 Austrian troops were garrisoned. The French laid siege and General Dumas acquitted himself well in the final battles that enabled a French victory. The war continued and eventually broke the back of Austrian power. Napoleon organized republics all over northern Italy. He appointed General Dumas military governor of a region near Venice.

In 1798, the Directory and Napoleon brought together close to 60,000 troops into a force whose mission was not publicly known. It was the Army of the Orient, directed at the colonization of Egypt. Napoleon named Dumas the commander of cavalry of this Army. Reiss follows our hero’s tracks into Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt.

The invasion of Egypt proved to be a disaster. Although the Army of the Orient occupied the two major Egyptian cities and won some land battles, the English Navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in August, 1798. With the French Army trapped in North Africa, Napoleon leaves in the summer of 1799, putting General Kleber in charge.

Dumas and another French general left Alexandria in March of 1799, on a leaky ship that had to later seek help at the nearest port — Taranto in the Kingdom of Naples. The two were to spend the next two years imprisoned by pro-monarchist forces. Dumas took sick, losing an eye and developing stomach problems that contributed to his early death in 1806, aged only 43.

When he returned to Villers-Cotterets in June of 1801, France was a different country. In November of 1799 the republic was overthrown — big commercial and landed property had dispersed the Directory and the Councils, and given Napoleon the title of First Consul. This was the first step toward military rule.

Men of property, who benefited from the destruction of the aristocracy as a class and the nationalization and sale of Catholic Church lands, did not want to experiment again with a Robespierrian alliance with the lower orders to defeat royalist reaction. They chose a military solution to counter royalism at home and abroad, fueled by the kings and queens of Europe.

The economic gains of the Revolution in France itself were not to be touched, but some of the political and social gains were jettisoned — such as civil equality for the men of color. In the colonies, the totality of the economic, political, and social gains were targeted — the rollback of the abolition of slavery. French commercial interests who had benefited from the slave trade and slavery clamored for its return. And the First Consul did not disappoint.

The Broader Context

But let’s take a step back, to see how our picture painted thus far relates to some larger issues. The French monarchy’s support of the 13 rebel British colonies led many from France and its colonies to volunteer to fight on behalf of the North American rebels. The Marquis de Lafayette fought in the Continental Army and rose to the rank of general. He was a close friend of the rebel army commander — George Washington.

After the victory of the rebels, the North Americans set up one of the world’s most radical republics. Intrigued by it all was Jacques-Pierre Brissot.

“During [Brissot’s] travels in the brand-new United States in 1788, he had become infatuated by the American republic and its spirit of ‘simplicity, goodness, and that dignity of man which is the possession of those who realize their liberty and who see in their fellow men only brothers and equals.’ Brissot had determined to bring the American ideals to Europe.

“The one thing he rejected about the American Revolution was its perpetuation of slavery. On this issue, the … journalist made common cause with Lafayette…. Traveling through Virginia, Brissot met with General Washington and tried to convince him to start a new revolution for racial emancipation; Washington demurred, telling his French visitor that Virginia was not yet ready for such a thing.” (122)

The potentially explosive contradiction between a radical republic and “the perpetuation of slavery” was still underdeveloped in the new United States. In the French empire, this wasn’t the case. Saint Domingue, the richest colony in the New World, could not be quarantined from French social storms.

The half million Black slaves on the French part of Hispaniola decided to make history on the night of August 22, 1791. The largest slave revolt in history was on.

Reiss understands well the conflict between the class of slave-owners and the class of slaves. But other dimension of the class struggle — on one hand, between landed property based on the extraction of feudal dues from the peasantry and landed property based on commerce and trade, and on the other hand between big commercial property owners and the class of small property owners, shopkeepers and craft workers — eludes the author.

He is sympathetic to Brissot and Lafayette, but hostile to Robespierre. The three represent different phases of the French upheaval.

Dynamics of the Revolution

Albert Soboul in A Short History of The French Revolution, 1789-1799 summarizes the pro-monarch Marquis’s policy: “Lafayette…hoping to unite the landed aristocracy and the commercial bourgeoisie under a constitutional monarchy of the English type.” (Soboul, 73)

Lafayette played his role in the Constituent Assembly, which arose out of the initial revolt and gave way to the Legislative Assembly in September of 1791. Lafayette’s problem was convincing the majority of the aristocracy and King Louis XVI. They preferred an absolute monarch, not a constitutional one. Lafayette fled France in August, 1792.

The anti-monarch Brissot led a group of deputies in the Legislative Assembly called the Girondins. “The Girondins represented the interests of the rich commercial bourgeoisie,” according to Soboul. “The bourgeois Girondins were incapable of fighting the aristocracy on their own; yet, out of class pride, they refused to ally with the people,” he adds. (79, 80)

The Legislative Assembly gave way to the National Convention in September of 1792. Brissot and the Girondin deputies declared war on aristocratic Europe in the spring of 1792, but refused to adopt the measures needed to win it, i.e. mobilizing the urban and peasant masses.

On April 4, 1792, however, the Girondins did lead the Legislative Assembly in extending civil equality and citizenship to the free Blacks. (Reiss, 137) Later, on February 4, 1794 the Convention, under the leadership of Robespierre and the Montagne, abolished slavery in the colonies. (Soboul, xxiii)

The deputies were called the Montagne because they sat higher up in the Convention chamber, on the left. (Vive La Revolution, by Mark Steel, 159)

While the Montagne, which led the political party known as the Jacobin clubs, represented the “middle ranks of the bourgeoisie” (Soboul, 106), the sans-culottes, who composed the great majority of the urban popular movement, came from the petty proprietors and shopkeepers — “wheelwrights, potters, locksmiths, and carpenters.” (Steel, 162)

The sans-culottes (called by their dress, “without pants”) were shunned by the Girondins, but embraced by the Montagne, or Jacobins. This alliance of the Jacobins and sans-culottes, politically expressed in the rule of the Committee of Public Safety, uprooted feudal privileges without compensation to satisfy the peasantry (Soboul, xxi), and abolished slavery after recognizing the reality of the independent Black armies in Saint Domingue.

Understanding these class dynamics is essential to comprehending the ebb and flow of events. By disparaging the Committee of Public Safety, Reiss covers up and conceals the depth and breadth of the aristocratic counter-revolution. The Committee’s policy, called the Terror, would have been child’s play compared to the carnage from a victory of the crowned heads of Europe in 1793-94.

Soboul’s writings on the French Revolu­tion are prolific, yet none are found in the selected bibliography at the end of Reiss’s book.

Nonetheless, Black Count is well worth the read. It throws light on a hidden individual and hidden chapter of the French Revolution. And if you are inspired afterwards to read Soboul and Steel, so much the better.

January/February 2014, ATC 168