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Leger-Félicité Sonthonax, son of a prosperous French merchant, was a revolutionary affiliated with the Girondin party. He rose in the ranks during the French Revolution and in 1792 was sent to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) as part of the Revolutionary Commission. His main goal was to maintain French control of Saint Domingue and enforce the civil equality recently granted to free people of colour by the National Convention.
In August of the year before, a slave revolt had broken out in the northern part of Saint-Domingue, the heart of the island's sugar plantation economy. Saint-Domingue was also wracked by conflict between the white colonists and free people of colour (many of whom were of mixed race), and also between those supportive of the revolution and those for a reestablishment of the Ancien Regime — or failing that for Saint-Domingue's independence.
To Sonthonax and his fellow commissioners fell the assignment, therefore, of reestablishing French control of Saint-Domingue, enforcing the civil equality of free people regardless of skin colour, and inducing the slaves to return to the plantations.
Sonthonax found on his arrival that co-operation between whites and free people of colour was already taking root in the face of the slave insurgency. He did exile many radical whites who would not accept the civil equality of free men, and managed to contain the slave insurgency outside of the North.
In February 1793 France declared war on Britain, which presented a new problem for Sonthonax. All those he had alienated in trying to uphold the French Revolution in Saint-Domingue could now flock to the banner of Britain, which held the nearby island of Jamaica and was giving shelter to French counter-revolutionary émigrés. On August 29, 1793, Sonthonax took the radical step of proclaiming the freedom of the slaves.
The slaves did not immediately flock to Sonthonax's banner, however. White colonists continued their fight against Sonthonax, with assistance from the British, and now they were joined by many of the free men of color who opposed the abolition of slavery for their parts as well. It awaited the intervention of the French general Laveaux to bring Toussaint Louverture and his corps of well-disciplined, battle-hardened former slaves over to the French Republican side in early May 1794.
A change in the political winds back home cause Sonthonax to be recalled to France to defend his actions. When he returned in Spring, 1796, he argued that the free people of colour, whom he had been originally sent to defend, were no longer loyal to France, and that the Republic should place its faith in the "citizens of August 29th", the freed slaves. Vindicated, Sonthonax returned to Saint-Domingue a second time.
Toussaint, in the meantime, was consolidating his own position. The black general arranged for Sonthonax to leave Saint-Domingue as one of its elected representatives in 1797, and when on Sonthonax showed himself to be hesitant, Toussaint placed him under armed escort onto a ship bound for France on August 24.
Léger-Félicité Sonthonax is a controversial figure of the Haitian Revolution. His critics (including historians sympathetic to Toussaint, Dessalines or Rigaud) have denounced him as being vain, power-hungry and duplicitous. Thomas Madiou, one of Haiti's most famous historians, writing in the middle of the 19th century reported that old people in his day spoke very well of Sonthonax, claiming that he was "needed to regenerate the new freedman."