When an Afro-Caribbean American Took Up Both Arms and a Pen to Fight Slavery

By Gretchen Blackwell

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Black Members of the 1868 Louisiana Constitutional Convention.1

In 1861, Eduoard Tinchant left his family home in Antwerp to begin a new life in the Americas. Tinchant, who was of Afro-Haitian descent, had been born and raised in Pau, France, where he was exposed to the volatile French politics of post-Revolution and Napoleonic era. In 1857, his family moved to Antwerp to begin a transatlantic cigar business in partnership with his brothers living in New Orleans. Then, at 21 years old, Tinchant decided to join his brothers, ending up in New Orleans in 1862 amid the Civil War. Tinchant, charged with the revolutionary energy of the opportunity to shape a new way of governance in Louisiana, and the United States as a whole, took up both arms and a pen to fight for freedom. 2

Throughout the 1800s, while the wheels of slavery were turning across the Atlantic world, a small yet significant group of free black Caribbeans began to engage in this transoceanic exchange on their own terms. The Tinchants were one such family. Throughout the century, generations of Tinchants displayed their sense of mobility by making connections and claiming rights in Haiti, Cuba, the U.S. South, France and Belgium. By doing so, the Tinchants were engaging in a long-established pattern of exchange between Europe and the New World. Much like white Americans who traveled abroad and came back with new ideas, so too did black Americans. Edouard Tinchant, born and raised in France, made his way to New Orleans in 1862, diving into the political scene. During the Civil War, he joined the Union Army. After the war, he employed the French political thought he had been exposed to growing up to help construct one of the most radical state constitutions of the Reconstruction era in the United States. This constitution’s political effects, which emphasized public rights and denied any legal basis for separate but equal systems, can still be felt in the country today.3 Tinchant acted as a carrying agent of these French ideas in the American pattern of transatlantic exchange. By recounting his story and making him a political contributor, the story of the U.S. political ideology after the Civil War is redefined to encompass the significant contributions of black players.

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The transatlantic travels of the Tinchant family.4

Tinchant Family

The story of Eduoard Tinchant, as recounted by historian Rebecca Scott, begins in 1799 Saint-Domingue. His mother, Elizabeth Dieudonne, born in the midst of the Haitian Revolution, was the child of a free woman of color with slave ancestry.5 To assure Elizabeth and her mother’s freedom, her father drew up unofficial documents stating their freedom. With this fragile claim to liberty, Elizabeth and her family traveled to Santiago, Cuba in 1803, where the documents were certified.6 In 1809, the family was expelled from Cuba, along with around 10,000 other Haitians, and moved to New Orleans, when the conflict between France, under Napoleon, and Cuba brought mass scrutiny to the francophone peoples.7 The Haitian immigrants, 6,000 of whom were of African descent, marked around a 50% increase in the population of New Orleans between 1806 and 1809.8 It was in New Orleans in 1822 that Elizabeth and Jacques Tinchant married, subsequently bearing many children. While living in New Orleans, the Tinchant family began to build familial and economic connections across racial, political, and linguistic boundaries. 9

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The population of New Orleans increased dramatically with the influx of Haitian refugees from Cuba in 1809.1

However, in 1840, Jacques and Elizabeth decided to leave for France to gain greater rights, though their two oldest sons stayed behind in Louisiana. They set up a homestead on a farm in France, where their children, including Edouard Tinchant, are raised. In the culture of post-revolutionary, Napoleonic France, the family integrated into the community.11 In 1857, the Tinchants again moved to Antwerp, Belgium, where they established a transatlantic cigar business in partnership with their sons still in New Orleans. In 1861, Edouard Tinchant joined his brothers in New Orleans, directly into the conflict of the Civil War. That same year, Edouard voluntarily enlisted in the Union Army.12 In 1864, Edouard published a manifesto in the New Orleans Tribune that outlined his thoughts on the necessity of equality in citizenship and rights, clearly showing the influence of his French upbringing. In 1867, Edouard was called upon to join the Louisiana Constitution Convention and helped forge a radically new political environment in the state.13

Louisiana: Antebellum to Civil War Eras

From the time that the Tinchant family first landed in New Orleans to the 1868 Constitutional Convention, Louisiana had undergone a dramatic and often violent transformation. Throughout the heyday of the slave-holding, Antebellum South, Louisiana was a powerhouse of wealthy plantation owners. However, when war came to the state’s doorsteps in the 1860s, the future of slavery, and the economy as a whole, was uncertain. Though the Union Army captured new Orleans in 1862, the Union was hesitant to confront the wealthy and influential slave owners. When Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it freed many persons across the South. However, it was a tool of war, not of goodwill, and those slaves residing in Union-controlled territory remained in bondage. Hence, the future of Louisiana’s slave population remained in flux until the end of the war. 14

Despite the extreme racial disparities and questions surrounding slavery, Louisiana was also home to a large and vibrant community of free black people. Indeed, of the around 175,000 residents of New Orleans in the 1860s were 25,000 people of African descent.15 The state, ruled at different times by both the French and the Spanish, and harborer of the large international port of New Orleans, had an unique political, social and economic landscape when compared to the rest of the United States. Much of this international influence came from the population of black Carribeans, which only increased when the Tinchant family came in the group of Haitian refugees from Cuba in the early 1800s. In this environment, the Tinchants, and many others like them, were able to grow in social and economic influence. By the time that a constitutional convention was called at the end of the Civil War, many powerful black Caribbeans stepped up to oversee the transition to a new society.16 And when they did, they carried with them their transatlantic experiences and ideas, and implemented many ideas that reflected the political ideals of the French and Caribbean worlds at that time. By doing so, these lawmakers engaged in a long-established pattern of transfer of ideas in American political ideology and became the carrying agents in a new type of American democracy with a long-lasting impact on the political environment, even to this day.

The Louisiana Constitution of 1868 clearly outlined new standards of equality for all citizens and rejected any separate but equal institutions. Drawing on the French difference between civil, political, and public rights, the strength with which this constitution denounced discrimination based on race stands out in the legislation of its day.17 Following its ratification, the constitution was used in a host of cases of African Americans fighting discrimination.18 The response of the federal government following the Civil War, composed by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, failed to use language strong enough to offer this type of protection on a national level.19 This became apparent in the quick unwinding of strides made by Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow laws. While state by state fell to legalized racism, however, Louisiana activists continued to employ the language of the 1868 constitution to challenge separate but equal policies. Leveraging the case of Homer Plessy, Lousianans made a last ditch effort against the federal approval of Jim Crow laws. Though the case was lost, Plessy vs Ferguson became one of United States history’s most significant legal decisions. At a time when other black leaders, most notably Booker T. Washington, had chosen to stop fighting discrimination in the courts, black Louisianans were able to employ the strength of the 1868 constitution, which rang with the voices of Afro-Caribbeans, to make a stand for their rights.20

The influence of Edouard Tinchant, and many other Afro-Caribbeans, on U.S. democracy can be felt to this day. Just as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin traveled to France and brought back transformative new political ideas, Tinchant became a carrying agent in this transatlantic exchange. In a presentation on American Reconstruction and slavery given at Miami University in 2021, historian Eric Foner emphasized the importance of recognizing the influence of black Americans on the US legal system. Foner argued specifically for the lack of attention to the black voice when lawyers and judges analyze the constitution’s original intent. Even though many black legislators contributed to the creation and wording of constitutional amendments, specifically the 14th amendment, their voice is often overlooked. Consequently, the way laws are applied to legislation and court decisions today only highlights the traditional view of white male lawmakers.21 By recognizing and amplifying the substantial contributions of Edouard Tinchant, and others like him, our understanding of the making of American democracy is redefined.

  1. Extract from the reconstructed Constitution of the state of Louisiana, with portraits of the distinguished members of the Convention & Assembly, A.D. Louisiana, 1868. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98514397/.
  2. Rebecca J. Scott, “Public Rights and Private Commerce,” Current Anthropology 48, no. 2 (2007): pp. 237-256, https://doi.org/10.1086/510475.
  3. Scott, 2007.
  4. D-Maps. Map Northern Atlantic Ocean States. D-Maps. depose, 2021. https://d-maps.com/carte.php?num_car=3204&lang=en.
  5. Scott 2007, 238.
  6. Scott 2007, 239.
  7. Paul F. Lachance, “The 1809 Immigration of Saint-Domingue Refugees to New Orleans: Reception, Integration and Impact.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 29, no. 2 (1988): Accessed April 28, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4232650, 110.
  8. Lachance, 112.
  9. Scott 2007, 240-241.
  10. Lachance, 112.
  11. Scott 2007, 241-242.
  12. Scott 2007, 243-244.
  13. Scott 2007, 244-245.
  14.  Rebecca J. Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).
  15. NewOrleans.com. African American History in New Orleans, 2021. https://www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/multicultural/cultures/african-american/#:~:text=By%201860%2C%20the%20city’s%20population,a%20total%20of%20174%2C491%20people.
  16. Lawrence N Powell, “Why Louisiana Mattered,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 53, no. 4 (2012): pp. 389-401, https://doi.org/httos://www.jstor.org/stable/24396546.
  17.  Scott 2007, 246.
  18. Powell, 394.
  19. Eric Foner, “The Civil War, Reconstruction and the Problem of Freedom” (speech, Miami University, Virtual, April 5, 2021).
  20. Foner.
  21. Powell, 396-397.
Works Consulted

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Ferrer, Ada. “Speaking of Haiti: Slavery, Revolution, and Freedom in Cuban Testimony.” Essay. In Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, 223–47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Powell, Lawrence N. “Why Louisiana Mattered.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 53, no. 4 (2012): 389–401.

Scott, Rebecca J. Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Scott, Rebecca J. “Public Rights and Private Commerce.” Current Anthropology 48, no. 2 (2007): 237–56.

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