Though Toussaint did not sever ties with France, his actions in 1800 constituted a de facto autonomous colony. The colony's constitution proclaimed him governor for life even against Napoleon Bonaparte's wishes. He died betrayed before the final and most violent stage of the armed conflict. However, his achievements set the grounds for the Black army's absolute victory and for Jean-Jacques Dessalines to declare the sovereign state of Haiti in January 1804. Toussaint's prominent role in the Haitian success over colonialism and slavery had earned him the admiration of friends and detractors alike.
Toussaint Louverture began his military career as a leader of the 1791 slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue; he was by then a free black man and a Jacobin. Initially allied with the Spaniards of neighboring Santo Domingo (modern Dominican Republic), Toussaint switched allegiance to the French when they abolished slavery. He gradually established control over the whole island and used political and military tactics to gain dominance over his rivals. Throughout his years in power, he worked to improve the economy and security of Saint-Domingue. He restored the plantation system using paid labour, negotiated trade treaties with the UK and the United States, and maintained a large and well-disciplined army.
In 1801, he promulgated an autonomist constitution for the colony, with himself as Governor-General for Life. In 1802 he was forced to resign by forces sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to restore French authority in the former colony. He was deported to France, where he died in 1803. The Haitian Revolution continued under his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared independence on January 1, 1804. The French had lost two-thirds of forces sent to the island in an attempt to suppress the revolution; most died of yellow fever.
Almost nothing is known for certain about Toussaint L'ouverture's early life, as there are contradictory accounts and evidence about this period. The earliest records of his life are his recorded remarks and the reminiscences of his second legitimate son Isaac Louverture. Most histories identify Toussaint's father as Gaou Guinou, a younger son of the King of Allada (also spelled Arrada), a West African historical kingdom located in modern-day Benin, who had been captured in war and sold into slavery. His mother Pauline was Gaou Guinou's second wife. The couple had several children, of whom Toussaint was the eldest son. Pierre Baptiste Simon is usually considered to have been his godfather.
Toussaint is thought to have been born on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue, which was owned by the Comte de Noé and later managed by Bayon de Libertat. His date of birth is uncertain, but his name suggests he was born on All Saints Day. He was probably about 50 at the start of the revolution in 1791. Various sources have given birth dates between 1739 and 1746. Because of the lack of written records, Toussaint himself may not have known his exact birth date. In childhood, he earned the nickname Fatras-Bâton, suggesting he was small and weak, though he was to become known for his stamina and riding prowess.An alternative explanation of Toussaint's origins is that he arrived at Bréda with a new overseer (Bayon de Libertat) who took up his duties in 1772.
Toussaint is believed to have been well educated by his godfather Pierre Baptiste. Historians have speculated as to Toussaint's intellectual background. His extant letters demonstrate a command of French in addition to Creole; he was familiar with Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who had lived as a slave; and his public speeches as well as his life's work, according to his biographers, show a familiarity with Machiavelli. Some cite Abbé Raynal, who wrote against slavery, as a possible influence: The wording of the proclamation issued by then rebel slave leader Toussaint on August 29, 1793, which may have been the first time he publicly used the moniker "Louverture", seems to refer to an anti-slavery passage in Abbé Raynal's "A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies."
He may also have received some education from Jesuit missionaries. His medical knowledge is attributed to familiarity with African herbal-medical techniques as well those techniques commonly found in Jesuit-administered hospitals. A few legal documents signed on Toussaint's behalf between 1778 and 1781 raise the possibility that he could not write at that time. Throughout his military and political career, he made use of secretaries for most of his correspondence. A few surviving documents in his own hand confirm that he could write, though his spelling in the French language was "strictly phonetic."
In 1782, Toussaint married Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture, who is thought to have been his cousin or his godfather's daughter. Towards the end of his life, he told General Caffarelli that he had fathered 16 children, of whom 11 had predeceased him. Not all his children can be identified for certain, but his three legitimate sons are well known. The eldest, Placide, was probably adopted by Toussaint and is generally thought to be Suzanne's first child with a mulatto, Seraphim Le Clerc. The two sons born of his marriage with Suzanne were Isaac and Saint-Jean.
Until recently, historians believed that Toussaint had been a slave until the start of the revolution. The discovery of a marriage certificate dated 1777 shows that he was freed in 1776 at the age of 33. This find retrospectively clarified a letter of 1797, in which he said he had been free for twenty years. It seems he still maintained an important role on the Breda plantation until the outbreak of the revolution, presumably as a salaried employee. He had initially been responsible for the livestock, but by 1791, his responsibilities most likely included acting as coachman to the overseer, de Libertat, and as a slave-driver, charged with organising the work force.
As a free man, Toussaint began to accumulate wealth and property. Surviving legal documents show him renting a small coffee plantation worked by a dozen of his slaves. He would later say that by the start of the revolution, he had acquired a reasonable fortune, and was the owner of a number of properties and slaves at Ennery.
Throughout his life, Toussaint was known as a devout Roman Catholic. Although Vodou was generally practiced on Saint-Domingue in combination with Catholicism, little is known for certain if Toussaint had any connection with it. Officially as ruler of Saint-Domingue, he discouraged it.
Historians have suggested that he was a member of high degree of the Masonic Lodge of Saint-Domingue, mostly based on a Masonic symbol he used in his signature. The membership of several free blacks and white men close to him has been confirmed.
Beginning in 1789, free people of color of Saint-Domingue were inspired by the French Revolution to seek an expansion of their rights. Initially, the slave population did not become involved in the conflict. In August 1791, a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman marked the start of a major slave rebellion in the north. Toussaint apparently did not take part in the earliest stages of the rebellion, but after a few weeks he sent his family to safety in Spanish Santo Domingo and helped the overseers of the Breda plantation to leave the island. He joined the forces of Georges Biassou as doctor to the troops, commanding a small detachment. Surviving documents show him participating in the leadership of the rebellion, discussing strategy, and negotiating with the Spanish supporters of the rebellion for supplies.
In December 1791, he was involved in negotiations between rebel leaders and the French Governor, Blanchelande, for the release of their white prisoners and a return to work in exchange for a ban on the use of the whip, an extra non-working day per week, and freedom for a handful of leaders. When the offer was rejected, he was instrumental in preventing the massacre of Biassou's white prisoners. The prisoners were released after further negotiations with the French commissioners and taken to Le Cap by Toussaint. He hoped to use the occasion to present the rebellion's demands to the colonial assembly, but they refused to meet with him.
Throughout 1792, Toussaint, as a leader in an increasingly formal alliance between the black rebellion and the Spanish, ran the fortified post of La Tannerie and maintained the Cordon de l'Ouest, a line of posts between rebel and colonial territory. He gained a reputation for running an orderly camp, trained his men in guerrilla tactics and "the European style of war", and began to attract soldiers who would play an important role throughout the revolution. After hard fighting, he lost La Tannerie in January 1793 to the French General Étienne Maynaud, but it was in these battles that the French first recognised him as a significant military leader.
Some time in 1792-93, Toussaint adopted the surname Louverture, from the French word for "opening" or "the one who opened the way". Although some modern writers spell his adopted surname with an apostrophe, as in "L'Ouverture", Toussaint himself did not, as his extant correspondence indicates. The most common explanation is that it refers to his ability to create openings in battle, and it is sometimes attributed to French commissioner Polverel's exclamation: "That man makes an opening everywhere". However, some writers think it was more prosaically due to a gap between his front teeth.
Despite adhering to royalist political views, Louverture had begun to use the language of freedom and equality associated with the French Revolution. From being willing to bargain for better conditions of slavery late in 1791, he had become committed to its complete abolition. On 29 August 1793 he made his famous declaration of Camp Turel to the blacks of St Domingue:
On the same day, the beleaguered French commissioner, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, proclaimed emancipation for all slaves in French Saint-Domingue, hoping to bring the black troops over to his side. Initially, this failed, perhaps because Toussaint and the other leaders knew that Sonthonax was exceeding his authority. However, on 4 February 1794, the French revolutionary government proclaimed the abolition of slavery. For months, Louverture had been in diplomatic contact with the French general Étienne Maynaud de Bizefranc de Lavaux. During this time, competition between him and other rebel leaders was growing, and the Spanish had started to look with disfavour on his near-autonomous control of a large and strategically important region. In May 1794, when the decision of the French government became known in Saint-Domingue, Louverture switched allegiance from the Spanish to the French and rallied his troops to Lavaux.