Barack Obama’s Forgotten Founding Father in Revolutionary France

To find the first mixed race leader in the West you need to go back to revolutionary France, writes biographer Tom Reiss.

Hulton Archive-Getty Images

It was a 21st-century moment at the end of the 18th century.

While being embedded for the last six years in the 18th century—the life of the biographer—I made a startling discovery: Barack Obama actually isn’t that interesting. True, many others have made this case, because they don’t like his policies or think he’s not sufficiently visionary. But I mean it in a way that doesn’t reflect on his choices but simply on the way he has been seen by history, as the first “post-racial” leader of the West’s leading democracy, a land where a red-white-and-blue ideology of liberty clashed with its treatment of people of African-American descent.

What I discovered is that Obama is not the man who first broke down such barriers—and ours is not the first generation to seize the “post-racial” moment. It’s all happened before and under circumstances more astounding than anything that could possibly play out in this election cycle.

The previous “post-racial” moment also came after decades of struggle in a great civil-rights movement, but this one did not take 150 years of false promises and false starts, the way our own did. In fact, it happened immediately on the heels of an emancipation proclamation that ended the world’s richest slave economy and nearly overnight produced a society in which men of color were able to strive for, and achieve, the highest offices.

That previous civil-rights movement took place in the ’50s and ’60s—the 1750s and 60s—under the last two kings of France, and when the crusading lawyers of that generation went toe-to-toe with the powerful, they won broad rights for their black clients. When the French Revolution arrived, in the early 1790s, slavery was abolished, black representatives were elected to the French parliament—many traveling across the ocean from the place that became Haiti—the first schools were integrated, and black officers began to distinguish themselves in the army. This last development produced a charismatic black general who became an inspirational leader for tens of thousands of white troops as the “King’s men” became the revolutionary army.

Perhaps the most outlandish thing about this previous historical breakthrough is that we are so unaware of it now. It has vanished as if without a trace from history.

Well, not entirely without a trace. France’s early and radical experiment with racial equality left a certain something that lingered on into the 20th century, in the sense that black artists and intellectuals—from Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes to Josephine Baker—would be attracted to Paris, and be celebrated there.

The general I was writing about lived on, too, in a stranger and more clandestine way—not as a historical figure but as part of the essential DNA of our culture’s most popular fictional heroes—from Batman to Jason Bourne. Most directly, we experience his story and character when we read—or watch—The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, because this man’s name was Alexandre Dumas—General Alexandre Dumas—and his famous son used his life as the basis of characters like D’Artagnan and Edmond Dantes.

Like our current president, Alex Dumas—as he liked to be known, with American-style casualness—was born and raised on a tropical island, far from the French mainland but still part of the republic. (Later he could accurately claim that he was born on his country’s soil.) He came to France when he was 14 and attended elite Paris schools, rising to the top based on his talents but having a troubled relationship with his father. Instead of becoming a lawyer and community organizer, he trained as a swordsman and became a four-star general. He led an army of 53,000 men during the revolutionary wars, where he made a name for himself not only by leading his men to victory in the most odds-defying situations but also by showing unflinching moral courage. When the French Revolution descended into the Terror, he risked his life to stand up for the innocents.

But the French Revolution was not only about Terror, and though there were many things wrong with it, there was one thing most modern people would see as marvelously right: it offered basic rights and opportunities to people regardless of the color of their skin. The revolutionary French governmental bodies admitted black and mixed-race representatives among their members as equals at a time when the American Congress would hardly admit a black person into its presence except to serve refreshments or sweep the floor. Most of these black representatives came from Saint Domingue, France’s richest colony, which would later emerge from its own violent revolution as Haiti. For a brief moment, the future people of Haiti felt the French Revolution belonged to them as well, that they were citizens of a new global republic that was smashing down racial barriers. And, hard as it seems to imagine, for a brief time, they were right.

I was drawn to General Dumas’s life because of its nonstop excitement and the resonance of its afterlife in his son’s novels. But it was remarkable in its own right for how high he rose in an all-European military—at a time when the military was the central institution of society—and for how little his color mattered to those he commanded or who commanded him. General Dumas was, as a historian of the period would write—in the 19th century, when this was all a dim memory—“a living emblem of the new equality.”

When I found the first short biographical portrait of him in existence—from 1797—it conveyed as much about the unique racial attitude of the time as it did about the man it was describing: a republic of liberty, it began, “does not stop to consider whether he was born in Europe or under the blazing sky of Africa, whether his face is the color of bronze or something closer to ebony. A negro’s feats of courage are every bit as deserving of admiration as those of a native of the Old World.”

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I found the same portrait reprinted in another French book published a decade later, in 1808, and every mention of General Dumas’s skin color had been excised. The article was half the length because it only described his military prowess and exploits, without ever once mentioning his race.

This was because in the space of that decade, the West’s first “post-racial” society had been legislated out of existence. The man behind all these new laws was Dumas’s fellow French general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who coopted the republic and made himself dictator. Behind Napoleon was the money and backing of the growers and traders who had lost a fortune during France’s decade-long experiment in racial equality. They wanted their plantations and slaves back, and Napoleon gave them this and more. He sent an army to the French West Indies with orders to re-impose slavery on people who had felt the French Revolution was their own. Any black officer in uniform, no matter how loyally he had served the republic, was killed or thrown in chains. The most famous example was Toussaint Louverture, another red-white-and-blue believer in the ideals of universal liberty, who was sent back to France to die in a dungeon.

General Dumas survived his own ordeal in a dungeon but lived to see his country’s color-blind meritocracy destroyed. Black officers in the French army were sent to work in the equivalent of chain gangs. Black legislators were kicked out of their jobs; integrated schools were closed. By the time General Dumas died, in 1806, his marriage to a white woman was illegal as was his residence as a man of color in the vicinity of Paris.

I can’t help thinking that if Alex Dumas had been American, he would be the subject of TV movies and school curricula. But in France, a country lousy with marble generals, his likeness is nowhere to be found.

Some would attribute this to the French Revolution’s rejection of racial and religious categories in favor of a universal definition of the citizen, unencumbered by “particularism.” (This concept of “universalism” makes it hard for the country to acknowledge its racial and religious minorities even today.) But the reasons France so thoroughly buried his memory may have been the opposite: not a perpetuation of its Revolution’s legacy on race but a suppression of it.

It’s tantalizing to imagine what might have happened had Napoleon not come along, flush with money from the colonial sugar lobby, and reestablished slavery and racial inequality. Would the Revolution have continued in its post-racial experiment? How would that have influenced the history of its revolutionary “sister republic,” the United States? Could the war hero Alex Dumas have gone on to elective office? Could France even have had a black president?

For America’s sake as well as France’s, it’s about time that General Alexandre Dumas and the original civil-rights movement were painted back into the picture.