Though Born a Slave, the Ladies Considered Venerable Pierre Toussaint “A Finished Gentleman”

March 2, 2023

Ven. Pierre Toussaint was declared venerable in 1996.

It was a striking trait in his character, that everything in which he engaged was thoroughly done; there was a completeness in his plans, and their execution, which commanded confidence, and which perhaps was one of the causes of the respect which he inspired. This sometimes led ladies to say, that Toussaint “was a finished gentleman.” His moral qualities, however, gave him this distinction; for with the most perfect modesty he knew exactly what was due to others and to himself, while his heart overflowed with that Christian kindness which far surpasses mere worldly politeness. He was observant of all the forms of the Roman Catholic Church; through winter and summer he missed no matin prayers, but his heart was never narrowed by any feeling as to sect or color. He never felt degraded by being a black man, or even a slave; for he considered himself as much the object of Divine protection as any other human being. He understood the responsibility, the greatness, of the part allotted him; that he was to serve God and his fellowmen, and so fulfill the duties of the situation in which he was placed. There was something truly noble and great in the view that he took of his own nature and responsibility. No failure on the part of the master could in his opinion absolve a slave from his duty. His own path was marked out; he considered it a straight one and easy to follow, and he followed it through life. He was born and brought up in St. Domingo at a period which can never return. In the large circle around him there were no speculations upon freedom or human liberty, and on those subjects his mind appears to have been perfectly at rest. When he resided in New York, he still preserved the same tranquil, contented state of mind, yet that he considered emancipation a blessing, he proved, by gradually accumulating a sum sufficient to purchase his sister’s freedom. It was not his own ransom for which he toiled, but Rosalie’s, as has been previously said, for he wished that she might take her station as a matron among the free women of New York. But he does not appear to have entertained any inordinate desire for his own freedom. He was fulfilling his duty in the situation in which his Heavenly Father chose to place him, and that idea gave him peace and serenity. When his mistress on her deathbed presented him his liberty, he most gratefully received it; and we fully believe he would not have suffered any earthly power to wrest it from him.

A typical lady of New York’s high society in the early 19th century.

There are many in the present day who will view this state of mind as degrading, who consider the slave absolved, by his great primary wrong of bondage, from all obligation to the slaveholder. Not such was Toussaint’s idea. He did not ask, like Darwin’s African slave, “Am I not a man and a brother?” but he felt that he was a man and a brother. It was the high conception of his own nature, as derived from eternal justice, that made him serene and self-possessed. He was deeply impressed with the character of Christ; he heard a sermon from Dr. Channing, which he often quoted: “My friends,” said Channing, “Jesus can give you nothing so precious as Himself, as his own mind. May this mind be in you. Do not think that any faith in Him can do you good, if you do not try to be pure and true like Him.” We trust many will recognize the teachings of the Savior in Toussaint’s character.


Hannah Sawyer Lee, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint: Born a Slave in St. Domingo, 2nd rev. ed. (Sunbury, Penn.: Western Hemisphere Cultural Society, 1992), 46–49.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 868


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