Saint-Domingue had the largest and wealthiest free population of color in the Caribbean; they were known as the gens de couleur. The royal census of 1789 counted roughly 25,000 such persons. While many free people of color were former slaves, most members of this class were mulattoes, of mixed French/European and African ancestry. Typically, they were the descendants of the enslaved women and French colonists. As in New Orleans, a system of plaçage developed, in which white men had a kind of common-law marriage with slave or free mistresses, and provided for them with a dowry, sometimes freedom, and often education or apprenticeships for their mixed-race children. Some such descendants of planters inherited considerable property. As their numbers grew, they were made subject to discriminatory colonial legislation. Statutes forbade gens de couleur from taking up certain professions, marrying whites, wearing European clothing, carrying swords or firearms in public, or attending social functions where whites were present.
Since 1758 white homeowners on Hispaniola began to restrict rights and create laws to exclude mulattoes and blacks, establishing a rigid class system. There were ten black people for every white one. In France, the majority of the Estates General, an advisory body to the King, constituted itself as the National Assembly, made radical changes in French laws, and on 26 August 1789, published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, declaring all men free and equal. The French Revolution shaped the course of the conflict in Saint-Domingue and was at first widely welcomed on the island. At first, wealthy whites saw it as an opportunity to gain independence from France. The elite planters intended to take control of the island and create trade regulations to further their own wealth and power