United States and the Haitian Revolution

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The Haitian Revolution provoked mixed reactions in the United States when in 1804, after a 13-year campaign, Haitian slaves, mainly led by Toussaint Louverture, overthrew the French colonial rule and declared Haiti an independent emancipated state. This led to uneasiness in the US, instilling fears of racial instability on its own soil and possible problems with foreign relations and trade between the two countries.

US president Thomas Jefferson realized the revolution had the potential to cause an upheaval against slavery in the US not only by slaves, but by white abolitionists as well. Southern slaveholders feared the revolt might spread from the island of Hispaniola to their own plantations. Against this background and with the declared primary goal of maintaining social order in Haiti, the US attempted to suppress the revolution, refusing acknowledgement of Haitian independence until 1862, during the heat of the American Civil War when southern slaveholders who had opposed recognition largely left the Senate.

The US also embargoed trade with the nascent state. American merchants had conducted a substantial trade with the plantations on Hispaniola throughout the 18th century, the French-ruled territory providing nearly all of its sugar and coffee. However, once the Haitian slave population emancipated itself, the US was reluctant to continue trade for fear of upsetting the evicted French on one hand and its Southern slaveholders on the other.

Against this, there were anti-slavery advocates in northern cities who believed that consistency with the principles of the American Revolution — life, liberty and equality for all — demanded that the US support the Haitian people.

One positive outcome of the Haitian Revolution for the US was the Louisiana Purchase. Having lost his control of the Caribbean landholding, Napoleon saw no further use for Louisiana. The US was only interested in the New Orleans area; however, the revolution enabled the sale of the entire territory west of the Mississippi River for around $15 million. This purchase more than doubled US territory.[1][2][3][4][5]

Government policy[edit]

When the news of the August 1791 slave revolt in Saint Domingue reached then-President Washington, he immediately sent aid to the white government there.[6]

In 1791 Thomas Jefferson talked about gradual emancipation of US slaves in his private correspondence with friends while publicly remaining silent on the issue.[7] However, by the time that the revolution was coming to an end and the debate over an embargo began, Jefferson's attitude shifted to support for the continuation of slavery.[7] Louis Andre Pichon, the chargé d’affaires of France, felt that Jefferson would help to put down the slaves due to the fear of black rebellion in the US. Jefferson had, in fact, pledged to help starve out Toussaint Louverture, Haïti's rebel leader, but due to fears of the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte Jefferson refrained from such action.[7]

Haïti attempted to establish closer ties with the US during the Jefferson administration, but this was difficult to do, in part because of the massacres of French whites in Haïti by Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the 1804 Haiti Massacre. Dessalines sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson calling for closer ties between the two nations but Jefferson ignored the letter.[8]

Jefferson had wanted to align with the European powers in an effort to isolate Haïti, but was unsuccessful due to Britain's lack of interest in joining the proposed accord. France pressured for the end of American trade with Haïti, which they saw as aiding a rogue element in their colony. Jefferson agreed to cease trade in arms, but would not give up trade for noncontraband goods. Madison, commenting on the agreement to discontinue the arms trade, said that "it is probably the interest of all nations that they should be kept out of hands likely to make so bad use of them."[9] The debate on an embargo on Haïti heated up in Congress and civil society, but it was not all one-sided. Federalist newspaper Columbian Centinel compared the Haitian revolution and the struggle for independence from a European power, with the Americans' own revolution for independence.[10]

However, in Congress the proponents of an embargo had the clear advantage. Though the policy of John Adams was more constrained than others, it was still in favor of an arms embargo on Haïti. Federalists were in favor of his policy because they felt it would help to solidify US dominance over the politics and economy of the country, and would help to bring security to white people in the South who were fearful of a hemisphere-wide slave revolt. However, many white people in the South thought Adams' pragmatic policy went too far and was equivalent to full-scale relations with Haïti. While such white people ignored oppression, exploitation and atrocities against enslaved Africans by white slave-traders, and by white slave-owners in Haiti and the USA (and indeed, carried out such abuses themselves), they were adamantly against reaching an agreement with people who had committed atrocities against slave-owners.[11] When George Logan introduced a bill that would outlaw all trade with Saint-Domingue that was not under French control, it signalled a shift to the side of the hard-liners. Weapons could only be aboard ships for their own protection, and any violators of the embargo would lose their cargo as well as their ships.[12] The embargo bill introduced by George Logan was adopted in February 1806, and then renewed again the next year, until it expired in April 1808. Another embargo had been adopted in 1807 and this one lasted until 1810, though trade did not again take place until the 1820s.[13] However, despite this, official recognition did not happen until 1862, after the southern states had seceded from the US.[14]

Southern fears[edit]

In the South, white planters viewed the revolution as a large-scale slave revolt and feared that violence in Haïti could inspire similar events in the US. Haïti had an official policy of accepting any black person who arrived on their shores as a citizen.[8]

The legislatures of Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as well as the Washington administration, sent help for the French whites of Saint-Domingue.[5] In the debate over whether the US should embargo Haïti, John Taylor of South Carolina spoke for much of the popular sentiment of white people in the South. To him the Haitian revolution was evidence for the idea that "slavery should be permanent in the United States." He argued against the idea that slavery had caused the revolution, by instead suggesting that "the antislavery movement had provoked the revolt in the first place." According to historian Tim Matthewson, John Taylor's comments in the debate shows how white attitudes shifted in the south from one of reluctantly accepting slavery as a necessity, to one of seeing it as a fundamental aspect of southern culture and the slave-owning planter class.[15] As the years progressed Haïti only became a bigger target for scorn amongst the pro-slavery factions in the south. It was taken as proof that "violence was an inherent part of the character of blacks" due to the slaughtering of French whites, and the authoritarian rule that followed the end of the revolution - while this logical fallacy required ignoring the violent and authoritarian rule of white people over enslaved Africans, as well as its psychological effects on those Africans.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Matthewson, Timothy M. "George Washington's Policy Toward the Haitian Revolution*". Oxford Journals. 3 (3): 321–336. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1979.tb00318.x. 
  2. ^ Calvin, Matthew, J. Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. ISBN 9780812242058. 
  3. ^ Popkin, Jeremy, D. A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2012. ISBN 9781405198202. 
  4. ^ Dubois, Laurent. "Two Revolutions In The Atlantic World: Connections Between The American Revolution and The Haitian Revolution". Gilder Lehrman. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Retrieved 16 July 2017. 
  5. ^ a b Matthewson, Abraham Bishop, "The Rights of Black Men," and the American Reaction to the Haitian Revolution, pp. 148-149
  6. ^ Stinchcombe, William. "Review of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volume 10; Presidential Series, Volume 9". The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia. Retrieved November 14, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 23
  8. ^ a b Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 24
  9. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 29
  10. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 30
  11. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 33
  12. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 32
  13. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 35
  14. ^ a b Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 37
  15. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 26


  • Matthewson, Tim (Summer 1982). "Abraham Bishop, "The Rights of Black Men," and the American Reaction to the Haitian Revolution". The Journal of Negro History. 67 (2): 148–154. doi:10.2307/2717572. JSTOR 2717572. 
  • Matthewson, Tim (March 1996). "Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 140 (1): 22–48. JSTOR 987274. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Gordon (2005). Toussaint's Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press. ISBN 1-57806-711-1. 
  • Matthewson, Tim (2003). A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations During the Early Republic. Westport: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-98002-2. 
  • Hinks, Peter; et al. (2007). Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Westport: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33144-8.