United States and the Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and the subsequent emancipation of Haiti as an independent state provoked mixed reactions in the United States. Among many white Americans this led to uneasiness, instilling fears of racial instability on its own soil and possible problems with foreign relations and trade between the two countries; among enslaved black Americans it fueled hope that the principles of the recent American Revolution might be realized in their own liberation.

US president Thomas Jefferson recognized that 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 , refusing acknowledgement of Haitian independence until 1862.

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 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]

Perception of the enslavedEdit

In the 1998 documentary series Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery Douglas R. Egerton of the Le Moyne College Department of History said,[6]

All of the American newspapers covered events in Saint-Domingue in a great deal of detail. All Americans understood what was happening there. It wasn't that the revolution in Saint-Domingue taught mainland slaves to be rebellious or to resist their bondage. They had always done so, typically as individuals who stole themselves and ran away, sometimes in small groups, who tried to get to the frontier and build maroon colonies and rebuild African societies.

But the revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue, led by Toussaint Louverture, were not trying to pull down the power of their absentee masters, but join those masters on an equal footing in the Atlantic World. And the revolt in Haiti reminded American slaves, who were still enthusiastic about the promise of 1776, that not only could liberty be theirs if they were brave enough to try for it, but that equality with the master class might be theirs if they were brave enough to try. For black Americans, this was a terribly exciting moment, a moment of great inspiration. And for the southern planter class, it was a moment of enormous terror.

Government policyEdit

Under Washington and AdamsEdit

When the news of the August 1791 slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (the name of the French colony which would become Haiti) reached then-President Washington, he immediately sent aid to the white government there.[7] Then-U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton[8]: 22  and other Federalists supported Toussaint Louverture's revolution against France in Haiti, which had originated as a slave revolt. Hamilton's suggestions helped shape the Haitian constitution. In 1804 when Haiti became the Western Hemisphere's first independent state with a majority of the population being black, Hamilton urged closer economic and diplomatic ties.[8]: 23 

Hamilton and Timothy Pickering worked to convince John Adams to appoint Edward Stevens as the United States consul-general in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) from 1799 to 1800.[9] Adams sent Stevens to Haiti with instructions to establish a relationship with Toussaint and express support for his regime.[10] The Federalist administration hoped to incite a movement toward Haitian independence, but Louverture maintained a colonial relationship with France.[11] Stevens's title, "consul", suggested a diplomat attached to a country not a colony, reflecting the Adams administration's view of the Haitian situation.[11] Following his arrival in Haiti in April 1799, Stevens succeeded in accomplishing several of his objectives, including: the suppression of privateers operating out of the colony, protections for American lives and property, and right of entry for American vessels.[12] Stevens pushed for similar privileges for the British, who, like the United States were engaged in conflict with France. Negotiations between Haiti and Britain were difficult given Haitian apprehension about a possible British invasion and Britain's fears of the revolt leading to unrest in the British West Indies. Stevens was forced to serve as the British agent for a period since the Haitians remained opposed to allowing a British official to land in the colony.[13] The convention, signed on June 13, 1799, continued an armistice among the three parties and gave protections to British and American merchantmen from Haitian privateers, in addition to allowing American and British ships to enter Haiti and engage in free trade.[14]

Under Jefferson and afterwardEdit

In 1791 Thomas Jefferson talked about gradual emancipation of US slaves in his private correspondence with friends while publicly remaining silent on the issue.[15] However, by the time that the revolution was coming to an end and the debate over an embargo began, Jefferson's attitude shifted to fully avoiding the issue.[15] 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.[15]

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.[16]

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."[17] 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.[18]

However, in Congress the proponents of an embargo had the clear advantage. Many white people in the South thought Jefferson's neutrality 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 whites, including white women and children. In parallel to the killings, plundering and rape also occurred. Women and children were generally killed last. White women were "often raped or pushed into forced marriages under threat of death. [19] 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.[20] 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.[21] However, despite this, official recognition did not happen until 1862, after the southern states had seceded from the US.[22]

Fears and racial animus of white SouthernersEdit

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. Haiti had an official policy of accepting any black person who arrived on their shores as a citizen.[16]

The legislatures of Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as well as the Washington administration, dispatched aid to French colonists in Saint-Domingue.[5] In the debate over whether the U.S. should embargo Haiti after it became independent, 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.[23] As the years progressed Haiti 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.[22]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Matthewson, Timothy M. (1979). "George Washington's Policy Toward the Haitian Revolution*". Diplomatic History. 3 (3): 321–336. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1979.tb00318.x.
  2. ^ Calvin, Matthew, J (2010). 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 (2012). 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. ^ Jones, Jacquie (1998). "Brotherly Love (1776-1834)". Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery. Episode 3. WGBH Educational Foundation. 8:00 minutes in. WGBH. Transcript. Retrieved September 19, 2020 – via Alexander Street Press. See also Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery: Brotherly Love (1776-1834) at IMDb.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ a b Horton, James Oliver (2004). "Alexander Hamilton: slavery and race in a revolutionary generation" (PDF). New-York Journal of American History. 65: 16–24. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
  9. ^ CDSB 2008.
  10. ^ Bender 2006, p. 108.
  11. ^ a b Girard 2009, p. 100.
  12. ^ Treudley 1916, p. 134.
  13. ^ Treudley 1916, p. 135-137.
  14. ^ Treudley 1916, p. 136.
  15. ^ a b c Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 23
  16. ^ a b Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 24
  17. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 29
  18. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 30
  19. ^ , Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 33
  20. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 32
  21. ^ Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 35
  22. ^ a b Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 37
  23. ^ 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. S2CID 149984332.
  • Matthewson, Tim (March 1996). "Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 140 (1): 22–48. JSTOR 987274.

Further readingEdit

  • Brown, Gordon (2005). Toussaint's Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press. ISBN 978-1-57806-711-4.
  • Matthewson, Tim (2003). A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations During the Early Republic. Westport: Praeger. ISBN 978-0-275-98002-3.
  • Hinks, Peter; et al. (2007). Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Westport: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-33144-2.