Interview: Thomas Bender, a scholar who views our nation’s history from a global perspective | HistoryNet MENU

Interview: Thomas Bender, a scholar who views our nation’s history from a global perspective

By Sarah Richardson
1/8/2018 • American History Magazine

What role has Haiti played in U.S. history?

The fact that the United States eventually emerged as a world power is a direct result of a revolution on the island—the largest slave revolt in world history—that led to the establishment of Haiti as an independent republic in 1803.

What is the connection?

America’s acquisition of the French territory of Louisiana is entirely attributable to the Haitian Revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte, who’d gotten Louisiana back from Spain in 1802, wanted it to be the breadbasket for the unbelievably rich French colony of St. Domingue—as Haiti was then known. When he lost St. Domingue within a year due to the slave revolt, he didn’t want Louisiana any more.

How did that affect America’s destiny?

Without the Louisiana Purchase, the United States might not have become a continental nation. Who knows? Without that transaction, American expansion could have stopped at the Mississippi River and the Russians might have settled the West.

What was Haiti like before the slave revolt?

By the square foot, St. Domingue was the richest place on earth because of the European demand for sugar. But it also had the greatest inequality in the world. Sugar cane production was dependent on enslaved Africans who represented 90 percent of the population, vastly outnumbering the small elite of wealthy landowners.

Were Haitians inspired by the American Revolution?

The leaders of the Haitian Revolution took their main inspiration from the French, whose own revolution had been influenced by the Americans. In 1787 the Marquis de Lafayette, a friend of George Washington and hero of the War for Independence, was drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in consultation with Thomas Jefferson, who was then the ambassador to France. Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to Washington, saying that storming the Bastille was the second event following what the American Revolution began. The Haitian Revolution turned out to be the third.

How did it begin?

There were many people of color—gens de couleur—who were mixed race. Many were powerful plantation owners, and many were in France. They traveled, were cosmopolitan and wanted citizenship. There was a big debate, and they did get citizenship. But the contagion of freedom and equality spread. In 1791 the slaves of St. Domingue rose in revolt and plunged the colony into civil war. During the turbulent decade that followed, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former domestic slave and brilliant military leader, eventually restored control. He made himself master of the island and promised citizenship for all without regard to color.

Did the United States support the Haitian revolutionaries?

Trade with Haiti was vital after the War for Independence because the British wanted to shut America out of the Caribbean and so did the Spanish. President John Adams maintained a neutral stance publicly as the Haitian Revolution unfolded. But he encouraged trade in vital supplies and sent an envoy to tell Toussaint that if he decided to declare independence from France, the United States would not object. It was a very powerful statement.

How did other Founders respond to the Haitian Revolution?

The revolt played a part in heightening divisions between Federalists and Republicans. Though their positions were complex and shifting—driven by the ever-changing Atlantic diplomacy caused by the contest between Britain and Napoleonic France—it is fair to say that John Adams and the Federalists were generally sympathetic to the Haitian Revolution, while Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans were consistently less so. That contributed to the tensions that resulted in the invention of the American system of political parties, something not anticipated in the Constitution.

What was Jefferson’s policy toward Haiti after he became president?

It’s ironic that Adams, one of the most conservative presidents in American history, was the strongest supporter of the revolutionary movement in St. Domingue, whereas Jefferson, who spoke of the need to “water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants and patriots,” refused to recognize the independence of Haiti in 1804 and subsequently instituted a trade embargo.

Why?

Mainly he was afraid black Haitians would be a living example that slaves could revolt and become free. Before he became president, he wrote to James Monroe that he feared whites would be expelled from the West Indies. He told someone else, “The revolutionary storm sweeping the globe will be upon us.” He was hysterical about what all this might mean for the South.

Yet Haitian independence also led to the Louisiana Purchase.

That is the ultimate irony of all this. Jefferson, who had no sympathy for the Haitian Revolution, owed to it the most important achievement of his presidency: the purchase for roughly $15 million of the 863,000 square miles that comprised Louisiana. And it literally fell in Jefferson’s lap. Napoleon proposed the whole thing.

How did Louisiana fit into Jefferson’s vision for America?

It was crucial for Ohio Valley farmers, Jefferson’s favored class, to get their products to market. And for that they needed access to the port of New Orleans. Jefferson was a proponent of commercial farming. With access to markets, the new territory would, he declared, preserve rural virtue “to the thousandth generation.”

When did the United States recognize Haiti?

The issue came up again in Congress in the 1820s, and Southern senators refused to accept a nation formed by black slaves who rebelled against white slaveholders. “Our policy with regard to Haiti is plain,” insisted Senator Robert V. Hayne of South Carolina. “We never can acknowledge her independence.” That remained our country’s policy until 1862, when the Lincoln administration finally recognized Haiti.

How did America’s prolonged lack of recognition affect Haiti?

One of the roots of Haiti’s instability is that the United States was a crucial market that they were denied early on. Moreover, when the French finally recognized Haiti in the 1820s, they demanded reparations beyond Haiti’s capacity to pay. And the U.S. Marines’ occupation of Haiti from 1917 to 1934 did not help. We’re still seeing some of the consequences of those external forces, although there were all kinds of political catastrophes that were the Haitians’ fault as well.

Did American attitudes toward Haiti change over time?

During Reconstruction, the South used Haiti as an argument not to free the slaves, not to build them up, make them citizens. They claimed it would be a repeat of Haiti.

What was the view of American blacks?

Black Americans long recognized the importance of the Haitian Revolution. News traveled fast. In 1822 Denmark Vesey, a former slave who spent part of his childhood in St. Domingue and managed to purchase his freedom after his master moved him to the States, planned a slave revolt in Charleston. He justified it with the language from the Declaration of Independence, scheduled it for Bastille Day—July 14—and anticipated assistance from Haiti. The Boston free black David Walker in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829 declared: “Hayti [is] the glory of the blacks and terror of tyrants.” And at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Frederick Douglass celebrated the Haitian Revolution for advancing “the cause of human liberty and equality throughout the world.”

 

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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