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The Haitian Revolution provoked mixed reactions in the United States. Southern Slaveholders feared that the slave revolution might spread from the island of Hispaniola to the slave plantations of the Southern United States. They believed that the African people who they enslaved would be inspired by the Haitian Revolution. American merchants conducted a substantial trade with the plantations on Hispaniola (aka the French colony of Saint Domingue or Haiti). But 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 U.S. support the slave insurgents.[1]

Government policy

In 1791 Thomas Jefferson talked about gradual emancipation of U.S. slaves in his private correspondence with friends while publicly remaining silent on the issue.[2] 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.[2] 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 U.S. Jefferson had, in fact, pledged to help starve out Toussaint L'Ouverture, Haïti's rebel leader, but due to fears of the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte Jefferson refrained from such action.[2]

Haïti attempted to establish closer ties with the United States 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 1804. Dessalines sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson calling for closer ties between the two nations but Jefferson ignored the letter.[3]

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."[4] The debate on an embargo on Haïti heated up in Congress and civil society, but it was not all one-sided. Many[who?] were at least sympathetic to the Haïtian revolution, even those who would not characterize themselves as being anti-slavery. Some[who?] federalist newspapers, for example the Columbian Centinel, compared the Haïtian revolution and the struggle for independence from a European power, with the United States' own revolution for independence.[5]

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 U.S. 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] However despite this, official recognition did not happen until 1862, after the southern states had seceded from the United States.[9]

Southern white fears

In the South many white people thought[who?] that the revolution in Haïti could inspire similar events on their own land. Haïti had an official policy of accepting any black person who arrived on their shores as a citizen.[3]

The legislatures of Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as well as the Washington administration, sent help for the French whites of Saint-Domingue.[1] In the debate over whether the U.S. should embargo Haïti, John Taylor of South Carolina spoke for much of the popular sentiment of white people in the South. To him the Haïtian 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.[10] 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.[9]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Matthewson, Abraham Bishop, "The Rights of Black Men," and the American Reaction to the Haïtian Revolution, pp. 148-149
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 23
  3. 3.0 3.1 Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 24
  4. Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 29
  5. Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 30
  6. Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 33
  7. Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 32
  8. Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 35
  9. 9.0 9.1 Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 37
  10. Matthewson, Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haïti, p. 26


Further reading

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

External links

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