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Haiti and the Early United States

Summary and Keywords

Haiti (known as Saint-Domingue until it gained its independence from France in 1804) had a noted economic and political impact on the United States during the era of the American Revolution, when it forced U.S. statesmen to confront issues they had generally avoided, most prominently racism and slavery. But the impact of the Haitian Revolution was most tangible in areas like commerce, territorial expansion, and diplomacy. Saint-Domingue served as a staging ground for the French military and navy during the American Revolution and provided troops to the siege of Savannah in 1779. It became the United States’ second-largest commercial partner during the 1780s and 1790s. After Saint-Domingue’s slaves revolted in 1791, many of its inhabitants found refuge in the United States, most notably in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans. Fears (or hopes) that the slave revolt would spread to the United States were prevalent in public opinion. As Saint-Domingue achieved quasi-autonomous status under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, it occupied a central place in the diplomacy of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase was made possible in part by the failure of a French expedition to Saint-Domingue in 1802–1803. Bilateral trade declined after Saint-Domingue acquired its independence from France in 1804 (after which Saint-Domingue became known as Haiti), but Haiti continued to loom large in the African-American imagination, and there were several attempts to use Haiti as a haven for U.S. freedmen. The U.S. diplomatic recognition of Haiti also served as a reference point for antebellum debates on slavery, the slave trade, and the status of free people of color in the United States.

Keywords: Haiti, slavery, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Toussaint Louverture, Louisiana Purchase

Though the notion may seem preposterous today, the United States and Saint-Domingue (Haiti’s name before it declared its independence from France in 1804) had much in common in their early history. Both began as colonies of a northwestern European power before waging the first and second successful wars of independence in the Americas, respectively. Both relied on European and enslaved African labor after the initial European settlers had displaced or eradicated the bulk of the Amerindian population. The similarities between the plantation economic model of the southern United States and that of Saint-Domingue were many, as were the economic ties between U.S. ports such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston and Dominguan ports such as Port-au-Prince and Cap-Français (today: Cap-Haïtien). Both witnessed the great Atlantic revolutions of the late 18th century, the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), which were intertwined in many ways.

In one important respect, however, Saint-Domingue and the United States diverged; the proportion of enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue, at 90 percent of the population, was far greater than in any U.S. state, which made the issue of slavery more immediate and explosive in Saint-Domingue than in the United States (the highest percentage of slaves in a state’s population, in the 1790 U.S. census, was 42 percent in South Carolina). The demographic and economic weight of free people of color of Saint-Domingue, a population almost as large as the white population at the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution (each of them representing about 5 percent of Saint-Domingue’s population in 1789), was another variable with important implications for the debate on racial equality.

The Haitian Revolution, which led to legal equality for people of color, the abolition of slavery, and independent black rule, was accordingly more radical than its American counterpart, where slave-owning white planters dominated the early political scene and where the full abolition of slavery did not take place until 1865. The Haitian Revolution was truly a revolution: it led to profound political and social change. The American Revolution’s main consequence was self-government by existing elites, so a more apt label would be the U.S. War of Independence.

And yet, the many economic and migratory ties between Saint-Domingue and the United States meant that the two revolutions and the two post-independence countries did not develop in complete autonomy from one another but rather influenced one another (the same was true of the French and Haitian Revolutions).

Haiti and the Early United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 1. British caricature associating the French and the Haitian revolutions. Richard Newton, A Real Sans Culotte!! (1792).

Courtesy of the British Museum.

The startling example of the Haitian Revolution forced U.S. statesmen to confront racial and labor issues that they had largely sidestepped in their own country—not always with positive consequences, because the fear of revolutionary contagion led to harsher labor regulations in the U.S. South. Slavery’s “second wind” and the decline of abolitionism in the United States in the early 19th century, usually attributed to the rise of cotton, could thus also be linked to fears of black emancipation in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. Conversely, the need to maintain commercial relations with the United States forced Haitian statesmen to water down some of their racial and social agenda—not always with positive consequences, because Haiti largely refrained from trying to end slavery in nearby plantation systems for fear of alienating commercial partners like the United States. Put differently, contemporaneity and interaction did not necessarily lead to convergence but to overlap, opposition, and interplay. The two revolutions acted like magnets that alternately attracted and repelled one another.

Saint-Domingue’s Military Contribution to the American Revolution, 1775–1783

The American rebels’ struggle against Great Britain (1775–1783) was followed intently in Saint-Domingue, where the white planter class had similar grievances against France, notably lack of political representation (dictature ministérielle), unfair taxation, and restrictive trade practices (exclusif). Though concerned that the U.S. War of Independence would set a bad example for their own colonies, France and Spain joined the war against Britain, in part to avenge previous losses in the Seven Years War (1756–1763), in part for fear that an Anglo-American reconciliation would lead to a joint attack on French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. The king of France signed a formal Treaty of Alliance with the American rebels in 1778, which stipulated that France would join the war on the rebel side, in exchange for which the United States would help protect “from the present time and forever . . . the present possessions of the crown of France in America” (art. 11), of which Saint-Domingue was the most valuable by far.

Haiti and the Early United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 2. Map of the Caribbean c. 1802.

Courtesy of Philippe Girard.

Aside from small cod fisheries near Canada, Saint-Domingue was the French colony located closest to the North American continent and was involved in the U.S. War of Independence from the outset. Saint-Domingue first served as a transit point for contraband weapons destined for the North American theater. Then, in 1779, a fleet under the command of Admiral Charles-Hector d’Estaing stopped in Cap-Français, where it added to its existing complement of professional troops by recruiting local civilian volunteers. White Dominguans, who viewed military service as a dishonorable profession good only for street ruffians, as well as a distraction from the more lucrative business of running their plantations, were largely unresponsive. But free people of color formed a 941-strong volunteer force known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue. They had a more modern take on military service that George Washington and U.S. patriots would have found familiar: at a time when free people of color were increasingly being subjected to a discriminatory legal system in Saint-Domingue, they hoped to prove their patriotic attachment to France by serving in the U.S. War of Independence.

D’Estaing’s forces were tasked with the capture of the British-held town of Savannah, Georgia, but the experience proved disappointing for the colored Dominguan volunteers in the expedition. The Chasseurs Volontaires, who were often socially prominent in their home island, were relegated to secondary menial duties in Savannah. They only got to prove their mettle late in the siege, when the British counterattacked and would have overwhelmed the French camp had the Chasseurs Volontaires not intervened in time. The siege itself was a military failure, since the French failed to capture Savannah. Adding insult to injury, it took several years before the Chasseurs Volontaires were repatriated to their homeland in Saint-Domingue, at which point they faced the same discriminatory laws that they had hoped to overcome when enrolling in d’Estaing’s force.

The Chasseurs Volontaires’ contribution to the American revolutionary struggle has largely been forgotten, but the long-term impact of the Savannah expedition in Saint-Domingue was significant. Leading figures of the Haitian Revolution such as André Rigaud and (possibly) Henry Christophe served in Savannah, as did at least one son-in-law of Toussaint Louverture, Janvier Dessalines. There, they were exposed to revolutionary new ideas and gained significant military experience, both of which they would put to use a decade later in Saint-Domingue.

Two more celebrated events, the Battle of the Capes (a.k.a. Battle of the Chesapeake) and the Battle of Yorktown (1781), had a Dominguan connection. The French fleet under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse transited through Cap-Français in Saint-Domingue, where it picked up 3,200 professional troops, shortly before it joined the two battles that sealed the French-American victory in the U.S. War of Independence.

Saint-Domingue as a Commercial and Intellectual Partner, 1783–1791

Freedom of trade was an important subtext of the American Revolution, which had begun in part due to the controversies surrounding the Sugar Act (1764) and the Townshend Acts (1767). Independence from Britain freed the United States from the various commercial regulations known collectively as the Navigation Acts. Inspired by the dominant mercantilist economic model of the day, they had limited U.S. merchants’ ability to trade with other colonial outposts in the Americas. Such legal obstacles, which smugglers had done their best to circumvent under British rule, became completely moot after the official independence of the United States in 1783, leaving it free to implement the emerging free trade principles championed by Adam Smith in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: Strahan and Cadell, 1776).

One major hurdle remained. Since the United States was the first colony to achieve independence in the Americas, it still had to face the mercantilist restrictions of other colonies. U.S. merchants could legally trade with all of their neighbors, but few of them could legally trade with U.S. merchants.

Saint-Domingue filled that void. Though impoverished today, colonial Haiti in the 1780s was the leading exporter of sugar and coffee in the world and an active participant in Atlantic trading networks. Despite admonitions from France to grow more food locally, Saint-Domingue was far from self-sufficient in foodstuffs because planters preferred to focus on more profitable cash crops like sugarcane and coffee. This forced planters to rely on imports to feed themselves and their slaves, whose numbers topped half a million in 1789. Under French mercantilist rules (the exclusif), colonists should have turned to French merchants to make up the shortfall, but North American prices for cod and flour (as well as timber for construction) were more attractive. The United States could also serve as an outlet for Dominguan exports, most notably byproducts of sugar production like syrups and molasses that could be distilled into rum in New England distilleries. Commercial exchanges with the southern United States were comparatively few, in part because the region had a plantation-based economy that mirrored Saint-Domingue’s (West Louisiana and Florida were in Spanish hands and were not ceded to the United States until 1803 and 1819, respectively).

Haiti and the Early United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 3. Map of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) during the Haitian Revolution.

Courtesy of Philippe Girard.

Smuggling was rampant in Saint-Domingue due to the difficulty of patrolling a 1,100-mile coastline. To these illegal channels, France added legal ones when it introduced exceptions to the exclusif in the 1780s. In 1784, France allowed U.S. merchants to sell foodstuffs in the Dominguan ports of Cap-Français, Môle Saint-Nicolas, and Cayes. Port-au-Prince was added to the list later that year, at which point U.S. timber imports were also legalized. France then reduced tariff rates in 1787. Legal loopholes and contraband effectively instituted free trade between Saint-Domingue and the United States at a time when other colonies in the Americas, most notably Spanish colonies, were harder to penetrate commercially. As a result, Saint-Domingue became the largest commercial partner of the United States in the Americas in the 1780s, and the second largest in the world after Britain.

So large was commerce between the United States and Saint-Domingue by 1790 that Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson appointed Sylvanus Bourne as the first U.S. consul in the colony (Bourne only received his credentials in late 1791 because French colonial officials objected to a colony establishing independent diplomatic relations). U.S. commercial presence further increased in the 1790s because the wars of the French Revolution, which led to the quasi-annihilation of the French navy and the blockade of all major French ports by the British navy, severed commercial links between France and its colonies and forced Dominguan planters to rely on U.S. merchants instead.

In parallel with these commercial links, many intellectual ties bound Saint-Domingue to the early U.S. republic in the context of the Enlightenment. As seen from Europe, the inhabitants of American outposts were considered intellectually and physically deficient in the 18th century. To combat this stereotype, a group of wealthy Dominguans, led by Médéric Louis Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry, founded the Cercle des Philadelphes in 1784, in Cap-Français. The Cercle, a scientific society that did scientific research in fields like natural history, exchanged its findings with its U.S. counterpart, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

The question of slavery, which had not featured prominently in the works of early Enlightenment authors, became more central in the intellectual debates of the 1780s, especially in Philadelphia, where Anthony Benezet and Thomas Paine founded The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race in 1775 (known as The Pennsylvania Abolition Society after 1784). The teachings of Benezet made quite an impact on Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, a free man of color who served in the 1779 Savannah expedition; Chavannes named his son after the French-American abolitionist and later participated in the Haitian Revolution’s first revolt for racial equality.

In France, a new generation of more radical activists, like Nicolas de Condorcet, Henri Grégoire, and Denis Diderot, directly attacked slavery in the 1770s and 1780s as an affront to civilized society. Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville and other progressive figures founded the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks) in 1788, one year after the founding of its British counterpart, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The three abolitionist societies in France, Britain, and the United States coordinated some of their efforts by mail and personal contacts in a kind of international abolitionist effort, focusing primarily on the end of the slave trade rather than the more distant and more controversial abolition of slavery itself. No abolitionist society existed in Saint-Domingue, where slavery was far too critical to the economy to be challenged openly, but abolitionist pamphlets and the works of Guillaume Thomas Raynal, though officially banned, circulated widely. The passage of two royal ordinances, in 1784 and 1785, aimed to curb slavery’s worst abuses and led to passionate debates between reformist royal administrators and planters eager to defend their “liberty” (by which they meant their right to freely dispose of their human property).

The Outbreak of the Haitian Revolution and Dominguan Refugees in the United States, 1791–1793 and 1803–1809

The French Revolution, caused in part by the debts incurred during the U.S. War of Independence, broke out in 1789. The French revolutionaries initially focused their efforts on their domestic struggle against aristocrats, but some of the principles that they proclaimed had profound implications across the Atlantic. By declaring that “all men are born and remain free and equal in rights” (art. 1), the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen implied that slavery and racial discrimination should disappear in France and in its colonies. Whether these principles had universal applications, as a handful of abolitionists contended, or whether French colonies should operate under distinct laws, as colonial deputies argued, was one of the subtexts of the early French Revolution. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Jefferson, who had declined to implement racial equality in his own country, looked on, as did his slave and sexual partner Sally Hemings.

One Saint-Domingue-born free man of color, Vincent Ogé, was eager to test the geographic boundaries of liberty. He traveled to France, where in 1789 he met the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and petitioned the French National Assembly for voting rights. After failing to achieve his goals by political means due to the opposition of the West Indian lobby in France, Ogé headed for Charleston, South Carolina (he feared being intercepted by the French police, which had him on a watch list, if he traveled directly to Saint-Domingue). From Charleston, he embarked for Cap-Français in Saint-Domingue, where he joined forces with the Savannah veteran Jean-Baptiste Chavannes. Their armed uprising in favor of free-colored rights, however, ended tragically when both men were arrested and then publicly executed in Cap-Français in February 1791.

Free people of color like Ogé and Chavannes were not the most active political activists in Saint-Domingue in 1789–1791, nor were the slaves. The bulk of the riots during that period involved the colony’s small but fractious white minority, which tried to capitalize on the French Revolution to achieve long-held goals. Their political agenda included free trade, political representation, and local taxation and was directly inspired by the agenda of the American revolutionaries of 1776. Some autonomist planters even passed a constitution for the colony in 1790 and flirted with the idea of independence—only to recoil from it because they realized that they needed French military support in the event of a slave revolt. A similar demographic imbalance in early 19th-century Cuba also explains why this colony did not follow the rest of Latin America in seceding from Spain. Had the proportion of slaves in Virginia or Massachusetts in the 1770s been higher, such examples imply, American colonists would never have dared to declare independence from Britain.

The Haitian Revolution proper began in August 1791, when a major slave revolt erupted on the sugar plantations near Cap-Français. French planters were unwilling to admit that their slaves had reason to complain about their fate or that they could hatch such a successful plot on their own, so they argued that outsiders had manipulated the rebels. Planters mentioned numerous alleged conspirators ranging from Britain to Spain and the abolitionist Society of the Friends of the Blacks, but remarkably, they left the United States out of the list, presumably because Saint-Domingue’s planters saw U.S. merchants as allies rather than rivals.

The United States’ role in the immediate aftermath of the slave revolt was limited. The colonial assembly appealed to U.S. President George Washington for military assistance under the terms of the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, but none materialized. The only U.S. citizens to serve in a military capacity in the early Haitian Revolution were the sailors on board the U.S. merchantmen in Cap-Français, who went ashore to help the French defend the city when slave rebels attacked it in August and September 1791.

The next major conflagration of the Haitian Revolution took place in June 1793, when a dispute between the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and the French governor François Galbaud escalated into a full-fledged street battle that led to the destruction of most of Cap-Français. Up to 10,000 refugees fled the city in the weeks and months that followed. Many of these Haitian “boat people” were white. Overtime, the Dominguan community in exile (which included slaves as well as free people of color and whites) grew to about 30,000 people. Many relocated to neighboring colonies such as Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), Jamaica, and Cuba, while others headed to U.S. ports on the Atlantic seaboard: Charleston, Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The Dominguan legist Moreau de Saint-Méry settled in Philadelphia, where he opened a flourishing print shop, while the deposed governor François Galbaud reached New York with the mutinous crew of the warship Jupiter.

The arrival of the Dominguan refugees in the summer and fall of 1793 was the United States’ first humanitarian crisis and sparked many internal debates about the social responsibilities of the federal government. Though many had been rich in Saint-Domingue, the refugees were generally destitute upon their arrival. A yellow fever outbreak that year, which was likely connected to the refugees’ arrival, added to the misery. To support themselves, the refugees took on a variety of occupations ranging from French tutor to ballet teacher. Private and public charity also stepped in, some of it deducted from the national debt owed by the United States to France since the U.S. War of Independence.

Many Dominguan refugees headed home after 1798, when the colony’s new leader, Toussaint Louverture, encouraged them to return so as to revive the plantation sector. Many others followed in 1802, when First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte sent an expedition to overthrow Louverture and white colonists assumed that the pre-1791 racial order would soon be restored. Other expeditions that year headed to French Caribbean colonies such as Guadeloupe. Per Bonaparte’s orders, the expeditions’ leaders deported many soldiers and officers of color in 1802–1803, some of whom they tried to pass off as slaves recently imported from Africa so that they could sell them for profit in nearby colonies. A particularly large group of 1,800 black rebels was deported from Guadeloupe on board five frigates in the summer of 1802. The flotilla went from port to port trying to unload some of its human cargo, including New York, where hundreds of black rebels seem to have been either sold or sent ashore.

The failure of Bonaparte’s plans in Saint-Domingue, then Saint-Domingue’s subsequent declaration of independence in 1804, led to a new wave of emigration from Saint-Domingue in 1803–1804. The bulk of the refugees headed for Santiago in eastern Cuba, only to be expelled five years later when Bonaparte invaded Spain and a wave of Francophobia swept through Latin America. After one last tribulation, almost 10,000 of the African-French-Dominguan-Cuban refugees reached New Orleans in 1809. The group was evenly composed of whites, free people of color, and slaves, as was New Orleans at the time, whose population they almost doubled upon their arrival. The Dominguan migration of 1809 accordingly had a lasting cultural impact on the three main components of New Orleans’ population at the time—French-Americans, mixed-race free Creoles, and slaves. The slaves who accompanied their masters to New Orleans in 1809 were only allowed to land after the U.S. Congress granted a special dispensation (the slave trade having been abolished in 1807), making them the last slaves legally imported into the United States.

The Haitian Revolution and U.S. Political Debates in the 1790s

The men and women who fled the Haitian and French Revolutions (such as the opportunistic bishop and diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who headed for Philadelphia during the Terror) brought their political disputes with them. Within months of the 1793 burning of Cap-Français, bitter quarrels erupted in U.S. ports, both orally and in print, between the conservative partisans of Louis XVI (executed in 1793) and those of the radical Jacobins who dominated French politics during the 1793–1795 Convention. This political divide between supporters of order and tradition and supporters of democracy and equality helped define early U.S. political debates. Whether it was wise to give the lower rungs of society equal access to the democratic arena was one of the main points of contention between Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans during the emergence of the first party system. By pointing to the fractiousness of French politics in Saint-Domingue and France, and the extreme social instability that stemmed from it, the more conservative elements of the Federalist Party found reasons to argue for a strong and elitist central government.

The abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue in August 1793, which was confirmed by the French National Convention in February 1794, also brought new urgency to the question of slavery. The American Revolution had led to the passage of gradual abolition laws in northern states and a timetable for the abolition of the slave trade, but also to the sanctification of property rights, which on the whole had an ambivalent effect on slavery. So did the Haitian Revolution. The political rise of figures like Toussaint Louverture provided a powerful example of the intellectual abilities of black people once freed from the shackles of slavery. One of the most successful Dominguan slaves in the United States was Pierre Toussaint, who gained his freedom, became a noted hairdresser in New York City, and proved that black freedmen could become productive members of society. But the economic decline of Saint-Domingue and the death of many white planters during the slave revolt also gave political ammunition to those who supported stricter security measures in slave states.

The arrival of many enslaved Dominguans on U.S. soil gave immediacy to such philosophical debates. Dominguan planters brought 800 slaves with them to Philadelphia, from 1791 to 1794, for example. Once there, the slaves should have been triply free since local state law specified that slaves over 21 should be freed, as should all visiting slaves who stayed longer than six months, and slavery in Saint-Domingue no longer existed after the 1793–1794 abolition decrees. But most masters maintained their authority over their slaves through such measures as indentured contracts. Some slaves sued for their freedom in response, often successfully.

A common fear in the Americas in the 1790s, and particularly in the U.S. South, was that the Haitian Revolution would help spark slave revolts throughout the region. The link could be direct—Dominguan rebels hidden among the boatloads of incoming refugees could plot revolts after landing in the United States; or it could be indirect—local U.S. slaves inspired by the Saint-Domingue example could start copycat revolts.

The evidence tying the Haitian Revolution to U.S. labor unrest remains inconclusive. Indirect influence is plausible but difficult to gauge, and direct involvement seems to have been more fantasy than fact. Alleged conspiracies in 1793, in Charleston and Richmond, were attributed to the Dominguan example, but it is difficult to assess possible motives when the conspiracies were never put into action and the very existence of a plot is in question. The much larger Gabriel conspiracy of 1800 had a Saint-Domingue connection since the main conspirator, Gabriel Prosser, referred to the ideals of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions as inspiration. But a more direct connection between Prosser and the slave rebels of Saint-Domingue has yet to be found (two Frenchmen were involved in the conspiracy, but they were white). Partisan politics further complicate the matter since Federalists were quick to point to alleged French and Dominguan connections so as to discredit the Francophile leanings of their Democratic-Republican rivals.

Two later slave conspiracies, which took place after Haiti’s independence in 1804, also featured alleged ties to Saint-Domingue/Haiti. The main figure of the 1811 German Coast rebellion near New Orleans, Charles Deslondes, was a mixed-race slave originally from Saint-Domingue, but there is no evidence that he received direct support from Haiti. The main figure of the 1822 conspiracy in Charleston, Denmark Vesey, had spent time in Saint-Domingue, but the official investigation was deeply flawed and left Vesey no time to provide a detailed account of his motives and goals before his execution.

Aside from the possibility of social disruptions like a slave revolt, the presence of many French and Dominguan refugees in the United States in the 1790s had national security implications. Revolutionary and Napoleonic France was at war with Britain (1793–1802, 1803–1814, 1814–1815) and Spain (1793–1795, 1808–1814). The two countries possessed colonies north of the United States (British Canada) and to the west and south (Spanish Louisiana and Florida). Starting in 1793, French officials in the United States, most notoriously “citizen” Edmond Genêt, the French ambassador, accordingly raised funds, troops, and weapons to carry out offensive land operations against Louisiana and Florida, while French privateers operating out of U.S. ports harassed British commerce.

Both policies raised the prospect of international incidents, prompting Congress to take legal action. In 1794, the Neutrality Act barred people living in the United States from preparing military ventures against neighboring countries. Several Supreme Court decisions restricted the operations of French privateers based in U.S. ports, which were superseded in 1796, when Jay’s Treaty came into effect. This treaty normalized relations between Britain and the United States by, among other things, barring French privateers from selling their prizes in U.S. ports.

Fears that French and Dominguan refugees would draw the United States into the wars of the French and Haitian revolutions also led to the passage of several laws limiting the political influence of foreigners. The residency time required before one could become a U.S. citizen grew from two years (Naturalization Act of 1790) to five years (1795) and then fourteen years (1798), ostensibly to prevent French and Irish immigrants from supporting the Democratic-Republican Party. All three acts indicated that only free white persons could be naturalized, thus excluding a large portion of the Saint-Domingue refugees in the United States. Under the 1795 Naturalization Act, petitioners who claimed nobility titles (which was the case of many Dominguan planters and émigrés from France) had to renounce them before becoming U.S. citizens.

In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts further restricted the activism of political refugees when it allowed U.S. President John Adams to arrest and deport any alien considered dangerous to the country’s national security. The acts were passed in the context of the Quasi-War with France and were directly aimed at French and Dominguan refugees.

The Quasi-War between the United States and France (1798–1800) further brought the Saint-Domingue issue to the forefront. The causes of this “war” (it was never officially declared) were complex and many; but its main battlefield was the Caribbean Sea, where privateers and small units of the French and U.S. navies waged a series of individual duels. Due to its strategic location along the Windward Passage, Saint-Domingue found itself in the middle of a war zone. Privateers based in Cap-Français and other ports raided U.S. merchantmen passing by Saint-Domingue; one famous engagement between the USS Constitution and the French privateer Sandwich also took place east of Cap-Français in Puerto Plata (in the present-day Dominican Republic).

By the end of 1798, U.S. frigates had achieved naval supremacy around Saint-Domingue’s coast, but France hoped to regain the upper hand by invading the United States. France’s plan, which was enthusiastically embraced by its main representative in Saint-Domingue, the agent Joseph Gabriel de Hédouville, was to raise an army of black freedmen and to transport them to the southern United States, where they could rely on local support from the enslaved population and French refugees. The plan may seem harebrained in retrospect, but the French agent in Guadeloupe, Victor Hugues, had managed to conquer Saint-Lucia in 1795 by employing a similar strategy. News of France’s offensive intentions reached the United States in 1798. It added to the existing war fever and could easily have transformed the Quasi-War into an outright war. Instead, fears of invasion had the opposite effect of encouraging Adams to find a negotiated settlement to the standoff.

Diplomatic Relations between Toussaint Louverture and John Adams, 1798–1799

In retaliation for French attacks on U.S. commerce, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in June 1798 that banned all commercial relations with France and its colonies. The embargo had a marked impact in Saint-Domingue, especially as the U.S. navy gained the upper hand during the summer of 1798, and trade to and from the colony slowed to a trickle. The plantation sector, already badly battered by the 1791 slave revolt and the 1793–1794 abolition of slavery, could no longer export tropical crops. Importing food and gunpowder became difficult as well, while the finances of the colonial government, which rested primarily on tariff duties and taxes on the production of tropical crops, grew precarious.

The year also saw the political rise of Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who had played a prominent military role since the 1791 slave revolt but now began to dabble in politics and diplomacy as well—fields for which he proved eminently gifted. In October 1798, Louverture deported the French agent Joseph Gabriel de Hédouville and assumed de facto political control of northern and western Saint-Domingue (a mixed-race rival, General André Rigaud, controlled the colony’s southern region until 1800). Louverture’s main priority was to reestablish commercial ties with the United States so as to avoid the economic collapse of the colony, and incidentally, of his regime.

In November 1798, Louverture sent his trusted collaborator Joseph Bunel de Blancamp to Philadelphia to seek an arrangement with the administration of John Adams. Saint-Domingue was not officially independent at the time, but the Bunel mission effectively amounted to the opening of bilateral diplomatic relations, making Bunel the first de facto Haitian ambassador to the United States. Often misidentified as black or mixed-race by U.S. scholars unaware of the Haitian Revolution’s complex racial politics, Bunel was actually a white Frenchman from Normandy. The choice reflected Louverture’s thorough understanding of the diplomatic environment in which he lived: heading a regime that had originated in a slave revolt, he was aware of the prejudices he faced when interacting with countries where white rule remained the norm (like the United States) and was eager to portray his regime as non-threatening. A November 1798 letter from Louverture to Adams, which Bunel delivered, was also conciliatory.

A Massachusetts-born Federalist, Adams was inclined to give precedence to the commercial interests of New England mercantile firms over the security concerns of southern planters. In ports like Philadelphia, where slaves were few and abolitionist movements strong, unrest in Saint-Domingue was seen as beneficial because it made it easier to sideline France and dominate French Caribbean commerce. The sectional divide also explains why many southern Congressmen were less eager to engage Saint-Domingue.

Upon reaching Philadelphia, Bunel was warmly received by Adams and especially his Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. An ardent Federalist and abolitionist sympathizer, Pickering hoped to weaken France by drawing a wedge between France and its colonies. So convinced was Pickering that Louverture would soon declare formal independence under Anglo-American tutelage that he asked Alexander Hamilton, a native of the Caribbean island of Nevis, to draft a tentative constitution for an independent Saint-Domingue. The constitution, which never came into effect, called for a centralized military dictatorship headed by Louverture. It brought into the open the Federalists’ distrust for popular rule as well as Hamilton’s belief that black freedmen were not ready for democracy and self-government. Hamilton is usually described today as an abolitionist, but his constitution underlines the difference between opposing slavery and advocating legal equality for freedmen, a more radical step.

In February 1799, Adams signed into law a bill authorizing him to lift the existing embargo on individual French colonies at his discretion—a law widely referred to as “Toussaint’s clause” in its time because it was so evidently intended for Saint-Domingue. Adams and Pickering elevated the U.S. mission in Saint-Domingue from a consulate to a consulate general and appointed the West Indian native Edward Stevens as its head (Stevens was likely the stepbrother of Hamilton). Stevens left with Bunel to take up his post in Cap-Français, where, in April 1799, he negotiated an agreement by which Louverture cancelled all privateering commissions, in exchange for which the United States agreed to lift the embargo on U.S. trade to Saint-Domingue.

Haiti and the Early United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 4. Encounter between Toussaint Louverture and Thomas Maitland during Britain’s 1798 evacuation of Môle Saint-Nicolas. “Le Gal Toussaint-L’Ouverture . . .” (c. 1821), possibly by François Grenier.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Louverture and Stevens negotiated a similar treaty with the British envoy Thomas Maitland in June 1799. In exchange for British acquiescence to the resumption of naval commerce to and from Saint-Domingue, Louverture promised neither to invade Jamaica and the United States nor to sponsor slave revolts there. Louverture held true to his word; he immediately shelved Hédouville’s plans for an attack on the United States, then later, in 1799, he undermined a French plan to start a slave revolt in Jamaica (Isaac Sasportas plot). In his eyes, the success of the Haitian Revolution at home took precedence over its hemispheric impact. This policy, which was embraced by subsequent Haitian regimes after independence, helps explain a puzzling question: why did the Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave revolt in world history, never export itself?

Louverture’s close relationship with Stevens and the United States proved essential when a civil war broke out with his southern rival André Rigaud in the summer of 1799. Known as the War of the South or the War of the Knives, the conflict, which lasted until 1800, did not go well at first for Louverture. But war materiels imported from the United States and Louverture’s numerical superiority helped him turn the tide and, late in 1799, his army laid siege to the strategic port of Jacmel in southern Saint-Domingue. The siege was inconclusive until March 1800, when the U.S. frigate General Greene intervened, attacked Jacmel by sea, and forced the defenders to surrender. This and other U.S. naval interventions in the War of the South were the first examples of U.S. meddling in the internal politics of a neighbor. Though commercial interests and realpolitik clearly played a role in the U.S. decision to help defeat Rigaud, it remains surprising, in light of the racial and social context in the United States, that the U.S. navy would so overtly support a regime led by a former slave. Later U.S. interventions in the Caribbean usually aimed at propping up regimes headed by racial and social elites.

With the naval and commercial support of United States, Louverture won the War of the South. In July 1800, his opponent Rigaud fled from his last stronghold in the southern city of Cayes, only to be intercepted by a U.S. warship and captured (he was later released and sent to France).

Despite the United States’ deep involvement in Dominguan affairs in 1799–1800, it would be incorrect to describe Louverture as the first of a long list of Caribbean puppets manipulated by the U.S. hegemon. Saint-Domingue, though diminished by the Haitian Revolution, was an equal partner in the relationship. Its economic potential was immense, and its land army was far superior to the (virtually non-existent) federal army. Louverture pursued his own independent agenda throughout and was careful not to rely on a single patron. In addition to the United States and British Jamaica, he maintained parallel channels of communication with Spanish Cuba and the French government. Despite Pickering’s wishes, Louverture never officially declared independence from France. Instead of adopting Hamilton’s constitution, he drafted a constitution of his own, in 1801, which instituted a strong top-down executive but also enshrined abolition and racial equality. Meanwhile, he stockpiled gunpowder and weapons imported from the United States in the event that France would try to overthrow him.

The Haitian War of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase, 1802–1803

Toussaint Louverture’s close relationship with the United States took a turn for the worse in 1800–1801. Part of the reason was the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. A southern slave-owner, Jefferson was instinctively uncomfortable with a regime led by a former slave rebel—though, as often with Jefferson, his views of slavery and the Haitian Revolution were extraordinarily complex and evolving. Jefferson recalled the U.S. consul Edward Stevens, who had become a close ally of Louverture, and replaced him with Tobias Lear, whose official title was downgraded to that of commercial agent and who came with no official letter of introduction. Louverture saw this as a personal slight, as indeed it was, but Jefferson did not openly call for his demise, and U.S. commerce to Saint-Domingue continued unabated. Jefferson also thought that a black-ruled Saint-Domingue might be useful as a haven for U.S. freedmen, whom he preferred to settle overseas rather than integrate into U.S. society.

Important changes were also taking place in France. After taking over as First Consul in November 1799, Napoléon Bonaparte did not immediately modify France’s commitment to emancipation in the Caribbean, in part because he could not physically ship an army across the Atlantic in wartime. But in 1800, he signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which ended the Quasi-War with the United States, and in 1801 he signed the London Peace Protocols, which instituted a temporary ceasefire with Britain. Increasingly concerned by Louverture’s autonomist tendencies, Bonaparte prepared a massive expedition to overthrow him and, possibly, restore slavery.

U.S. support was essential to deny Louverture’s army its supplies while guaranteeing that a French expeditionary force would be properly fed and equipped. After some diplomatic consultations in Washington, DC, Bonaparte understood that he could count on Jefferson’s support to starve Louverture of resources. But Jefferson’s attitude was actually tentative because he also feared that growing French power in the Caribbean might complicate U.S. plans for a takeover of Louisiana. In practice, contrary to what Bonaparte had been led to expect, Jefferson allowed U.S. merchants to trade with both sides in the upcoming conflict as long as they did so at their own risk.

The main French expeditionary body, which was headed by Bonaparte’s brother-in-law Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc, landed in Saint-Domingue in February 1802. Leclerc’s relations with U.S. merchants were conflicted and ultimately self-defeating. He relied extensively on U.S. commerce because he had no other way of feeding his army. But he also denounced the merchants’ greed, resented their past links to Louverture, and vexed them in a variety of ways. U.S. merchants retaliated by selling supplies to Leclerc’s foes, especially as the rebels gained the upper hand and the expedition’s finances grew increasingly tight.

Louverture was captured and exiled to France in June 1802, but fighting continued in Saint-Domingue against Leclerc’s army. Much of the black population eventually concluded that the French had come to restore slavery and joined the rebellion in the summer and fall of 1802. The rebels were led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave of Louverture’s daughter who had earned the rank of division general during the Haitian Revolution.

Haiti and the Early United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 5. Unflattering portrayal of Jean-Jacques Dessalines made in reaction to the 1804 massacre of Haiti’s white population. Juan López Cancelada Dubroca, Vida de J. J. Dessalines, Gefe de los negros de Santo Domingo (Mexico City: Mariano de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1806).

French military difficulties did not displease Jefferson, who found the prospect of a powerful French military force based in Saint-Domingue as troubling as that of a messianic black regime. His ambiguity paid off in the spring of 1803, when Bonaparte decided to sell Louisiana, which Spain had retroceded to France by the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. Jefferson’s skillful diplomacy is usually credited for the Louisiana Purchase, but the timing suggests that Bonaparte changed his mind due to events in Britain and Saint-Domingue, not the United States. Jefferson’s representatives in Paris, whom he had entrusted with the purchase of New Orleans, initially made no headway because Bonaparte was confident that he could prevail in Saint-Domingue and create a vast colonial empire in the Americas. It was only after receiving dispiriting news from Saint-Domingue in January 1803 (notably that his brother-in-law Leclerc had died of yellow fever, as had the bulk of his army) that Bonaparte changed his mind. The resumption of the war with Britain, which made it impossible to maintain a French military presence in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana, cemented his decision to pull out of the region entirely. Bonaparte abruptly offered to sell the totality of the territory (not just New Orleans) and finalized the deal in April 1803. The role of the Haitian Revolution in prompting Bonaparte to sell Louisiana was arguably the most tangible consequence of that conflict for the early U.S. republic.

Dessalines’s forces were successful in defeating the remnants of the French expeditionary force, which were headed after Leclerc’s death by Donatien de Rochambeau, a veteran of the American Revolution and the son of the famous French commander by the same name. Blockaded by the British navy while U.S. merchants equipped the Dominguan rebels, Rochambeau lost the main cities of Saint-Domingue one by one until he had to pull out entirely at the end of 1803. Dessalines and his fellow rebels declared independence in November 1803 and then again more formally in January 1804, an event that marked the creation of Haiti as an independent black state.

It is worth noting that declaring independence, an act that had accompanied the beginning of the American Revolution, was the Haitian Revolution’s final act. The difference reflects the differing goals of each movement. Independence from Britain was the primary goal of the U.S. rebels, from which all secondary goals (such as self-taxation and free trade) derived. By contrast, social change, most notably the reform or abolition of slavery, was the primary goal of Saint-Domingue’s black rebels. For most of the Haitian Revolution, independence was a distraction from the main fight against slavery and could even be counter-productive. Early in the revolution, white planters were the ones calling for greater autonomy from France because they feared that France might regulate or ban the ownership of slaves. The slaves, by contrast, were aware of progressive labor ordinances passed by Louis XVI in 1784–1785 to make slavery more humane. For this reason, the slave rebels of 1791 revolted in the name of the Bourbon king, not in favor of colonial independence, which would have put them at the mercy of the racist white planters who were their main enemy. Revolutionary France’s later willingness to grant legal equality to free men of color (April 1792) and to abolish slavery in all its colonies (February 1794), just as white planters encouraged Britain to invade Saint-Domingue to reestablish slavery, further increased the black population’s attachment to France. Abolitionists in Saint-Domingue were particularly attached to a clause in the 1795 French constitution that described French colonies as standard provinces because it guaranteed them equal rights under the law (by contrast, a clause in the 1799 constitution that gave colonies a distinct legal status raised fears that slavery would soon be restored in French colonies). It was only in 1802–1803, when the black population reached the conclusion that Napoléon Bonaparte intended to change French policy and restore slavery in Saint-Domingue, that a majority coalesced around the idea of independence.

Antebellum Debates on Slavery, Emigration from the United States, and the Recognition of Haiti, 1804–1862

The independence of Haiti (a new name chosen by Jean-Jacques Dessalines in reference to pre-Columbian Amerindian inhabitants of Hispaniola) came as a shock in the United States. Haiti was the second colony to achieve independence after the United States, but its revolution had been far more radical, and its social profile was dissimilar. The Haitian Revolution had led to the abolition of slavery and racial equality, neither of which the United States had yet embraced. White planters from Virginia played an outsize role in the early United States, while in Haiti virtually all planters either fled or were put to death on Dessalines’s orders in the spring of 1804. His controversial decision solved a decade-old conundrum (if we blacks declare independence, do we not run the risk of being at the mercy of the white planters?). But it also gave Haiti a sulfurous reputation as a radical black regime that, to some extent, it still has to shake off.

In the United States, blacks were not citizens. In Haiti, Dessalines issued a constitution, in 1805, that labeled all Haitian citizens, by default, as “blacks,” even those who were white or mixed-race. The association between black skin and citizenship would remain the norm in Haiti, so much so that blacks of pure African descent became known colloquially as authentiques (“authentics”) and the Haitian Kreyòl term for “foreigner” became blan (“white”). By law, black runaways who fled to Haiti became citizens within a year, whereas white foreigners could not even own land. The situation in Haiti contrasted sharply with that prevalent in the United States, where blacks (including free blacks) did not secure all their citizenship rights until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Haiti and the Early United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 6. Free people of color in the French Caribbean. M. Ponce (engraver) and Moreau de Saint-Méry (author), Recueil de vues des lieux principaux de la colonie française de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Ponce, 1791).

The main achievement of the American Revolution was political. It created a political system that maintained internal stability while including a significant swathe of the population (wealthier white men at first, then all white men after the Jacksonian era, then all men during Reconstruction, and then women after World War I). Though Haiti is often referred to as the first black “republic” in the world, the notion of liberty was initially limited to individual liberty (emancipation from slavery) and national liberty (independence from France), not political liberty (free speech and the right to vote). Dessalines instituted a militarized regime immediately after independence and had himself proclaimed emperor later in 1804. Dictatorship and political instability remained the norm until 1996, when for the first time a democratically elected president of Haiti ceded power to another democratically elected president (a feat repeated in 2011).

By contrast with the worldly, literate, and moderate Louverture, who had commanded a great deal of respect in the United States, Dessalines seemed to fit the stereotype of the brutish African to many of his U.S. contemporaries: he was illiterate, bloodthirsty, and thoroughly unpopular among the white population of the United States. This has led many historians to conclude that Haiti was effectively a pariah after independence and was excluded both poli tically and economically from the community of nations, with lasting consequences for the development of the country. Central to the argument are the facts that the U.S. government placed Haiti under economic embargo, that it refused to recognize the country until 1862, and that many Americans used the Haitian precedent to warn of the dangers of abolishing slavery.

This view (the embargo claim notwithstanding) is broadly accurate but overlooks the many unofficial interactions between Haiti and the United States in the decades that followed independence. Economic relations between the United States and Haiti did not vanish in 1804. Merchants (including Louverture’s former ambassador Joseph Bunel) continued to travel to and from the United States, often with the full knowledge and acquiescence of the U.S. government. The only embargo aimed at Haiti lasted from 1805 to 1807, was enforced perfunctorily, and was solely intended to get France’s support while negotiating for the Spanish cession of Florida. Haiti’s declining commercial relevance, from second-largest trading partner of the United States before independence to 46th in 1860, was caused primarily by Haiti’s internal economic decline, most notably the near-complete collapse of its sugar industry, rather than by U.S. commercial embargoes.

Views of Haiti varied greatly in the antebellum United States, where discussions of Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian Revolution, and the recognition of the Haitian state served as proxies for wider debates on slavery and racial equality. The complex legacy of the Haitian Revolution provided plenty of arguments for both sides. For white abolitionists and U.S. blacks, Haiti could be cited as an example of what the black race could achieve, but also as a warning that slaves, if not liberated by peaceful means, might start a violent struggle for liberation. At the other extreme of the political spectrum, the violence of Haiti’s politics, its failure to create a functioning representative democracy, and its economic decline were presented as proof that slaves could not and should not live without white supervision.

Haiti and the United States had different geographic footprints after independence. Haiti is about the size of Massachusetts and could only expand its territory by invading Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), a Spanish colony it occupied from 1822 to 1844. The United States, by contrast, could hope to control a continent from sea to shining sea (Manifest Destiny). Natural growth and sustained immigration from Europe also allowed the U.S. population to grow rapidly after independence, whereas Haiti struggled to repopulate a country bled white by the Haitian Revolution in the adverse epidemiological environment of the Caribbean. Haiti’s post-1804 population, at 300,000, was roughly half of what it had been in 1791.

Saint-Domingue had grown its population in colonial times by resorting to immigration (including forced migrations like the Atlantic slave trade). But Haiti’s unflattering reputation overseas, an oppressive political system, and the lack of economic opportunities meant that promoting immigration to independent Haiti proved difficult and that the Haitian government had to involve itself in the process. Like Louverture before him, Dessalines encouraged U.S. captains to repatriate the slaves who had been taken to the United States by their owners during the waves of emigration of the 1790s. More controversially, Dessalines sought arrangements with British slave traders to import laborers directly from Africa, as Louverture had done before him and King Henry Christophe would do in later years.

Efforts to encourage immigration peaked under the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818–1843), who hired recruiting agents in the United States to encourage U.S. blacks to move to Haiti. His objectives dovetailed nicely with those of the United States, where even abolitionists were uncomfortable with the notion that black freedmen could become full-fledged U.S. citizens. Possible destinations included Liberia and Haiti. Haiti was far closer and cheaper, but governmental efforts to promote U.S. immigration were largely unsuccessful because of the dissatisfaction of the U.S. settlers who traveled to Haiti and then left months or years later due to culture shock and the lack of economic opportunities. The U.S. emigration movement faded away during the rule of Emperor Faustin Soulouque (1847–1859), who was less politically liberal than Boyer, only to revive before and during the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln sponsored an ill-fated colonization venture in Ile-à-Vache (1863–1864). Postwar emigration schemes to Haiti and other possible destinations also failed to significantly dent the size of the black population in the United States, in part because black leaders like Frederick Douglass insisted on their right to be admitted as citizens in the country of their birth (a right guaranteed in 1868 under the 14th amendment of the U.S. constitution). Haiti’s population eventually recovered by natural growth only, so much so that the country, with a current population of over 10 million people, is considered overpopulated. Migration flows have reversed themselves, and many Haitians now try to emigrate to the United States and other destinations.

The failure to recognize Haiti’s independence for nearly six decades was the clearest expression of the U.S. government’s attitude toward that country. Aside from tentative overtures between Britain and Dessalines in 1804, Western nations did not initially establish formal diplomatic relations with Haiti out of deference to France, which continued to claim Haiti as its colony until 1825. That year, France finally recognized Haiti’s independence in exchange for a financial indemnity earmarked for Saint-Domingue refugees. European countries normalized their relations thereafter, but the United States did not, due to the opposition of the southern Congressional delegation. It was only after southern states seceded, in 1862, that the United States officially recognized Haiti.

Relations between the United States and Haiti became more conventional thereafter, at least by the standards of an era marked by U.S. imperial expansion in the Caribbean area. Significant developments included a territorial dispute over the islet of Navassa (which the United States claimed under the Guano Islands Act of 1856); plans to acquire the strategic port of Môle Saint-Nicolas in the 1880s; the National City Bank’s takeover of Haiti’s financial system in 1915; and the outright U.S. invasion of Haiti that same year, which led to a nineteen-year U.S. occupation of the country (1915–1934). This occupation was viewed as a national humiliation in Haiti because it came shortly after the celebration of the centennial of Haiti’s independence, but it had one positive effect—it revived the interest of English-speaking academics in the remarkable events of the Haitian Revolution and the many ways in which the history of the early U.S. and Haitian republics overlapped. Scholarly interest has continued to this day, particularly now that the field of Atlantic history ancourages academics to approach events like the American and Haitian revolutions as a single narrative.

Discussion of the Literature

The English-language historiography on Haiti and the United States has followed an inverted bell curve—sustained interest during and after the Haitian Revolution, often along deeply partisan lines, followed by a lengthy trough from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, then growing interest after the publication of the pioneering work The Black Jacobins,1 and then a flood of scholarship over the past ten to twenty years.

Traditional histories of the diplomatic relations between Haiti and the United States are the most numerous, going back all the way to the pioneering work of Rayford W. Logan in 1941. The main flaw of such studies has been a tendency to approach U.S.-Haitian relations through the prism of U.S. politics, and most notably the relative worth of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as presidents, rather than to accept Haiti as a serious diplomatic partner with an agenda of its own.

Two other well-explored corners of the historiography are the arrival of Dominguan refugees in the United States, both white and colored, and U.S. responses to the Haitian Revolution in the antebellum period, probably because the sources are easier to access for a U.S.-based scholar. Two collections of essays by David Geggus have also explored the ramifications of the Haitian Revolution throughout the Americas, a topic that has also been researched by Ada Ferrer (for Cuba) and Julia Gaffield (for Great Britain).

Despite the recent surge of interest in the Haitian Revolution in the United States, many areas of overlap between the two revolutions remain understudied. There is, for example, only one scholarly article on the 1779 Savannah expedition, by John Garrigus. Another fascinating subject that has received little attention and requires a bilateral approach is U.S. emigration to Haiti in the 19th century. A more general take on the Haitian Diaspora throughout the circum-Caribbean region (both civilian refugees and political deportations) would also be of great value.

U.S. academic interest in the Haitian Revolution is great, so currently the main barrier to improved scholarship is linguistic. The only Haitian author frequently quoted in English-language accounts is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s penetrating volume, Silencing the Past,2 presumably because it is available in English. Trouillot’s larger point, that U.S. scholars should take the Haitian Revolution seriously, seems to have been lost on the many authors who try to write the Haitian Revolution’s history by relying exclusively on the secondary literature in English. Not giving Haitians a voice when recounting their history is, in many ways, a worse form of “silencing” than ignoring their revolution altogether. The situation is slowly improving. The works of Carolyn Fick and Laurent Dubois3 have introduced a generation of U.S. scholars to the importance of the Haitian Revolution. Several authors, most notably John Garrigus, David Geggus, and Jeremy Popkin, have produced works that draw from both French/Haitian sources and English-language sources and will stand the test of time. There is good reason to hope that the historiography will continue to improve as a new generation of bilingual scholars, eager to take an Atlantic approach to the revolutionary era, takes over.

Primary Sources

Sources on the Haitian Revolution tend to be rich but scattered in multiple archives and poorly catalogued. For more detailed surveys, consult the works of David P. Geggus and Philippe R. Girard.4

The Sylvanus Bourne papers, 1775–1859, are in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.5 Some of Joseph Bunel’s papers are located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (PHi)1811, as are the papers of many merchants doing business in Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution. Toussaint Louverture’s letters with U.S. officials in 1798–1799 are available in microfilms M9/1 through 4 at the U.S. National Archives in College Park; many were published in the American Historical Review.6

Outside of Philadelphia, significant collections on U.S. merchants and the Haitian Revolution can be found at the Boston Public Library (notably the West Indian Collection), the Massachusetts Historical Society (notably the Nathaniel Cutting papers, Ms. N-1076), and the Schomburg Center of the New York Library (Sc Micro R1527 and R-2228).

Papers of French witnesses of the Haitian Revolution who found refuge in the United States can be found in numerous regional archives in the United States. Two in particular are worth noting. The papers of Gabriel Le Gros are held by North Carolina State University in Raleigh (MF167 no. 24368);7 his account was published under the title Historick Recital of the Different Occurrences in the Camps of Grande Rivière, Dondon, Sainte Suzanne, and Others from 26 October 1791 to 24 December of the Same Year (Baltimore: Samuel and John Adams, c. 1793). The Puech family papers are held by the Historic New Orleans Collection (85–117-L); and look for the account of their Dominguan ancestor Althéa de Puech Parham,8 as well as excerpts of other planter accounts.9

Documents pertaining to the Louisiana Purchase are available at the Historical New Orleans Collection (MS 125, 126, and 579, HNOC) as well as the manuscript division of the Library of Congress (Louisiana miscellany, Box 15).

Links to Digital Materials

The digitization of sources related to the Haitian Revolution, which would vastly facilitate the ease of access to primary sources, remains a work in progress. Here are the most valuable existing sites, which only contain a small fraction of the vast collections accessible only as originals in archival collections.

The Marronnage in Saint-Domingue (Haiti): History, Memory, Technology is a fully searchable database of notices for slave runaways in pre-revolutionary Haitian newspapers.

The Bibliothèque Nationale (French National Library). Many of its vast collections, which include all books published in France as well as important manuscript collections pertaining to the Haitian Revolution (such as fr. 8986–8988 and fr. 12102–12104), are available online.

The Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (French Colonial Archives). Not all the vast collections pertaining to Saint-Domingue (notably the rich F3 assembled by Moreau de Saint-Méry and the C9 series consisting of official French documents) have been digitized yet, but notarial and birth records are available, as are the personnel files of many important colonial officials (E series). Another crucial collection of documents on the early Haitian Revolution, archived at the French National Archives in Paris, is not currently available online (D XXV).

The Digital Library of the Caribbean is the main point of access for various Caribbean archives that have digitized some of their collections.

The University of Florida has made many of its resources on Caribbean history available online, such as many revolutionary-era pamphlets and a nearly complete run of the main pre-revolutionary Haitian paper, the Affiches Américaines.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database offers fully searchable data on 35,000 slave voyages.

Most of the extensive Haitian collection of the John Carter Brown Library has been posted online, along with online exhibits and papers by Malick Ghachem and David Geggus.

The website of The Shackles of Memory Association (Les Anneaux de la Mémoire) serves as a triage post, in French and English, for the French-language scholarship on slavery in the Americas. Educational resources are also available.

Further Reading

Brown, Gordon S. Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.Find this resource:

    Clavin, Matthew J. Toussaint Louverture and the Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.Find this resource:

      Dessens, Nathalie. From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and Influences. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007.Find this resource:

        Dixon, Chris. African America and Haiti. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.Find this resource:

          Garrigus, John. “Catalyst or Catastrophe? Saint-Domingue’s Free Men of Color and the Savannah Expedition, 1779–1782.” Review/Revista Interamericana 22 (1992): 109–125.Find this resource:

            Geggus, David P., ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.Find this resource:

              Girard, Philippe. “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Diplomacy, 1798–1802.” William and Mary Quarterly 66.1 (January 2009): 87–124.Find this resource:

                Kukla, Jon. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: Knopf, 2003.Find this resource:

                  White, Ashli. Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.Find this resource:


                    (1.) C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Dial Press, 1938).

                    (2.) Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past (Boston: Beacon, 1995).

                    (3.) Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); and Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004).

                    (4.) David P. Geggus, “L’histoire d’Haïti dans les Archives Nord-Américaines,” Annales des Antilles: Bulletin de la Société d’Histoire de la Martinique, no. 32 (1998); Philippe R. Girard, “The Haitian Revolution, History’s New Frontier: State of the Scholarship and Archival Sources,” Slavery and Abolition 34.3 (September 2013), 485–507.

                    (5.) Sylvanus Bourne papers, 1775–1859; Manuscript/ mixed material collection, in the Library of Congress.

                    (6.) J. F. Jameson, “Letters of Toussaint L’Ouverture and of Edward Stevens, 1798–1800,” American Historical Review 16.1 (October 1910), 64–101.

                    (7.) The account of Gabriel Le Gros was published under the title Historick Recital of the Different Occurrences in the Camps of Grande Rivière, Dondon, Sainte Suzanne, and Others from 26 October 1791 to 24 December of the Same Year (Baltimore: Samuel and John Adams, c. 1793).

                    (8.) Althéa de Puech Parham, ed., My Odyssey: Experiences of a Young Refugee from Two Revolutions, by a Creole of Saint-Domingue (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959).

                    (9.) Jeremy D. Popkin, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).