It might have seemed an easy call. A New World nation that had recently thrown off the rule of a European colonial power might have been expected to look favorably upon a neighbor seeking to do the same. One did not have to look hard to find the commonalities of two novice nations in the world of international politics: their birth in the time of Atlantic revolutions, their intertwined commerce, and their difficult relations with the former mother country. Both, as Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall has noted, even had a military officer who led the revolution and became “both a civilian leader and a national icon.”1 On the face of it, the two nations should have become fast friends. At the very least, the elder might have been expected to accord recognition to its younger revolutionary sibling.
Yet the nation that would come to call itself Haiti proved to be a special case, and deciding how to respond to its revolution was not at all an easy call for three successive US administrations. There was no single reason why Haiti posed such a challenge to the Americans wrestling with the revolution in what they called Santo Domingo. International politics of the great powers, as well as trade interests, complicated the picture for American policymakers, who wanted to avoid conflict with Britain, alienation of France, or loss of markets. But troublesome issues also presented themselves to the United States soon after Haitian leaders declared independence in 1804, as the Latin American republics, one by one, began seeking their independence from Spain and Portugal. Washington, DC—by then the seat of the US federal government—generally looked favorably upon these new neighbors and did not hesitate to accord them recognition when their time came. By contrast, the United States granted recognition to Haiti only in 1862, almost six decades after Jean-Jacques Dessalines had declared his nation sovereign.
The most significant difference was, of course, the dual nature of the Haitian Revolution as an anticolonial revolution and a slave uprising; a revolution in which the enslaved sought to throw off their masters and French domination. The United States was a republic, but it was—in Don E. Fehrenbacher’s noted terminology—a slaveholding republic. The success or failure of a slave uprising so close to the United States could not but complicate the reaction of Americans to the events in Saint-Domingue. Relations between the United States and Haiti thus proved no “hymn of fraternity.” A bilateral relationship that would have been challenging to husband in the international context of the time was made much more so by the domestic and international politics of slavery.2 The result was a complicated, convoluted, and at times contradictory response from a government still feeling its way through an international sphere that was both promising and threatening. Slavery was viewed as a national security issue; a slave rebellion in the neighborhood did not make it less so. While the emergence of new republics from the ashes of Spain’s American empire could be viewed as a positive benefit to the security of the United States, it was more difficult to think the same of Haiti.3 This revolution was bound to be different.
A Slave Revolution
There is much that is striking about the revolution in Saint-Domingue. One of the most arresting facts is that it came as such an incredible surprise abroad. As Michael Zeuske notes, the shock of the revolution was “so extreme, so incomparable with anything else known” that observers were either bewildered or, in fact, struck dumb. Slave resistance, even insurrections, were a fact of life in the Atlantic world. But slave revolts, while alarming, had never posed a threat to the existence of the slave societies themselves. The revolution in Saint-Domingue would prove to be different—even if this was not recognized immediately—and not just by virtue of the extreme brutality of the fighting that it entailed. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz has observed that the Haitian Revolution, more so than those of the thirteen colonies and France, entailed universal claims of a sort which made it particularly disruptive:
Of the three revolutions, American, French, and Haitian, the Haitian represented the most terrifying reality for its time. To be sure, it was revolutionary in those days to insist on the right to be represented politically if one were taxed; or to deny the absolute rights of monarchy. And many persons gave their lives for their beliefs. But that was not the same as arguing that “human” rights apply to everyone—that there was a universal definition of who was human—and meaning it. To take that stand would mean, among other things, that rape, flogging, or sale of someone else’s children was a crime, no matter on whom it was inflicted.… Though we cannot be sure they knew it, the Haitian rebels were engaged in an endeavor more radical and more modern even than turning a colony into a sovereign nation.4
If they succeeded in their revolution, the implications would, indeed, be dangerous for the United States and the Atlantic slave-holding empires.5 The Haitian Revolution thus presented “a dramatic challenge to the world as it then was,” to quote Laurent Dubois.6
On the night of August 22–23, 1791, slaves on Saint-Domingue’s Plaine du Nord rose up against their masters. The rising was massive, with as many as 100,000 slaves involved in the north. Slaves “went from plantation to plantation, killing whites, burning houses, and setting cane fields alight,” and reports of infanticide, murder, and rape swept quickly through the region. The rebellion soon spread to the South and West Provinces. The insurgents quickly grew in strength, while the French forces that were meant to suppress them proved inadequate to the task. The Saint-Domingue slave rebellion had begun.7
The full significance of the rebellion could not have been apparent in those summer and early autumn days of 1791, either in Saint-Domingue or in the United States. Yet whatever the implications might be, President George Washington’s administration initially wanted none of it. As Timothy M. Matthewson has noted, the developments in Hispaniola threatened American interests. He adds, in an understatement, that President Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton “did not like slave revolts.” That US interests were engaged by the rebellion in Saint-Domingue cannot be gainsaid. US trade with the colony was extensive by the eve of the rebellion’s outbreak, with Saint-Domingue being America’s second largest trading partner, behind only Great Britain itself. Since US leaders viewed commercial intercourse as a vital element of national security, any threat to the trade with Saint-Domingue represented a threat to the nation itself.8
As to America’s principal policy shapers not caring for slave revolts, this was also crystal clear. America was a slaveholding society; Jefferson and Washington were both Virginians who owned other human beings. And while the thinking of the founders with regard to slavery was complex, their thinking on armed slaves rising up, killing their masters, and setting plantations alight was not. The fear that slave rebellion might spread from Haiti, a near neighbor, was rather a nightmare for early Americans watching events in the Caribbean. South Carolina’s governor, Charles Pinckney, for example, worried that the slave revolt could “become a flame which will extend to all the neighboring islands, and may prove not a very pleasing or agreeable example to the Southern States.”9 Trade was very important. But so too, indeed, was the security of the American South. Both issues, then—trade and containment of the “contagion” of slave rebellion—would shape US policymakers’ thinking regarding Saint-Domingue from 1791 on. Region, party, and economic interest all came to play their roles in the American response to what would emerge as a historic event in the Atlantic world.
The initial response from the Washington administration to the slave rebellion was to help the French suppress it, even at considerable expense. The French, short on funds, quickly sought American financial aid to help them in their efforts to put down the rebellion. Washington responded favorably, and his words clearly indicate his thoughts. In response to a request for aid from Jean de Ternant, the French minister to the United States, Washington wrote on September 24, “Sincerely regretting, as I do, the cause which has given rise to this application, I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United States are to render every aid in their power to our good friends and Allies the [French] to quell ‘the alarming insur[rec]tion of the Negros in Hispaniola’ [and] of the ready disposition to effect [it,] of the Executive authority thereof.” Ternant certainly sought to make Washington’s decision easier to reach. On the same day that Washington wrote his words, Ternant wrote him a “summary” of events on Saint-Domingue in which he spoke of the slaves’ goal of “killing without exception all the whites of the colony.” This intelligence may well have shocked Washington. Yet the president had already decided: his initial response was to aid in the suppression of this dangerous and regrettable uprising. Washington’s reaction was thus what might have been expected from an American slaveholder of the time. As Matthewson summarizes, “Washington responded because he objected to the blacks’ self-assertion and their spirit of autonomy or independence.”10
Washington had decided to aid France with cash and arms. Race and slavery were an essential part of this decision, but there were other factors to consider as well. One was, of course, trade. The administration needed to do what it could to maintain access to trade with Saint-Domingue. Secretary of State Jefferson feared that the upheaval in the colony might lead to the colony “falling under any other power”—by which he meant Great Britain. Jefferson was apprehensive that the slave rebellion might lead Saint-Domingue’s whites to look to Britain for their salvation and thus seek a more independent course. Hence, he wanted to make it clear that the administration “conceived it to be strongly in our interest that they should retain their connection with the mother country.” The fear that Britain could, in the future, monopolize the trade of such an important commercial partner made US aid to France imperative. Ternant, concerned about the implications of direct American negotiations “with the richest and most important of [France’s] colonies,” perhaps found such sentiments on the part of the United States’ chief diplomat reassuring.11
France wanted money from the United States. On September 21, 1791, Ternant wrote Hamilton, telling the Treasury secretary of “the most urgent need [le plus pressant besoin]” now facing the government in Paris. Requesting $40,000 in credit, paid against America’s debt to France, he reiterated that the situation was “urgent.” Hamilton could not have responded with more alacrity—or, apparently, sympathy. “Regretting most sincerely the calamitous event announced in your letter of this day,” he wrote Ternant, “it is with real pleasure, I find myself in condition to inform you” that the sum would be paid by the US Treasury to France. The next day Hamilton informed Washington of the correspondence with Ternant, transmitting to the president Ternant’s letter. In informing Washington of his actions, the secretary echoed his own words to Ternant: the slave revolution was an “urgent and calamitous case.” Two days later, from Mount Vernon, Washington indicated to Hamilton that the secretary’s actions met with his “entire approbation.” Given Washington’s absence from Philadelphia at the time, and the pace of communication in the late 1700s, the decision to aid France in its efforts to suppress the uprising of the enslaved in Saint-Domingue could not have come more quickly than it did. The administration’s policy—American policy—appeared to be clearly and firmly set against the rebellion.12
Still, commercial interests were never far from the minds of the key members of Washington’s cabinet. In early January 1792 Jefferson expressed his dismay at the daily reports from Saint-Domingue, and perceived that “nothing indicates as yet that the evil is at it’s [sic] height.” Yet he could not help but ask one of the commissioners sent by the white Dominguans to the United States about US flour shipments to the colony. As Rayford Logan noted in his history of Haitian-US relations, Jefferson “planned to obtain every possible advantage from France’s difficulties.” Hamilton, likewise, “saw in the insurrection an opportunity to exact additional commercial privileges with the colony.” By 1795, in fact, the French minister to the United States, Joseph Fauchet, was quoting Jefferson as saying, “The force of events hands over the French colonies to us; France enjoys the sovereignty over them and we, the profit from them.”13
Despite American aid, the situation in Saint-Domingue continued to deteriorate for France. The Washington administration would provide France with over $700,000 in aid between 1791 and 1793, and US merchants kept up the supply of food, weapons, and ammunition. But the aid was insufficient to allow the French to quell what had become a three-way civil war between whites, mulattoes, and Blacks. By the end of 1791, “white power was largely broken” in the South and West Provinces. In late March of the following year, Ternant provided Foreign Minister Claude Antoine de Valdec de Lessart with a wrenching assessment of the situation for the whites in the colony. Saint-Domingue was “still in a violent state of revolution,” wrote the minister, adding a note about “the confusion or rather anarchy of the powers there.”14 Rent by divisions and dissentions, the white Dominguans could not respond effectively to the insurrection that faced them, no matter how much aid the United States provided.
In any event, whether that aid would keep coming came into question due to a turn in the French Revolution. The National Convention of France “suspended”—but did not depose—King Louis XVI on August 10, 1792. This suspension of the monarchy did not, in any way, end the French government’s need for American aid, but the change in the regime caused Hamilton to question how much help the administration should be giving. In a letter to Washington dated November 19, the Treasury secretary discussed Ternant’s request for “an additional supply of money for the use of the Colony of Santo Domingo … which I regard more and more as presenting a subject extremely delicate and embarrassing.” The American Treasury could provide at least some of the funds that the French requested. But Hamilton questioned the propriety of doing so with the king suspended and the situation in Paris unclear. Should the king be restored at some future point in time, “no payment made which might be made in the Interval would be deemed regular or obligatory.” Hamilton nevertheless advised that money should be made available: aid to Saint-Domingue that sought to alleviate the suffering of the colony “would be so clearly and act of humanity and friendship, of such evident utility to the French Empire” that no French government could, in the future “refuse to allow credit” for it.15
Still, it was an embarrassing situation, since it was not clear, at least to Hamilton, if there was “now any organ of the French nation which can regularly ask the succor.” Hamilton thus recommended to Washington that “as little as possible ought to be done,” and that “whatever may be done should be cautiously restricted to the single idea of preserving the colony from destruction by Famine.” Finally, the administration must present its aid in such a way as to “avoid the explicit recognition of any regular authority in any person.” If—and only if—these conditions were met, Ternant’s request would be granted. Jefferson himself, in any event, was cautious at this time regarding the diplomatic niceties of providing aid to a government that still had not formally requested it.16
Developments in Saint-Domingue made the question of the form of US aid moot. The possibility of a negotiated settlement between whites and Blacks in the colony had seemed real enough in late 1791. Peace commissioners sent from France met with leaders of the Black rebels, whose initial demands were modest: amnesty for themselves in return for their followers’ return to the plantations. The refusal of the colonial assembly to accept these terms—planning instead to slaughter the rebels once they had disarmed—guaranteed the end for white rule in the colony. As Thomas O. Ott summarizes it, “The last chance of the whites had collapsed under the weight of their own vengeance.” Perhaps even this chance had been illusory. As Dubois suggests, the deal envisaged might well have “provoked open hostilities between the ‘multitude’ of insurgents and their leaders.”17 One thing was certain: it was no longer a matter of US aid to prop up the white plantation elite’s power in Saint-Domingue. By 1793 that power was forever broken.
The collapse of white power was the result, in large part, of divisions among whites in Saint-Domingue. So, too, was the declaration of general abolition of slavery that came on August 29, 1793, by the Jacobin commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax. Sonthonax and his fellow commissioners had engaged in reform of the slave system on the island, issuing an order that accorded some protections to the enslaved while still retaining the system of slavery. But even this went too far for the white planters, who came quickly to rally behind the new governor, François-Thomas Galbaud du Fort. In his effort to rally the support of the Black insurgents in the ensuing power struggle, Sonthonax first proclaimed the manumission of those Blacks who fought on his side against Galbaud’s forces. By August he was compelled by the expectations of his followers to proclaim the end to slavery in the North Province. Soon, his fellow commissioner, Étienne Polverel, would do the same in the South and West Provinces, “at which point,” Philippe R. Girard observes, “all slaves of the colony became officially free under French colonial law.” The slaves of Saint-Domingue had, at least for the time, succeeded in their primary goal. This could not have been expected to sit well with many of their neighbors to the north.18
The impact of the “first general, immediate emancipation” of slaves in the Americas “would continue to be felt for decades, especially in the slave South,” Matthewson notes. The “contagion” of slave insurrection was much feared in the United States, and more so after the slaves were successful in gaining their freedom. Ashli White observes that the very equation of slave rebellion with contagion helped to frame uprising of the enslaved as a “malevolent force of nature.” This helped, in turn, deny agency to the slaves, since “disease did not have a political agenda, nor did it control its own actions.” This framing might have reassured some proslavery Americans, who did not want to think of US slaves as having agency. But the horror of the contagion—the spread—of slave insurrection to Saint-Domingue’s neighbors indicates that the slaveholding powers of the hemisphere had some inkling that perhaps the slaves had an agenda of their own—one that translated across the borders of the different slave cultures. One could still seek to dismiss the relevance of the revolution, attributing it, as White notes, to “circumstances on the island.” But this hardly allayed the fear.19
Scholars have addressed the issue of the fear of the Saint-Domingue “contagion” spreading to the American South. And there is ample evidence that this fear was real. Often cited as a clear early statement of this fear is South Carolina governor Charles Pinckney’s letter to the colonial assembly from September 1791, in which he stated, “When we recollect how nearly similar the situation of the Southern States and St. Domingo are in the profusion of slaves—that a day may arrive when they may be exposed to the same insurrections—we cannot but sensibly feel for your situation.” There is, again, no doubt that Americans—and especially southerners—viewing events in Saint-Domingue feared the export of slave insurrection to the United States. Matthewson is correct when he notes that the founders’ commitment to emancipation did not extend to “slave self-emancipation or black domination of whites. The prospect of immediate emancipation was horrifying to them.” The policy taken by the Washington administration toward Saint-Domingue can only be understood in light of this analysis. Nor was the fear of Dominguan-inspired slaves taking matters into their own hands a chimera. For instance, observers at the time, and numerous scholars today, hold that Gabriel’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1800 was inspired by the insurrection in Saint-Domingue.20
While merchants in the Northeast might respond to the insurrection by seeing trade opportunities, southerners perceived “first and foremost a dangerous example for local slaves.” Yet even for leading southerners, this seemingly existential fear had to be balanced with other fears, other opportunities. In his careful study of Jefferson and Haiti, Arthur Scherr concludes that Jefferson, “always cognizant of the importance of the balance of power in the Americas and dreading British domination, was more concerned about this than with the possibility that Southern slaves might imitate their Caribbean counterparts in insurrection.” Slavery remained a national security issue. But as developments in Saint-Domingue were becoming part of the broader struggle of the wars of the French Revolution, even this interest had to be viewed in that context.21
Thus, a major turning point—for Saint-Domingue and for US policy regarding the colony—came in 1793 with the British invasion of the island. Perhaps the invasion was motivated in part by a fear that echoed that of the Americans—namely, the horror at the spread of slave insurrection from Haiti. While the Americans fretted about the southern states, the British were particularly concerned about Jamaica. The island was an easy sail from the western ports of the South Province. In this sense, the invasion was “both an aggressive and a defensive act,” to quote the leading scholar of the British invasion, David Patrick Geggus. Geggus holds, however, that “British policy towards Saint-Domingue in 1793 was essentially aggressive and not inspired by fear for Jamaica’s safety.” The government thought it had taken good care to defend the island. Ott notes that the desire to gain a diplomatic bargaining chip and the traditional British wartime policy of taking colonial possessions of its enemies mixed with the perceived need to protect Jamaica. With Britain and France at war again in 1793, London’s decision to invade France’s colony seems overdetermined.22
Writing from Paris in mid-February 1793, the American minister plenipotentiary to France, Gouverneur Morris, had reassured Secretary of State Jefferson that the French colony was almost certainly safe from attack: “Many suppose that the french Colonies will be attack’d but this I do not beleive. It is indeed far from improbable that a british Garrison may be thrown into Martinique but as to St. Domingo it would require more Men than can be spard to defend it and as much money as it is worth.”23 That September, Britain proved Morris wrong, in part: the British did invade Saint-Domingue. But, as Morris had foreseen, the invasion’s prospects for success were slim and its costs were great. The battered invasion force left the colony in 1798. Yet the period of British occupation brought with it developments in Saint-Domingue that American policymakers would have to reckon with.
Had it come at an earlier point in time, the British invasion and occupation of the French colony could have been viewed as a threat to American interests in the Caribbean, and a major threat at that. Coming as it did, however, in the context of both improving relations with the British and of a general souring of relations with France, the governing Federalists were able to take this British move in stride. Jay’s Treaty of 1794, ratified in 1795, was lambasted by Republicans as a sellout to Britain and a provocation of America’s French ally that failed to address major areas of US conflict with Great Britain. The failure of Jay’s Treaty to deal with British carrying off of American slaves has been addressed in chapter 1. What is most significant for the study of US relations with Haiti is that the treaty largely ended fears of a slide to war with Britain just at the time when Britain was intervening significantly in Saint-Domingue. In this heated international context it was useful to the government in Philadelphia to observe “significant marks of Britain’s receptivity to conciliation with the United States.” American commercial expansion could now continue to grow in peace, including commerce with that important trading partner, Saint-Domingue.24
During this period American merchants generally continued to run a good trade with the occupied colony, especially since British officials recognized the need for American shipping capacity. So far, so good, as American imports and exports helped sustain the British adventure. But then came late December 1794, and mulatto commander André Rigaud’s capture of Tiburon on the far western end of Saint-Domingue. Rigaud’s victory was stunning: by the end of the battle, the British had lost not only the town, and the port closest to Jamaica, but had also sacrificed three hundred of 450 defenders. It was, indeed, a “disaster,” and it presaged further troubles for the British.25
The leadership ability and fighting skills of the Dominguans were major reasons for the turn of events. So, too, was the outbreak of tropical disease. The British had invaded and occupied Saint-Domingue at a time that was hardly propitious for Europeans in the Caribbean: yellow fever was at pandemic levels in the Caribbean and North America between 1793 and 1798. (The US capital city of Philadelphia had been hit by an outbreak in 1793.) The fever took a massive toll on British soldiers over the course of the occupation. The losses were indeed astounding. Geggus estimates that over 12,500 of a total force of a little over 20,500 had died by the end of the occupation. This was obviously unsustainable and called for a new approach by the British to securing their interests in the region.26
In addition to yellow fever, the British, from 1794 onward, would have to deal with another force of nature in Saint-Domingue: the former slave—and slave owner—turned general, Toussaint Louverture. Until the spring of 1794, Toussaint had been fighting on the side of Britain’s Spanish allies. His defection to the side of the French Republic seems to have come from a combination of principle, naked ambition, and Spanish mistakes. Certainly the decision by the National Convention to ratify Sonthonax’s declaration of manumission made it easier for Toussaint to justify his conversion. Yet his defection came prior to that ratification. He clearly saw that the prospects for a top leadership post were better with the French then the Spaniards. Nor was Spanish arrogance toward former slaves, or the local Spanish commander’s mistreatment of Toussaint’s family, endearing. Toussaint made his famous volte-face cautiously, even surreptitiously. But he made it, nonetheless. And his conversion to the Tricolor was, notes Geggus, “without doubt one of the major factors in the defeat of the British.” From 1794 until 1802, no figure in Haitian history would play a more outsize role than Toussaint. American policymakers, convinced of the vital interests at stake in Saint-Domingue, would now have to wrestle with the policy to be adopted toward a French colony more and more under the control of a Black leader who came into the world enslaved.27
That the relationship went so well, and was productive for both sides, is a tribute to Toussaint’s gifts as a diplomatist as much as to the members of Federalist John Adams’s policymaking team. Both sides sought mutual profit from the relationship, and they achieved it. In this sense, from the American perspective, concerns about national interest trumped those of race, at least for a time. It should not be forgotten, however, that the time was extraordinary, and threats to American interests were very real. American policymakers still held to brutally racist views of Blacks, as even a cursory reading of the contemporary sources reveals. Yet this only makes this period in the sad history of America’s relations with Haiti all the more remarkable.
Both Adams and Toussaint faced difficult diplomatic realities and crosswinds as they sought to formulate policy with regard to each other. Toussaint’s situation, however, was more difficult, given that he was still a French officer in what was—if increasingly nominally—a French colony. Girard has well summarized his diplomatic predicament: “His foreign policy courted France, Great Britain, and the United States, all of which happened to be hostile to one another.” Toussaint had to reckon with British naval mastery of the seas, Girard notes, and maintain a supply line to American merchants, all while not appearing to take steps toward independence, which would invite French intervention.28 It was a tall order for any diplomatist. Yet it was not beyond his skills.
The American position, if not quite so delicate, called also for quite adroit diplomacy. Relations with France were in steep decline after ratification of Jay’s Treaty, and the two nations would find themselves in an undeclared naval war during much of Adams’s presidency. This conflict raised the issue of Saint-Domingue’s independence at high levels of the Adams administration, with Secretary of State Timothy Pickering especially interested in such an option in light of American trade interests at a time of the Quasi-War with France. At the same time, Adams was adamant that American actions in the Caribbean comport with those of the British: no blue sky could appear between the two English-speaking nations while the conflict raged with France on the high seas. The challenges were daunting, and, if not as complex as those facing Toussaint, complex nonetheless.
Congress had passed the Intercourse Act in June 1798, suspending trade with France and its “dependencies.” This ban was initially interpreted as including Saint-Domingue. It hit Toussaint particularly hard, since he needed American supplies at a time when he was engaged in a domestic power struggle. André Rigaud still held power in the South Province, and was supported by the French, who saw him as less of a threat. Toussaint gravely needed aid to help him consolidate power over the colony. And that help needed to come from the United States, since, as Girard observes, “too close an alliance with England would convince black Dominguans that Louverture was preparing to restore slavery” in the colony.29 Toussaint thus took a rather striking diplomatic initiative, and appealed directly to the president of the United States to seek redress of the situation. In doing so, Toussaint acted as if he were a head of government, approaching a peer instead of the chief general of a colonial army.
On November 6, 1798, Toussaint addressed a letter to Adams. He got right to the point, telling Adams that “it is with the greatest surprise and the most painful sorrow [la peine la plus sensible]” that American ships had abandoned the colony’s ports, thus renouncing all commercial relations with Saint-Domingue and denying it the “commodities and comestibles” of North America. He was thus approaching Adams to discuss with him the “appropriate means to reestablish navigation and to again have the American flag arrive in our ports.” Seeking to appeal to Adams’s perceptions of American interests, Toussaint noted that a resumption of trade was as much in America’s benefit as that of France’s colonies. He added the promise that Americans would always be respected as a friend and ally of France. With an eye clearly fixed on the problem with this promise—namely, French aggression in the naval Quasi-War—the general sought to reassure Adams that he would give protection to “the ships of your nation that make their way [se rendront] into the ports of the French Republic in this colony.”30 A former slave—who led an army of the formerly enslaved—had thus approached the white president of the slaveholding republic with a request that stressed the mutual benefit to be had from cooperation of the two regimes. It was a bold move indeed.
Delivering the letter to Philadelphia was Joseph Bunel, a white Dominguan who served as Toussaint’s personal representative on the mission to seek redress for the trade embargo. The choice of a white emissary must have seemed a foregone conclusion to Toussaint, aware as he was of the racism that existed at the highest levels of the American government. But whatever the color of his representative, the fact remained that this person would be speaking for a Black leader and former slave. Toussaint was, in this regard as well, taking a chance that probably seemed a long shot. Yet Bunel found a positive reception, and an administration that was, Logan notes, “well disposed to grant his request.” In part, this derived from America’s own trade interests, which Toussaint had stressed in his letter to Adams. It also derived from the closely related desire on the part of the Adams administration to explore the idea of Saint-Domingue’s independence. Strikingly, and in contrast to the policy of the previous administration, Adams’s chosen diplomats were willing to give serious thought to the benefit the United States would harvest if Toussaint should declare independence from France. No one at the time could have missed what this meant: the permanent end of slavery in Saint-Domingue. Even more significant, from the point of view of American diplomacy it would mean that America would likely establish relations with a Black head of state in its own back yard. Toussaint, as it turned out, never declared independence. But the American administration’s willingness to treat a former slave as, potentially, a head of state in the Americas was strong stuff indeed.31
Bunel was received by Timothy Pickering, Adams’s first secretary of state. Pickering was, by late 1798, of the opinion that Toussaint and his associates would soon and successfully “assume the direction of affairs of the island,” and he expressed himself clearly as supporting a “prompt” resumption of trade with the ports of “that island.” Pickering described Toussaint as “amiable and respectable,” and a leader well disposed toward “peace toward Great Britain and her [dependencies?], as well as toward the United States.” Pickering here expressed none of the horror, suffered by some, that a nation led by a former slave would launch a direct attack on slavery in the Caribbean or the United States. According to his biographer, Pickering—like the British government—“feared the effect of the revolution in Santo Domingo, particularly as an example to the Negroes of the American South.” Yet the secretary of state also appeared horrified by the prospect of France ever cutting off trade between Saint-Domingue and the United States. And he expressed the confidence that Toussaint posed no such threat.32
Writing from London, the American minister to Great Britain, Rufus King, summarized British perceptions of American policy toward Toussaint. The British foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, had “remarked to [King] concerning a supposed inclination on our part to encourage the Establishment of a Black Republic in Santo Domingo.” Nor was this the first that King had heard about this supposed inclination on the part of the Adams administration. Grenville and King had spoken of the matter as early as July 1798, after the British minister to Philadelphia, Robert Liston, had spoken about Saint-Domingue with Pickering. King reported to Pickering that Grenville had “heard with horror from Mr. Liston that in a conversation between you and him, you had intimated an idea that our government might be disposed to countenance the establishment of a Republic of Blacks in Santo Domingo.” King denied any knowledge of the policy, but added, perhaps not terribly helpfully, “that I should prefer to see one or two Republicks [sic] in So. America.”33
Perhaps Grenville could be forgiven for not being so solicitous of the establishment of republics in the New World, and especially not one run by former slaves in the near vicinity of Jamaica. British policymakers hoped for rather different developments in the Caribbean. The British, defeated by Dominguan forces and tropical disease, were ready to end the occupation. But this did not mean that they were ready to give up on their policy goals for the colony. General Thomas Maitland, who was to oversee British evacuation, took the lead. He hoped, in Girard’s words, to “salvage something from Britain’s disastrous invasion of Saint-Domingue.” In order to salvage what could be salvaged, Maitland sought to deal directly with the general who had inflicted defeat upon his nation. Toussaint was receptive. In late August 1798, the two concluded a secret agreement, after a period of negotiation. By the terms of the convention, the British promised not to “meddle in any way with anything that deals with the internal and political arrangements of the isle of St. Domingue.” In return, Toussaint gave his word that he would “take no part in any way in the internal and political arrangements and government of the isle of Jamaica.” Maitland was, thus, able to achieve a major British goal—namely, a pledge from Toussaint not to export slave rebellion to the valuable British colony. In return, the British were willing to give Toussaint a “free hand” in his own domain. Additionally, the British would provide aid to Toussaint, including weapons and powder for use in his war with Rigaud in the South Province. Maitland wrote London that the supplies were vital, since Toussaint’s victory or defeat “undoubtedly in a considerable degree depends upon their arrival.” Now the British would be supplying the force that had handed them an ignominious defeat. In doing so they acted not out of magnanimity but self-interest. The only choice now was between Toussaint and the pro-French Rigaud. In the future the former could be relied on to seek to cultivate good relations with the Americans and British, due to his need for trade and aid. Rigaud’s triumph would hand a victory to the French in the strategically important Caribbean. It was not much of a choice.34
The Adams administration, for its part, continued its focus on trade with Saint-Domingue. During the Quasi-War with France this proved particularly challenging, especially since the United States had embargoed trade with France and its possessions. Yet Bunel’s and Toussaint’s efforts at cultivating the Americans showed signs of paying dividends. In February 1799, Edward Stevens was confirmed by the Senate to be the American consul general in Saint-Domingue. That title was relevant, since Pickering had now elevated the rank of the emissary in Saint-Domingue from that of consul, indicating the seriousness with which the administration took the post—and relations with Toussaint. In the most thorough treatment of Stevens’s diplomatic career, Ronald Angelo Johnson stresses the significance of the decision to send a representative of this rank to Cap Française: “Stevens’s duties were those of an accredited diplomat to the Louverturian government, not a consul,” Johnson concludes. “Adams expected Stevens to cultivate a strengthened bilateral relationship with a revolutionary government that the president believed would eventually become the second sovereign state in the western Atlantic world.” Johnson makes a convincing case that the appointment of Stevens—at this rank—was more significant than has previously been acknowledged; aware as he was of the racist attitudes that prevailed in the United States, Adams had essentially appointed a minister to a Black regime, while still using the phrase “consul” to tamp down the reaction to his doing so. Adams planned on taking Dominguan-US relations quite seriously.35
It must be noted that this did not necessarily mean that the Americans were enthusiastic about seeing an independent Saint-Domingue. On this matter there was not a consensus within the administration. But in the context of worsening relations with France after the infamous XYZ Affair, an independent Saint-Domingue was looking more and more attractive to some Americans. Chief among these was Pickering, who, in Gordon S. Brown’s words, wanted Toussaint “to become an instrument of policy, aimed at France.” Pickering was positively disposed toward the Dominguan leader and, if not pushing for independence, was certainly “actively resigned” to it. Writing to Rufus King on March 12, 1799, Pickering was cautious, but perhaps King could read between the lines: “We meddle not with the politics of the Island. Toussaint will pursue what he deems the interest of himself and his countrymen. He will probably declare the Island independent. It is probable that he wished to apprise himself of our commerce, as the necessary means of maintaining it. Neither moral nor political considerations could induce us to discourage him: on the contrary, both would warrant us in urging him to the declaration.”
Knowing full well that the Adams administration was actively seeking to expand commerce with the French colony, Pickering had said that this commerce would be necessary for Toussaint to maintain independence. He could not have come much closer to calling for independence, and he expected a declaration from Toussaint after the general had defeated Rigaud. Yet Pickering was no firebrand on the issue of Saint-Domingue’s independence. Writing the president’s son, John Quincy Adams, in April, he again insisted that the United States did not “intermeddle with Toussaint’s politics.” He expected a declaration of independence. But whether Toussaint took that route, or whether he “govern[ed] it as a colony of France,” the same commercial relations would be maintained. In any event, since the president’s son was positively disposed to independence, there was no reason for the secretary to argue the case. For Pickering, a Saint-Domingue in the hands of Toussaint was infinitely preferable to one held by France. He wrote King in March that “if left to themselves … the Blacks of St. Domingo … will be incomparably less dangerous than if they remain the subjects of France,” adding, “France with an army of those black troops might conquer all the British Isles [in the Caribbean] and put in jeopardy our Southern States.”36
Most members of the administration, however, did not share Pickering’s separatist enthusiasm. One rather prominent skeptic was the president himself. Adams was not as certain as Pickering was that Toussaint would declare independence. In fact, he believed that Toussaint was not sure either. “Toussaint,” he wrote to Pickering, “has puzzled himself, the French Government, the English Cabinet, and the Administration of the United States. All the rest of the World knows as little what to do with him as he knows what to do with himself.” For Pickering, the great fear was France at the head of a Black army of liberation. But for the president, the concern was for America’s ties with British policy in the Caribbean. And the British did not share Pickering’s desire for an independent Saint-Domingue, which could serve as an example to Britain’s possessions.37
Adams could not have made himself clearer on this last point. If unsure about Toussaint’s policy, he had no doubts about his own in this regard. He wrote Pickering in early July, making it clear that “Harmony with the English, in all this Business of St. Domingo is the thing I have most at heart.” He went further at the end of that month, telling the secretary that “a good understanding with the English is of more importance to Us than the trade of St. Domingo, which I’m afraid will be found to have been too highly estimated.” Not that Adams was a fawning British sycophant. In fact, as Arthur Scherr has noted, the president was not beyond dropping hints of his distrust of the British. For example, Adams wrote to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddard in June 1799 concerning events in the Caribbean. Even while stressing to the secretary the need for working “in concert” with the British in Saint-Domingue, he felt compelled to add, “The English in my opinion have made much mischief for themselves as well as for us in that island.” Given the power of the Royal Navy, and the state of Quasi-War with France, America could not risk alienating Britain over Saint-Domingue. That did not mean that Adams had to trust them.38
Adams and Pickering may have disagreed about matters relating to policy toward the Caribbean, but Adams was the president. Playing the role of the good soldier, Colonel Pickering largely followed the lead of his commander. In instructions written for Stevens in April 1799, Pickering did not depart from Adams’s prescription of priorities. Pickering emphasized to the consul that “we desire perfect harmony with” the British. One must always bear in mind that “the security of the British possessions and commerce in the West Indies, especially in relation to St. Domingo, is closely interwoven with our own.” In a telling passage, the secretary instructed Stevens, “On our part, we consider the prospect which has been opened to us of a lucrative trade to St. Domingo, is to be ascribed in a great degree to the operations of the British; and that the continuation and protection of that trade rests chiefly on the Naval superiority of Great Britain. We are bound then, by a direct regard to our commercial interests, and considerations of political safety against what may justly be called a common enemy, to act in perfect concert with Great Britain in all this business respecting St. Domingo.” The secretary was here singing from the president’s hymnal.39
As concerned as he was regarding independence, Adams was equally convinced that trade with Saint-Domingue was in America’s interests—provided, of course, that this trade was conducted in cooperation with Great Britain. Toussaint had written to Adams in November, asking that trade be reestablished between Saint-Domingue and the United States. To do so, Adams would first have to do something about the embargo that the United States had imposed on trade with France and her possessions. If an exception were to be made for Saint-Domingue, it would have to pass Congress. This, then, was the background for the well-known Toussaint’s Clause. The administration asked Congress for an extension of the embargo, with the proviso that the president could declare an exception to the act covering those places “with which a commercial intercourse may safely be renewed.” The nickname given to this clause reflected the universal understanding in Congress that the clause would be invoked in the case of Saint-Domingue. Debate thus focused on this French colony.40
Federalists in Congress—in both the North and South—strongly advocated for the passage of the measure. Republicans were generally less enthusiastic. Pennsylvania’s Albert Gallatin took the opposition’s lead, resulting in a debate that was more partisan than regional. Adverting to possible independence for Saint-Domingue, he observed that the colony “is known to consist, almost altogether, of slaves just emancipated, of men who received their first education under the whip.” These were a people, he added, “who have been initiated to liberty only by that series of rapine, pillage, and massacre that have laid waste and deluged that island in blood.” Now, Gallatin said, he would like to see emancipation “when it can be properly effected, but no man would be more unwilling than I to constitute a whole nation of freed slaves, who had arrived to the age of thirty years, and thus to throw so many wild tigers on society.” Having thus dismissed the humanity of the slaves who had liberated themselves by equating them with feral predatory animals, Gallatin helpfully added that “they might also become dangerous neighbors for the Southern States, and an asylum for renegadoes from those parts.” The Republican leader on the issue had made it quite clear: taking a step that helped Toussaint gain independence would have the result of unleashing wild beasts on the American South.41
The Federalists were not shaken to the core by Gallatin’s tocsin. The bill passed both houses of Congress and, on February 9, 1799, Adams signed it. The American administration had made what was, in the context of the time, the rather remarkable decision to open trade with a regime led by Blacks who had freed themselves from slavery. The US government, Scherr notes, was in no way moving toward recognition of an “independent black regime” on Hispaniola.42 Still, it was a high point in US relations with what would become Haiti. But, once again, it was not possible to execute even so magnanimous a policy without the cooperation of the British; Adams had been correct about this. Thus, coordination with Great Britain had to be guaranteed before the terms of the Toussaint Clause could be put into effect. And to achieve this, Adams and company would need some quality diplomacy. Stevens was able to provide it.
Edward Stevens—a St. Croix native, physician, and childhood friend of Hamilton—developed a quick liking for the Black general whose background could not have been more different from his own. In correspondence with Pickering, the consul general praised Toussaint’s “penetration and good sense” and commended his “humane and mild Conduct” in what had become a brutal civil war with Rigaud. Such was his conduct, in fact, that “Whites of the Colony … now look up to him as their only Shield against the cruel Tyranny of Rigaud.” Where Gallatin saw mad beasts, Stevens saw a capable and moderate leader. Johnson rightly highlights the striking nature of the relationship between these two men. The seemingly routine gesture of a handshake between the two was, in fact, a significant event in the context of the time: “Shaking hands with a black person as a sign of mutual honor and respect represented a gesture unthinkable to most white Americans.” Adams had chosen well.43
To prepare the way for Toussaint’s Clause going into effect, Stevens negotiated with Maitland and Toussaint. As Brown emphasizes, the Adams administration—and thus Stevens—was trying to “straddle the horns of a dilemma.” It wanted to open trade with the colony, but at the same time to tamp down on the dangers of privateering and the spread of slave revolt. The Maitland-Toussaint convention of June 13, 1799, cleared the way for the opening of trade by addressing all of these points. Of particular importance, Stevens wrote Pickering, was the insertion of the “Clause which I deemed so essential to the Security of the Southern States of America.” By the terms of the agreement, Toussaint pledged that “there would be no expeditions against any possessions of His Majesty or the United States of America by the Troops of Saint-Domingue.” With this promise, along with agreements regarding the suppression of privateering, Toussaint’s Clause could now be put into effect. Thus, on June 26, Adams issued the proclamation. After some confusion, it actually went into effect on August 1. The resumption of trade was now an accomplished fact, and all sides had gotten what they most wanted.44
What Toussaint had most desired was supplies for his forces to allow them to take the battle to Rigaud. The agreement gave him this. In the view of Stevens, aid to Toussaint also benefited the United States. The consul general had no doubt that Toussaint’s victory over Rigaud was in America’s best interest. In writing Pickering, Stevens stressed the brutality of Rigaud, and compared the mulatto general quite negatively to the Black former slave with whom he had just treated. He added, “It will readily occur to you, Sir, that if Toussaint should prove unsuccessful, all the arrangements we have made respecting Commerce must fall to the Ground. The most solemn Treaty would have little weight with a man of Rigaud’s capricious and tyrannical Temper. This circumstance points out the absolute necessity of supporting Toussaint by every legal measure.” Stevens added that it might be useful if the US Navy would send some ships to the “South side of the Island” to help the Royal Navy choke off aid to Rigaud and his forces. Stevens was, to put a fine point on it, calling for US military intervention to aid Toussaint in the bloody civil war against Rigaud.45
The US Navy began to take active steps to interdict ships supplying Rigaud. But American intervention did not stop there. In an oft-noted intervention, the navy assisted Toussaint in his assault on Jacmel by bombarding Rigaud’s fortifications. In March 1800 Toussaint, with the help of the American navy, took Jacmel, thus “pav[ing] the way for a complete victory for Toussaint’s troops in the south.”46 While this intervention has been commented upon extensively, it bears again noting that the United States had engaged in its first foreign military intervention in order to aid a Black leader at the head of a Black army. The former slave seemed the better bet to help protect America’s significant interests in the (increasingly nominal) French colony. The fact that American military and commercial intervention could well help solidify Toussaint’s inclination—if he had one—to declare independence was a risk that Adams and company were willing to take. Racism against the Blacks, however, informed their thinking on this matter, with the presumption being shared at the highest level that, as Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott put it, “it is very problematical whether the Blacks will ever maintain regular habits of industry under the government of their own Chiefs.” Secretary of State Pickering, seemingly the administration’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for independence, shared Wolcott’s assessment of Saint-Domingue’s Black population. Toussaint, he wrote King, “cannot form a ‘black republic’—the blacks are too ignorant.” Alas, Toussaint had to take allies where he could find them.47
The question soon arose as to whether Toussaint could find them at all. The Adams policy toward Saint-Domingue had emerged within the context of an undeclared naval war with France. The Quasi-War had increased Toussaint’s diplomatic leverage, as Saint-Domingue became, quite literally, a battleground in the conflict. He could not have desired a quick rapprochement between Paris and Washington, the new national capital of the Americans. Yet peace between France and the United States was hammered out at the end of September 1800. The Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, put an end to the Quasi-War. France was then engaged in the War of the Second Coalition, and needed no additional enemies. From the American perspective, the end of the 1778 alliance with France reduced the chances of being dragged into this European war. Both sides benefited from the conclusion of bilateral hostilities.
But Toussaint did not. News of peace between Paris and Washington struck him, in Logan’s words, like a “thunderbolt,” and “the wily general probably concluded that the United States would become less friendly since she no longer needed his assistance against France.” Probably aware of the impact that the news from Mortefontaine would have in Saint-Domingue, the new secretary of state, John Marshall, sought to assuage Toussaint’s fears, writing him on November 26, “Be Assured, Sir, of our sincere desire to preserve the most perfect harmony and the most friendly intercourse with St. Domingo, and that we shall rejoice at every occasion of manifesting this disposition compatible with those fixed principles, which regulate the conduct of our Government.” Whether Toussaint found the Virginian’s words reassuring has not been recorded. It is, however, rather doubtful that Toussaint was feeling confident about his future relationship with the United States, given that a slaveholder, Jefferson, had just been elected to the presidency. Any reassurance from the outgoing Federalists had to be weighed against concern that policy would change in Washington, both because of the Franco-American peace and the election of a southern Democratic-Republican.48
Had Toussaint had access to subsequent scholarship on Jefferson and Haiti, his anxiety would have known no bounds. The standard interpretation of Jefferson’s Haitian policy notes a significant reversal from the cooperative and respectful policies implemented by Adams and the Federalists. Jefferson’s primary motivator, it is alleged, was a fear that the contagion of slave revolution would spread. Thus, anticipating American security policy of a century and a half later, he adopted “containment” as his strategy. Dubois writes, for instance, that “Thomas Jefferson would ultimately move toward a policy of containment. With his eyes on Louisiana, he was clearly interested in limiting French power in the area, but he was also concerned about limiting the impact of the revolution on North America.” A new administration of slaveholding southerners had moved into Washington and brought with it new priorities. Marshall, of course, had been a slaveholder as well. Yet under Adams he had sought to continue the policy of engagement. James Madison, Jefferson’s secretary of state, did not. Johnson notes that Madison “began to dismantle Marshall’s plan for closer relations with Saint-Domingue within weeks of Jefferson’s inauguration.” The shift, it would appear, was hardly short of radical.49
Scherr, however, challenges the received wisdom. He observes, correctly, that Jefferson allowed trade with Toussaint—including the trade in arms—to continue. In fact, Scherr concludes, “little difference existed between Jefferson’s policy as president and that of Adams.” This should not come as a complete surprise to careful students of the literature on the United States and the Haitian Revolution: Matthewson—a major target of Scherr’s revisionism—grants that Jefferson’s “sense of imperial priorities proved to be stronger than his racial concerns.” Jefferson, indeed, sought to “contain” the spread of a Louverturian-type rebellion to Hispaniola. But so had Maitland, and, by association, Stevens. Jefferson’s initial policy was not so much a radical departure as a nuanced shift from that of Adams, one that was likely to have occurred in some form under any administration holding office immediately after the Mortefontaine convention.50
Even before his election to the presidency, Jefferson showed signs of flexible thinking on the issue of American relations with Toussaint. While the Republicans generally, for instance, opposed Toussaint’s Clause, Jefferson had come to be resigned to it. Writing Madison in early February 1799, he observed that the clause was designed “to facilitate the separation of the island from France.” If so, he continued, then the Toussaint-Maitland agreement was “the best thing for us. they must get their provisions from us. it will indeed be in English bottoms, so that we shall lose the carriage. but the English will probably forbid them the ocean, confine them to their island, & thus prevent their becoming an American Algiers.” Jefferson’s analysis of relations with Saint-Domingue was focused on trade benefits and piracy, not race. It is instructive, as well, that he assumed “containment” would be seen to by the British. Again, Jefferson was showing himself broadly resigned to the Adams policy.51
After his election in the so-called Revolution of 1800, Jefferson continued his focus on trade and containment as the two pillars of American policy toward Saint-Domingue. Soon after taking office in March 1801, he met with the British minister to the United States, Edward Thornton, and spoke of the “establishment of a free and open trade for the subjects of [Britain and the United States], and the prevention of all maritime exertion on the part of the Negroes.”52 The suppression of the Blacks’ “maritime exertion” would have the dual benefit of preventing the proliferation of both piracy and dangerous ideas. If London and Washington could agree on such a policy toward Toussaint’s regime, then American interests should be well provided for.
To see to American interests in the colony itself, Jefferson removed Stevens and replaced him with Tobias Lear. The president’s decision to downgrade the post from consul general to general commercial agent was hardly designed to reassure Toussaint. Nor was Toussaint pleased to find that Lear bore no letter addressed to him from Jefferson. As Lear explained in a letter, “I handed my Commission to the General, who asked me if I had not a letter for him from the President, or from the Government. I told him I had not, and explained the reason, as not being customary in missions of this kind, where I should be introduced by my Predecessor, and exhibit my Commission as evidence of my Appointment. He immediately returned my Commission without opening it, expressing his disappointment and disgust in strong terms, saying that his Colour was the cause of his being neglected, and not thought worthy of the Usual attentions.” Lear sought to explain the reasoning behind this decision as a matter of protocol. But Toussaint, accustomed to corresponding with high-level members of the Adams administration, was not placated. He sent Lear, and his papers of commission, away until the next morning.53
The following day Toussaint reiterated his frustrations. This diplomatic snub would “hurt him in the eyes of his Chief Officers, when it was found that he was not thot. [sic] worthy of having a letter from the President or Government.… He appeared to be much hurt.” But Toussaint was not in a position to allow relations with the United States to deteriorate, at least not if he could help it. Expressing again to Lear the “mortification he felt” at the shabby treatment he was receiving, he nevertheless accepted the representative’s papers, stressing his “desire to preserve harmony and a good understanding with the United States.” Still, these were worrying times for the general, who must necessarily have wondered what the power change in Washington boded for him and his future. For Toussaint, this was not so much a matter of slights as survival.54
Toussaint continued to seek to maintain the positive relationship—economic and diplomatic—that had flourished under Adams. But it would be a challenge, even for this new master of the diplomatic game. Jeffersonian Republicans were less solicitous of international trade than were the Federalists of the Northeast. Nor had Jefferson’s fear of the exportation of slave rebellion from Saint-Domingue ever been fully assuaged. Gabriel’s slave uprising in Jefferson’s home state in 1800 gave him further reason to worry about this. So, too, it seemed, did Toussaint’s invasion of the Spanish-held eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola the following January. For one seeking evidence of the danger a free and potentially independent Black regime posed to the southern states, the evidence kept mounting.55
But the real threat to Toussaint’s survival came not from Washington but from Paris. First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte had overthrown the Directory in November 1799. As Ott notes, the Directory had “planned to restore French authority in Saint-Domingue.” Thus, Napoleon inherited the policy upon which he would act. And with his dream of an empire in the east shattered by his defeat on the River Nile, The first consul now looked to the west. As a first step, this meant restoration of French control over Saint-Domingue. For Toussaint and his followers, an attempt by Napoleon to return the colony to metropolitan control was fraught with threats—and not just to their own power. In January 1800 Napoleon had issued a proclamation stating that slavery would never be reestablished on the colony. And in a further attempt to reassure his fellow general, the first consul named Toussaint captain general, thus going “so far as to acknowledge Toussaint’s de facto military and political control of the colony.” But at the same time, slave traders and planters, in France and the West Indies, respectively, were pressing Napoleon to restore slavery on the island. To seek to restore slavery to Saint-Domingue, however, was to play with fire; Toussaint had still not declared the colony independent. Yet a French attempt to restore slavery would leave the free Blacks with no real option but to seek independence from France. Toussaint’s relationship with emancipation and labor was complicated, but a restoration of plantation slavery on Saint-Domingue was, for him, not an option.56
Napoleon’s decision to wage war on Toussaint was made in early 1801. Yet he was in no position to launch any sort of seaborne invasion while the Royal Navy blocked his sea-lanes. A British peace feeler in May was, thus, a godsend for the first consul: peace with Britain would open up the opportunity to send the invasion force that was now assembling in Brest. The diplomatic process that would lead to the Treaty of Amiens in the following year provided the respite that he needed. Napoleon could, furthermore, rest assured that he would have the support of both Britain and the United States in his attempts to reduce Toussaint. At least, he assumed that that was the case.57
Napoleon made such an assumption because Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord had been told so by Louis Pichon, the French minister to Washington. Pichon met with the US president on July 19, and they engaged in a rather frank discussion of American policy toward Saint-Domingue. During the conversation, Jefferson indicated that his administration would not aid Toussaint. Pressed by Pichon as to whether the United States would cooperate with France in reducing Toussaint and regaining control over the colony, Jefferson responded that it would, provided that France first “make peace with England.” If this were to happen, “nothing would be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything, and to reduce Toussaint to starvation.” The message that Pichon gave to the regime in Paris was clear: the Jefferson administration would assist in French military efforts to defeat Toussaint and reclaim control over the colony.58
One must, however, take Scherr’s analysis of this discussion seriously. The report of the conversation utilized by scholars is Pichon’s, and, thus, so is the reporting of Jefferson’s words. Indeed, Jefferson’s promise was more “cryptic” (according to Scherr) than Charles Callan Tansill would present it. Jefferson may well, as Scherr concludes, have been “seeking to divert Bonaparte’s search for allies against Louverture from the United States to a most unlikely partner, the British.” Much has been made of Jefferson’s “starvation” comment. A more productive line for scholars is, no doubt, to look at what Jefferson actually did rather than on what he allegedly promised to do.59
Madison’s January 8, 1802, instructions to Lear become important in this context. One presumes that Madison was well briefed on Jefferson’s Saint-Domingue policy. And in these instructions, one in fact finds something of a shift toward France, though nothing indicating that American intervention on France’s side was imminent. Madison began by telling Lear of the confused reports regarding British aid to France in her effort to reconquer Saint-Domingue. The reports included one of a “supposed understanding between the British and the French governments in pursuance of which the latter was to be aided by the former in the means of transporting an effectual force to St. Domingo. Such a cooperation however has not been indicated by any event [‘overt’ in the letter book copy] proceeding on the British side although it is not improbable that a complete subversion of the example so much dreaded by G. Britain may be favored by her.” Madison’s words are not exactly clear, but presumably he meant the “subversion” of the “example” that a Black-run country would present for Britain’s empire.
Madison went on to note that there was no confusion about a second, related matter: the French were planning on sending an expeditionary force consisting “of a large body of troops” to Saint-Domingue. He then instructed Lear as to what approach to take in this situation: “In the present uncertainty nothing better can be done for the direction of your conduct than to assist your discretion by observing 1. That it is equally inconsistent with our duty and policy to take any step that would controvert or offend the authority of the French republic over St. Domingo or have the appearance of intermeddling in any manner in its affairs [and] 2. That as far as these considerations will permit it is desirable on the part of the United States to avoid every unnecessary irritation or umbrage to the people of the island.” France and its interests were thus to be given priority by the American representative, with every effort, as far as possible given this priority, to avoid giving “unnecessary” offense to the residents of the former colony. No mention was made of American intervention; indeed, the goal seems to have been diplomatic caution at this point.60
This nevertheless indicated a clear theme in Jefferson’s policy: the preference for France above Toussaint. As Tansill notes, “Jefferson was committed to a policy of co-operation with France against the black dictator, and the Department of State permitted [the United States’] official relations with Santo Domingo to decline to a vanishing point.” The desire to see France balance out British power in the Caribbean was certainly a factor leading the president and his secretary of state to such a policy. So, too, however, was the nature of Toussaint’s regime as a functionally independent government of the formerly enslaved. The administration feared the implications of such a regime. The 1800 Gabriel Conspiracy in Jefferson and Madison’s native Virginia was likely not far from their minds. Jefferson and Virginia governor James Monroe worked under the assumption that the Haitian example had helped inspire this conspiracy. The rebellion made it that much more difficult for Jefferson to separate his fears of slave rebellion in the American South from his policy toward Toussaint.61
What is so stunning is that Jefferson’s policy reversal came so soon after the Gabriel Conspiracy. But Jefferson had policy priorities in addition to preventing the spread of slavery. Most significant among these was the acquisition of Louisiana; as rumors of the retrocession of Louisiana by Spain to France began to reach Washington, the Napoleonic vision of an empire in the New World became more of a threat to American interests than Toussaint and his freed slaves. Jefferson proclaimed that the transfer of Louisiana to France “was very ominous to us.”62
In assessing the potentially ominous implications of a French reconquest of Louisiana, United States slavery was much on the minds of the Republicans. Pennsylvanian and Madison correspondent Tench Coxe summarized the threat that French intervention in Louisiana posed. The French forces that arrived in the territory “will come thro the strainer of St. Domingo, and will keep up an extensive constant intimate connexion with the great Negro state. They are free. They are military. Their habits of subordination and labor are broken.” The impact of a French “establishment” in Louisiana would thus be ominous indeed, since American contacts with the new French entity “may diffuse St. Domingo views among our blacks. Our southern states, a main republican limb of our sincere republican body, may thus be doubly affected.” Coxe goes on to paint a fearful picture of the republican United States practically encircled by antirepublican elements. The French were rumored—correctly—to be preparing to send a large force to suppress Toussaint and his forces; as Coxe noted, “If they go, thro St Domingo, to Louisiana or half of them with the most dis[t]inguished Secret anti republicans of the French Army, and are combined with a black corps under some officer from thence of note, the sensation in the Southern states will be serious—and extensive. English, Spanish, Indians, St Domingo blacks, Manumitted Louisiana blacks, french Antirepublicans from Nova Scotia round out west to St Mary’s will not be well. Tis ill to fear. Tis well to be aware of the worst and to watch symptoms & facts that may occur.” In case Madison missed the point, Coxe reminded him that it “is impossible to be too much on our guard against the consequences of a large detachment of republican blacks from St. Domingo to Louisiana, accompanied by the sudden emancipation of the blacks there.” French plans thus posed a threat to slavery in the American South. Madison had expressed—if more succinctly—a similar concern to Robert Livingston the previous September, indicating the seriousness with which the administration took this threat.63
Perhaps it was ill to fear. But the French were coming, and Toussaint was preparing to meet them. He would have under his command perhaps as many as thirty thousand soldiers to meet a French force of roughly comparable size under the leadership of General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc—Napoleon’s brother-in-law. Napoleon considered the force sufficient, for, notes Ott, “he was so contemptuous of the blacks that he believed that a small French army could sweep them aside in a few weeks.” Napoleon instructed Leclerc to indicate a willingness to work with Toussaint, in order to be able to land his forces on the island. He was, later, to go back on this, deporting the Black leaders and reestablishing colonial rule over Saint-Domingue. Thus, Napoleon was, in Girard’s words, “relying more on deception and collaboration than brute force.” Included in Napoleon’s plans was a reassurance from the first consul himself that the French would not restore slavery on the island. Taking this approach, Napoleon could convince himself that things would go better for the French invasion force than they had for the British.64
The Jefferson administration’s response to the Leclerc expedition was one of grave concern. It certainly worried about the costs to American trade of a new French mercantilist regime over Saint-Domingue. Even more disturbing was the implication for Louisiana. The colony of Saint-Domingue would always be dependent upon imports of food, lumber, and other needs that its coffee, cotton, and sugar plantations could not provide—products that the United States had been shipping, to great financial benefit. And if Saint-Domingue was not to get these commodities from the United States, it nevertheless had to get them somewhere. For Napoleon, Louisiana would be the granary that would keep the colony supplied with the goods that it could not produce for itself, thus allowing a return to the glory days of the rich export economy of the colony. As Ott has observed, mercantilism and the Louisiana issue were thus tightly bound, as Napoleon “seemed to be striving to make Louisiana and Saint-Domingue a closely correlated economic unit.” Had Napoleon been seeking to devise a policy that threatened America’s perceived vital interests, he could hardly have done better.65
As early as late October 1801—and thus a month prior to Leclerc’s departure for the New World—Rufus King was sending warnings from London. “It is confidently believed,” he informed Madison, “that a considerable Expedition composed of land & Sea forces, is preparing in france, and will soon proceed to St. Domingo, and perhaps to the Mississippi.” The prospect of seeing a French army in Louisiana was extremely alarming. It became even more so when reports of the size of the French force began filtering in. Lear wrote to the secretary of state from Cap Français on February 12, 1802, and delivered the distressing news. He reported that a force of thirty-two ships of the line and fourteen frigates had already arrived with forty thousand troops. As if this were not bad enough, another twenty-five ships and twenty thousand soldiers would be arriving in the future. As he summarized, “This is certainly an immense naval Armament for this Island.” The “immense” size of the force itself thus raised the uncomfortable question of its ultimate goal. And this, the Americans assumed, was Louisiana.66
The Jefferson administration thus adopted the policy of allowing the United States to become the arsenal for the formerly enslaved Blacks of Saint-Domingue. Far from helping to starve Toussaint, the administration kept his forces well supplied. As Matthewson observes, the French expedition to Saint-Domingue “led Jefferson to conclude that the black rebels would be less dangerous under Toussaint’s leadership than under the rule of the French.” Jefferson had not changed his thoughts on slave revolts. But he was willing to provide for the needs of the former slaves who could bog down Leclerc and, thus, prevent his moving on Louisiana. It was a significant change.67
The aid to Toussaint’s forces was significant. And it was frustrating to the French. Not long after his arrival, Leclerc expressed this frustration to the minister of the marine in Paris. It was the United States, he complained, that was bringing to Saint-Domingue “the guns, the cannons, the powder and all the munitions of war. It is they who arouse [excité] Toussaint to defense.” In Leclerc’s mind, there could be only one conclusion: the Americans were seeking the independence of all of the Antilles in order to “have exclusive commerce” in that region. Not long after, Pichon lectured Madison that a slaveholding nation like the United States had an interest and obligation to avoid providing munitions and supplies to the “rebel blacks.” Clearly, the French already perceived American provisions to be helping Toussaint and his forces.68
With American aid in hand, Toussaint’s forces were able to put up significant resistance to Leclerc’s troops. But neither Toussaint nor Leclerc would be present for the last act of the drama. On June 6, 1802, Toussaint was captured by French officers. He was soon put aboard a ship and deported to France, where he died in prison the following year. Leclerc died in November 1802, succumbing to yellow fever like so many of his troops. In all, disease would kill over half of the troops sent by France to subdue the colony. The French forces, like the British before them, proved unable to subdue the former slaves of Saint-Domingue. By the autumn of 1802, Ott notes, “nature, neglect, stupidity, and black resistance combined to pull the ‘colony’ in the direction of the rebels.”69
The chief culprit in the category of stupidity was Napoleon’s decision to restore slavery in Saint-Domingue. As the Blacks perceived the direction that the first consul was moving, they came to equate their continued freedom with their future independence. And on the first day of the new year, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines would take the step that Toussaint never had: he proclaimed Haiti the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. The declaration of independence was, according to Dubois, “a furious attack on the brutalities of the French, and a call for the members of the new nation to reject forever the past of empire and slavery.”70 Slavery had come to an end in Haiti as the result of the struggles of the formerly enslaved. That they had succeeded in their struggle for liberation with the help of the slaveholding US republic was an irony that speaks to the complexity of the role of slavery in the making of American foreign policy.
Conclusion: The Persistence of the Slavery Issue
For decades the United States refused to recognize the independent nation that it had—if inadvertently—helped to foster. While a few policymakers, such as Pickering, had hoped that Toussaint would declare independence, the existence of a state run by self-manumitted slaves was not easy for most Americans to swallow. The fear of the example that it posed to slaves in the American South continued after 1803.71 Like other nations, the United States “played a long game that included talking and trading with Haiti while steadfastly refusing to grant the country official recognition.”72 In fact, the issue was not resolved until 1862, the same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; that year the United States accorded diplomatic recognition to Haiti. The prospective freeing of America’s slaves had thus made the matter of Haiti’s example moot.
Slavery had never been the sole determinant of the American response to the Haitian slave revolution. The interconnected issues of commerce and national security were major factors in helping to determine the US course in the Caribbean from 1791 until 1803. Yet American attitudes toward slavery, interacting with these other two issues, helped shape this response in significant ways. But America’s failure to extend recognition to the newly liberated nation to the south indicates that slavery would continue to be an issue for US policymakers for decades to come.
And yet, the Haitian revolution was no isolated event. It was, rather, “just one more manifestation of a growing opposition to African slavery.” The legitimacy of the institution itself was, increasingly, being called into question in the Atlantic world. The most significant front in the struggle against slavery in the early 1800s would come in the form of the assault on the Atlantic slave trade.73