Comments by Bob Corbett
Gordon Brown tells a story which conflicts strongly with many standard and received views of U.S. policy toward colonial St. Domingo and early Haiti.
[NOTE: Most who read in this area are used to the French name of the colony, San Domingue. However, since Brown is writing about U.S. foreign policy and mainly citing U.S. source material, he uses the common U.S. spelling of the time – St. Domingo. I will follow his usage in these comments. On the other hand, he often uses the older spelling, Hayti in relation to the new republic. I will stick with the modern Haiti.]
Two sorts of controversial positions stand out:
Brown radically rejects the essence of these positions. While he is very clear and up front that there were serious concerns about the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the institution of slavery in the U.S., nonetheless the dominant concern was trade, not the impact of the revolution.
He makes a very strong case that while the slave rebellion was often an issue in Congress, it was widely believed that the danger could be contained. The essential issue which decided debate after debate was trade.
The most radical thesis of Brown’s argument is that all foreign policy of the 1790-1810 period was driven by EUROPE, not the Caribbean nor St. Domingo/Haiti. The U.S. was a weak and small nation. When the Haitian Revolution broke out in 1791 the U.S. had:
The primary enduring and overriding foreign policy considerations of the period were:
To be blunt in Brown’s thesis St. Domingo/Haiti was small change as was the U.S. as geopolitical powers. I argued bits and pieces of this same thesis in a paper I wrote in 1991, ”Napoleon’s West Indians Policy And The Haitian ‘Gift’ To The United States”, but my position was nothing like the powerful and carefully documented version provided in this scholarly and pervasive treatment by Gordon Brown.
There is a sense in which I could end my remarks here. I’ve sketched what I think is the essential thesis, pointed out its break with and challenge to more standard views as common beliefs. Since I really have no serious criticisms of Brown’s work, what’s left to say?
However, what I found fascinating in Brown’s account was how the particular crises of the moment – primarily crises with either Great Britain or France – drove U.S. policy toward St. Domingo. There were particular moments and particular issues which shifted the U.S. foreign policy as it impacted St. Domingo/Haiti.
I will point to the central issues as Brown sees them in the chronological order. This brief summary of the details of his argument is no substitution for reading this important ground-breaking and scholarly book. It is clear, well-written, well-argued, carefully documented, and extensive in scope.
One might well have expected the young U.S. to be strongly sympathetic to both the French and Haitian Revolutions. These, like the U.S. Revolution, were breaks with monarchial and hereditary power, and emphasized individual liberty and individual rights.
Indeed there was a great deal of such sympathy. However, as the Jacobin terror spread in France and St. Domingo, and the brutal violence perpetuated upon non-combatant whites in St. Domingo occurred, most Americans backed away in horror.
Their own revolution, as they saw it and idealized it, was a struggle for freedom within a long history of local democracy. It did not embrace revolutionary retributive violence from “below,” nor did it aim at equality. The American leadership was significantly out of the bourgeoisie and highly suspicious of any economic “leveling.” Particularly later on, in the Haitian case, they were highly suspicious of authoritarian rule.
By 1790, at the end of the first year of the French Revolution, Brown points out the U.S. was “… an independent but virtually undefended country.” The U.S. economy was heavily dependent upon maritime activities and trade. The Caribbean in general and St. Domingo in particular were very important trading partners. Molasses was traded for U.S. farm goods and manufactured goods making New England a major producer of rum.
As France and Britain approached war, both tried to enforce their “exclusif” on their colonies. (The colonies could only trade with the home nation, the metropol.)
Britain banned trade with British colonies to U.S. U.S. merchants engaged in smuggling to avoid trade bans. The French didn’t want molasses coming into France in order to protect their brandy market so they allowed open trade for molasses in their colonies.
U.S. diplomats focused on getting trade rules relaxed and remaining carefully neutral in any European conflicts or wars.
When the Haitian Revolution broke out things got very complex for the U.S. French colonists appealed to the U.S. for support and there was strong sympathy to French colonial interests:
But France feared the planters might declare independence and thus wanted the U.S. not to aid them. U.S. trade – smuggling not legal – dramatically increased.
The U.S. was a very weak, even unstable as a nation, and desperately need to stay neutral.
“War would put great pressures, both external and internal, on the fledgling U.S. government. The national union was still new and fragile, its institutions tiny and untested. and the extent of its authority still being defined. The country was effectively disarmed: it had no national army or navy to speak of. and the local militias could neither protect the long coastline from incursions nor prevent foreign powers from inciting the Indians in the interior. Moreover, there was no national consensus with respect to the European powers, beyond a generally shared disdain for Spain’s remaining pretensions as a major power. Pro- and anti-British, as well as pro- and anti-French sentiments from the revolutionary period still smoldered, and were susceptible to manipulation by ambitious politicians and foreign agents alike. The president, in short, had a weak hand, but had to find some policy that would minimize America’s risks in the coming hostilities.”
The U.S., while struggling for neutrality favored the French. Illegal trade was booming and huge profits were being made. The New England maritime economy was prospering.
The freeing of the slaves (to try to stave off defeat and keep the colony French) changed the dynamic by causing a massive exodus to the U.S., especially to Philadelphia of French white planters with their slaves. Specifically:
This cramped the U.S. merchant marine and troubled the merchants. The U.S. economy was in serious danger.
There were hundreds of ships already at sea when this law took place -- like trucks on the highways of today. The British navy took 250 ships within weeks, following this new law the captains had never heard of.
The Terror began to subside. Robespierre was executed in July 1794. War in Europe, saw both Persia and Spain drop out. Spain ceded Hispaniola to the French in Treaty of Basle. (1794)
The Reign of terror, which so disturbed Americans, was limited to 1793-94.
At this point Jefferson, at least, began to seriously think about a victory for the slaves/ex-slaves in St. Domingo:
Jefferson wrote to James Monroe:
“I become daily more & more convinced that all the West India Islands will remain in the hands of the people of colour, & a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place. It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly and possibly ourselves (south of Potommac,) have to wade through, & try to avert them.” In another private letter of the same day, he was slightly less gloomy as to the domestic consequences: “it cannot he doubted but that sooner or later all the whites will be expelled from all the West Indian Islands. What is to take place in our southern states will depend on the timely wisdom and liberality of their legislatures.”
Meanwhile Napoleon was rising in French military.
Thus there were shifts in U.S. policy
U.S. renewed its embargo against France but added “Toussaint’s Clause” (the president could make exceptions when trade could be carried on safely).
“Jefferson feared independence. “We may expect therefore black crews, & supercargoes * missionaries thence into the southern states…. If this combustion can be introduced among us under any veil whatever, we have to fear it.”
Brown claims the US. public and government could not see parallel’s of the U.S. revolution to the Haitian revolution.
One might suspect author Brown of overplaying the non-racial factors, given the more contemporary view that U.S. resistance was primarily racial. However, I think Brown makes a powerful argument and the emphasis on the growing fear and resentment of Jacobin radicalism as opposed to gentler elitist republicanism is a strong support for Brown’s case.
Jefferson’s presidency began with:
The U.S. political power was shifting to Republicans. Power was shifting WEST from New England.
Cotton was an important crop and labor intensive. The Mississippi River was critical. The Spanish were a serious “problem” in Louisiana. The Federalists were weak.
Part of Napoleon’s plan was re-invigorated West Indies, re-acquire Louisiana and supply St. Domingo from there.
By The Treaty of Idlefonso (October 1, 1800) Spain ceded the Louisiana Territory back to France.
“Madison expressed American frustration over France’s arrogance when he wrote to Livingston in April 1802, “The cession of Louisiana to France becomes daily more and more a source of painful apprehensions … Notwithstanding accounts from St. Domingo that part of the armament to that island was eventually destined for Louisiana, a hope was still drawn, from your earlier conversations with Mr. Talleyrand, that the French Government did not intend to pursue the object. Since the receipt of your last communication, no hope remains but from the accumulating difficulties of going through with the undertaking, and from the conviction you may he able to impress, that it must have an instant and powerful effect in changing the relationship between France and the United States.”
3/8th U.S. trade exports were shipped via New Orleans.
Thus Napoleon, desperate for money and no longer interested in Louisiana since his interest was strictly tied to Haiti, sold Louisiana to the U.S.
In May 1804 Napoleon was Emperor and the Addington government collapsed in Britain. William Pitt (the Younger), who hated France, came to power. Napoleon realized he needed money quickly to prepare a European defense.
U.S. wanted the Floridas (east and west). Spain owned them. France wouldn’t press Spain to help U.S. By November 1805 the French were pressing U.S., arguing they could not trade with colony in revolt (France had not recognized the independence of Haiti.) The U.S. had no interest in war and it had no interest or practical power to recognize Haitian Independence either.
The key U.S. policy goals were:
The U.S. was sort of right back where it was in 1790. However, what Brown emphasizes throughout is that what drove U.S. policy on a consist basis was U.S. maritime trade.
Bob Corbett email@example.com