Gordon S. Brown
Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005
ISBN # 1-57806-711-1.
321 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2005

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:

  1. The standard view is that U.S. policy was primarily driven by the issues of race and slavery. On this view the U.S. feared the influence that a successful slave rebellion could have on the institution of slavery in the U.S.
  2. The second assumption of most contemporary views is much more subtle and contains two elements:
    1. That U.S. policy was driven primarily by issues relating to St. Domingo itself and later, Haiti.
    2. That the U.S. policy mattered a great deal in the geo-politics of the time since the U.S. was an essential player.

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:

  1. No navy at all.
  2. No standing army.
  3. It’s population was just at 4 million people.

The primary enduring and overriding foreign policy considerations of the period were:

  1. Avoid involvement in European wars – pursue a policy of neutrality.
  2. Develop the American west (i.e. west of Pennsylvania!)
  3. Secure the Mississippi River. [3/8th U.S. trade was out of (Spanish) New Orleans, and the Floridas (today’s Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana – Spanish territories)].

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.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett