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Haiti's Revolution and the United States

The historical events that led to Haiti's independence -- and to the document found by Duke graduate student Julia Gaffield -- began taking shape a few years after the 1782 Treaty of Paris officially recognized the outcome of the Western Hemisphere's first great revolution, namely U.S independence from England. During that earlier conflict, several hundred soldiers from the French island colony of Saint-Domingue, which later became Haiti, fought for France on the side of the revolutionaries.

Likely encouraged by American independence, planters and free people of color in Saint-Domingue began agitating for an end to racist legislation and greater access to political rights. Then, in August 1791, a massive slave insurrection began in the northern plain of the colony. It became the largest and most successful slave revolt in history, leading to the abolition of slavery in the colony in 1793, a decision ratified and extended to the entire French empire in 1794.

The uprising sent waves of fear through the communities of slave owners in the United States, and inspired some slaves there to revolt. North Americans could read regularly in newspapers of events in the Caribbean colony, and many came face to face with the impact of the revolt as waves of refugees – the largest of them in late 1791 and in mid-1793 – arrived in port cities such as Philadelphia and Charleston. Among these refugees were not only white planters and slaves, but also free people of color. The population of New Orleans actually doubled in the early 19th century from a belated wave of Saint-Domingue immigrants who had first sought refuge in Cuba; these early "Haitian Americans" of many backgrounds helped shape the culture of Louisiana for generations.

Saint-Domingue's slave revolution posed delicate problems for both England and the leadership of the recently formed United States. Beginning in 1794, France pursued a policy of "revolutionary emancipationism," using abolition as a weapon of war against the British to recruit armies of former slaves and encourage uprisings in enemy colonies. France also outfitted and rewarded privateers in the Caribbean. The crews of these ships were often populated with former slaves and they regularly captured North American ships. French privateering led to a break in U.S.-French relations in the late 1790s. Simultaneously, the chaotic situation in the French Caribbean provided an attractive opening for some North American traders, who profited handsomely by expanding their long-standing links with the colony.

By the late 1790s, Saint-Domingue was under the control of General Toussaint Louverture, who adroitly cultivated alliances with both the British and North American governments. For the United States under the administration of John Adams, the link with Louverture represented an ongoing economic opportunity and a way to strike at the French. U.S. consul Edward Stevens was sent to work with Louverture, and in 1799 the U.S. Navy supported him in his war against André Rigaud, who controlled the southern portion of the colony. U.S. concerns about the possible "contagion" of the revolution in Saint-Domingue to slaves in North America were outweighed by the political and economic advantages of working with Louverture.

North American policies towards the revolution in Saint-Domingue shifted dramatically with the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Although trading continued, and France blamed the United States for supplying Louverture with guns and ammunition, there was growing U.S. hostility to the regime in Saint-Domingue. An easing of U.S. relations with the French also reduced the political value of a U.S alliance with Louverture's regime.

In 1802, Jefferson approved a French attempt to wrest control of the colony from Louverture and his followers. He was right in hoping the French mission would prove advantageous to the United States – although this proved true in a way he did not expect. The decimation and ultimate defeat of the French mission at the hands of the former slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines in late 1802 and 1803 turned out to be a key reason behind Napoleon Bonaparte's decision to sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States. The reconstruction of Saint-Domingue had been the centerpiece of Bonaparte's plans for the Americas. Once he lost the colony, Louisiana became far less valuable to him.

When the Haitian Declaration of Independence was first published in American newspapers in the spring of 1804 -- quite widely, as Jenson has found -- it generated not only racist backlash, but also new hopes for economic partnerships that would create a specifically New World power block. A March 28, 1804 editorial in the Aurora General Advertiser of Philadelphia presented Haitian independence as fundamentally parallel to that of the United States:

"We have read part of the address of the black general Dessalines, on the declaration of the independence of St. Domingo. On this subject we presume there are few who entertain dissimilar sentiments: the right to proclaim independence was unquestionably inherent in the people of that island, and there is not a doubt but that the colonial system, pursued since the assumption of the supreme authority of France by Bonaparte, provoked the severance at an earlier period than it would otherwise have taken place. The United States are necessarily much interested in St. Domingo."

The example of the Haitian Revolution resonated in the United States through events such as slave uprisings in the Richmond area in 1800 and, later, the planned slave rebellions of Denmark Vesey. But it was not until 1862, as its own Civil War upended so many issues involving race, that the United States formally recognized Haiti.

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