American Reaction to the Haitian Revolution
American Reaction to the Haitian Revolution
Americans avidly followed the events that transpired on the French Caribbean island of Saint Domingue between 1789 and 1804—events historians later would collectively demarcate as a "Haitian Revolution." In an age when the movement of information was tied directly to patterns of trade, Saint Domingue's status as a juggernaut among Caribbean sugar-producing islands ensured that numerous American shippers would constantly be doing business on its wharves. Beginning in the years after the American Revolution, news from Saint Domingue moved regularly to ports along the North American littoral as producers, merchants, and consumers evaluated goings-on there for their impact on American markets. The advent of violence did not dampen economic opportunities; contact would continue throughout the 1790s and into the early nineteenth century.
In addition to economic motives, Americans were fixated on events in Saint Domingue because of their implications for political and sociocultural issues at home. Beginning in 1789, the French colony experienced a series of disruptions as various white factions battled over conflicting agendas related to changes brought about by the French Revolution. As events in France unfolded, the island's free colored population (which Americans usually termed "mulatto") attempted to secure the rights and benefits of the newly enlarged French citizenry. Violence erupted in 1790 and 1791 as various groups struggled over the degree of the colony's autonomy, over racial equality, and even over the propriety of the revolution in France itself. In August 1791 the island's slaves rose in unprecedented numbers in an attempt to vanquish the slave system. As anarchy increased, the British and Spanish invaded the island in 1793, and violence and warfare continued over the rest of the decade. In 1804, after turning away the Spanish, the British, and finally the French national armies, the black and free colored inhabitants of the island declared themselves independent, replacing the region's preeminent slave colony with an independent republic in which citizenship was defined around blackness.
These developments made Saint Domingue, today called Haiti, integral to American discussions about France and its revolution, about the implications of Americans' own recent revolutionary past, about slavery, and about race and citizenship. With important exceptions the general trend of American reactions is one of bifurcation along racial lines. African Americans, free and enslaved, were intimately aware of events on the island and incorporated them into their own struggles for equality and liberty. Free black communities, such as those in Philadelphia and New York City, cautiously made reference to Saint Domingue as a warning to American slaveholders and to the nation at large if the nation continued to flout its egalitarian ideals. In Philadelphia in 1793, for example, African-American leaders Absalom Jones and Richard Allen mentioned Saint Domingue obliquely as a referent in their larger plea for justice. By 1804, however, frustrated black youths marched through Philadelphia's streets chanting, "give them St. Domingo!"
The reactions of American slaves are more difficult to gauge because of the increasingly hysterical tenor of white observations of their behavior in relation to events on Saint Domingue. Especially after the onset in August 1791 of the slave revolts in Saint Domingue, white Americans were prone to see the risk of "the horrors of St. Domingo" in any sort of slave resistance. Rumors of "French negroes" terrified Thomas Jefferson in 1793 and spurred the white citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, to restrict the entry of black mariners into the port. Moreover, fragmentary evidence suggests that there were links between increased American slave rebelliousness and Saint Domingue. A large group of slaves rose in Pointe Coupée, Louisiana, in 1795, shortly after the arrival of white and black refugees from the island, followed by a larger revolt in 1811 in the same area. Rumors of connections between Saint Domingue and slave conspiracies abounded in Virginia toward the end of the 1790s and were a large part of the ways whites understood Gabriel's revolt in Richmond in 1800. Denmark Vesey's rumored plot in Charleston in 1822 centered around the notion that he had been in contact with Haitian leaders.
During the violence and afterwards, events on Saint Domingue served as a counter to white portraits of black subservience and subhumanity. Equally important, Haiti provided useful tactical advantages for African Americans. A number of black sailors and escaped slaves made the island a sanctuary in the nineteenth century. For the greater community of color, the island developed as an emblem of possibility and helped bolster morale and engender action. White fear when exposed to this more abstract sense of black collectivity, however, tended to mask a tentativeness and ambivalence that American people of color may also have had toward Haitian realities. Religious, cultural, and language differences, for example, served to retard the incorporation of slaves and people of color from the island into African-American communities. Ironically, white hysteria may have helped to forge a pan-black consciousness around Haiti where one did not immediately exist.
White hysteria itself, however, merits closer attention. While many white communities, slave holding and otherwise, understood Saint Domingue/Haiti only as an expression of black violence, at various points during the 1790s white reactions contained some ambiguity. Emergent Republicans in the mid-Atlantic and New England states voiced a degree of support for the notion of free colored equality in interpreting the early struggles on the island. More hesitant but still discernable was white support for the French policy of emancipation after 1794. Federalist president John Adams, engaged in the Quasi War with the French Republic later in the decade, supported the separatist inclinations of Haitian leader Toussaint-Louverture. Such reactions, however, had strong political motives; they had as much to do with American ideas about France and the French Revolution as they did with sensibilities about the universality of the rights of man or the injustice of slavery. White antislavery activists experienced a similar two-mindedness. Many seized on the slave violence on the island as proof of slavery's dangers. In a few instances these concerns fueled calls for immediate emancipation, but most often they translated into self-congratulatory sentiments regarding either gradual emancipation in the states north of Maryland or the perceived mildness of slavery in the American South.
In the end, white reactions to the Haitian Revolution demonstrate the fact that unfettered black freedom and citizenship were inconceivable to most white minds in the nineteenth century. As commercial contact between the island nation and the United States dwindled in the antebellum period, Haiti was reduced to a symbol in American minds. Among white commentators, this was made evident in the repeated invocation of "Hayti" as a place of violence and despair. Both Nat Turner's revolt in 1831 and John Brown's raid of 1859, neither of which had any demonstrable connection to Haiti, were discussed in relation to the island. A similar symbolic use of the Caribbean nation by African Americans is evident in writings such as David Walker's Appeal (1829) and in efforts such as those mounted by Prince Saunders to facilitate emigration of free African Americans to Haiti in the 1810s and 1820s. "Hayti," therefore, as a place of anarchy or as a beacon of hope, was imagined by Americans more than it was experienced. As such, exploring its meaning in American minds tells as much about the observers as the observed.
Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Dixon, Chris. African America and Haiti: Emigration and Black Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. Contributions in American History, no. 186. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Geggus, David P., ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World: The Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
james alexander dun (2005)