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American policy toward Haiti became a major issue during the early years of the republic. Haiti’s status as a colony of France complicated matters because it was frequently used as a pawn in the competition between the great powers of Europe. In America, the news that the world’s first successful slave revolt had occurred in Haiti was welcomed by some citizens but a source of concern to others.
Haiti was subjected to a lengthy period of political instability in 1789 when word of the French Revolution reached the island. Contesting factions of white settlers and free Blacks began a struggle for control. The first of a series of slave uprisings in 1791 sent shock waves throughout the west and pushed the issue of American relations with Haiti to the forefront of the foreign policy agenda.
During the Adams administration (1797–1801) the United States began to tilt its policy in a direction favorable to Haitian independence and to the leader of that movement, Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803). President Adams was in favor of Haitian independence for strategic reasons because the United States was engaged in the Quasi-War with France. But Adams’ antislavery stance also contributed to his support for Louverture. Adams’ secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, was a committed abolitionist who was also motivated by a mix of principled and pragmatic motives to lend support to the Haitian revolutionaries.
During the Jefferson administration, which favored France and feared British intervention in the region, American policy shifted away from support for Haitian independence. Additionally, the news from Haiti throughout this period alarmed southerners, who were concerned that the “contagion” of the slave uprising in Haiti might spread to the United States.
In this blistering letter, Timothy Pickering, now a senator from Massachusetts and a bitter opponent of Thomas Jefferson, condemned the president for supporting a proposed embargo against the government of Haiti. Pickering cited Jefferson’s support for the French Revolution and his lack of support for the Haitian Revolution—accusing him of betraying American principles and American sovereignty to curry favor with France. Arguably, Jefferson’s policy of keeping the Haitian revolutionaries at arm’s length and not alienating France may have been Jeffersonian realism at work. The president may well have believed it was in America’s national interest to tilt toward France for economic and military considerations. Principle is often sacrificed at the bar of interest, under the weight of partisan politics, or on other grounds. As with most foreign policy decisions, the president’s motives were complex.
“To Thomas Jefferson from Timothy Pickering, 24 February 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-3296.
Accustomed to act as a sense of duty urges; as most would think, with too little regard to personal consequences: particularly, having sometimes expressed my sentiments to public and to private men on subjects of public moment, or of their individual interest, at the hazard of giving them offense: and impelled by the dangers of a measure of great national concern, the interdiction of all commerce with St. Domingo—now pending in the House of Representatives, whose fiat1 will tomorrow make it a law; I take the liberty to address you. For it is well understood to be a measure which, if you did not originate, you certainly approve, and are solicitous to have immediately adopted.
Your son-in-law, Mr. Eppes,2 this day told the House that the French government demanded (in the English meaning of the word)3 the enacting of such a law; and that to render it acceptable, it must be promptly passed. This sentiment, Sir, publicly expressed by your son-in-law, living under your roof and in your daily conversation, is unavoidably, as well by your friends as by your political enemies, traced up to you as its source: and the measure in question, though apparently originating in the Senate, & presented in the ordinary form of a law for your approbation, will be pronounced yours: and you will be held responsible, in more than your executive capacity, for all its consequences. These consequences, I am persuaded, have either not been thought of, or not duly weighed by many whose vote is to give efficiency to the project.
Dessalines4 is pronounced by some to be a ferocious tyrant: but whatever atrocities may have been committed under his authority, have they been surpassed—have they been equaled, in their nature (in their extent they are comparatively nothing) those of the French revolution? When “infuriated men were seeking (as you once said) through blood and slaughter, their long lost liberty”?5—If this could ever be an apology for Frenchmen, will it not apply, with ten-fold propriety & force, to the rude Blacks of St. Domingo?—If Frenchmen, when more free than the subjects of any monarchy in Europe, the English excepted—and only seeking greater freedom, the political liberty of Englishmen, or of citizens of the United States—could find in you an apologist for cruel excesses of which the world had furnished no example—are the hapless, the wretched Haitians (“guilty,” indeed, “of a skin not colored like our own”6 but) emancipated, and by a great national act declared free; after enjoying freedom many years; having maintained it in arms—resolved to live free or die; are these men, not merely to be abandoned to their own efforts, but to be deprived of those necessary supplies which for a series of years they have been accustomed to receive from the United States, and without which they cannot subsist? And are they to be thus deprived, not by the operations of an enemy with whom they wage war, but by the direct agency of a neutral power?—All the world know, Sir, that the Haitians, though declared revolted subjects of France, are in the actual possession of independence; that they are engaged in a civil war; and therefore that those powers who intend to maintain their neutrality, are bound to act toward them with impartiality….
All these I view as direct and certain consequences of the bill in question, if it becomes a law. I have not time to speak of the disgrace which its passage will stamp on the government of the United States: on Congress, indeed, for its obsequiousness; but primarily and chiefly on you, on whose will (not simply the final act of executive approbation) the measure is known to depend. With an explicit vindication, by the executive, of the lawfulness of the commerce with Haiti—with open declarations, on the floor of Congress, that it is our right by the law of nations—we tamely yield up this right, we abandon this commerce—at the nod, at the insolent demand of the minister of France! After such a display of tameness, of spaniel servility, shall we have the face to talk of our independence? Of American spirit? Sir, the moment you sign this act (and you will sign it, if it pass the House of Representatives) you seal the degradation of your country, whose honor and dignity are placed in your hands; not to be debased; but to be firmly maintained against the demands, and in defiance of the menaces of any power on earth. One act of submission begets further unwarrantable demands; and every subsequent compliance still further debases the nation, blunts the sense of national honor, and sinks the spirit of the people. While we thus yield obedience to France we shall become the object of her contempt, and the scorn of Europe. Save then your country, Sir, while you may, from such ignominy and thralldom. Pause I beseech you. If we must finally yield and receive a French prefect to rule over us; or, what will be more galling, a president of our own nation ruling under the auspices & by the permission of France, let us at least wait ’till the necessity becomes apparent; that we may find some apology, some consolation, for our abject submission….
- 1. A command having the force of law and not subject to an appeal. From the Latin, meaning “let it be done.”
- 2. John Wayles Eppes (1773–1823) served in the U.S. House and Senate representing the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was married to President Jefferson’s youngest daughter, who died in 1804.
- 3. The French word “demander” may mean simply to ask, rather than insist as if of right, which “demand” means in English.
- 4. Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758–1806) was a major figure in the Haitian Revolution and the first leader of an independent Haiti in 1804.
- 5. Pickering quoted from Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address.
- 6. Pickering quoted from William Cowper’s poem The Task (1785).
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