The American Revolution ignited a spark for democracy throughout the Atlantic Region from the European Continent to the isles of the Caribbean when the revolution culminated in the New World’s first independent nation in 1789. The newly independent nation formed on the Enlightenment ideals of government for the people by the people. Thomas Paine described America in 1776 as “an asylum for mankind,” in a world “overrun with oppression.” The successful American Revolution was the first domino to fall causing an effect that spread throughout the Atlantic Region through the course of the next quarter century.
The colonists from America, however, were not the only ‘oppressed’ people to successfully rebel against their monarch in the new world. In 1791, an insurrection of slaves in Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) lead to the abolition of slavery in the colony in 1793 and eventually independence from the French Empire in 1794. The Haitian and American revolutions shared common intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment but remained politically distant because of the disparate roles of slavery in each society.
“Founded by buccaneers in the middle of the seventeenth century and formally incorporated into the French Empire in 1697, Saint-Dominque,” had become “the wealthiest colony in the world.” However, Saint-Dominque soon became a “Franco-American province” influenced by the French and American Revolutions. In fact, “the planter elite, undoubtedly under the influence of the American Revolution, also convey is that the whites should be allowed to keep their administrative liberties because Saint-Dominque had voluntarily placed herself under French rule.” So, therefore “they refused to be governed by laws other than those conceived and drawn up in the colony itself.”
However, though the histories of Atlantic Region Revolutions are typically told through a national narrative, the American and Haitian nations’ fight for freedom was anything but independent from each other. In fact, the tangled web of pro-democratic government, involved a triumvirate of nations to include France.
Though the three nations and their revolutions would be forever intertwined the outcome didn’t “unfold” the same for each nation, they instead “led to increasingly radical outcomes.” The ideas spread from the American colonies to the French and from the French to her colonies such as Saint-Dominque. Furthermore, the French involvement in the American Revolution, which included sending troops of African decent from Saint-Domingue to fight, put a financial burden on the French citizens that factored into their revolution, and the ideals of self-governance was brought back to the colonies by those who helped fight for American independence.
It would seem the American and Saint-Domingue Revolutions would have much in common, but in fact there was a stark contrast when it came to slavery, which was vital to both nations’ success. In Saint-Domingue, “90 percent of the population was enslaved,” whereas by 1793 there were no slaves in Saint-Domingue. The successful revolution brought about immediate emancipation and disenfranchisement of the slave-owner along with independence from France. In fact, by 1804 the Haitian nation was led by an “ex-slave general named Jean-Jacques Dessalines.”
The American Constitution didn’t turn out to be as advantageous to slaves in the United States. However, the great Frederick Douglass argued in an article in The North Start in 1849, that the U.S. Constitution did indeed have protections against slavery and for slaves. Douglass argued that in article 1, section 2d of the U.S. Constitution that by terming slaves three-fifths a person that it still should have allowed slaves representation in slave-holding states.
Douglass went on to describe in further detail in his article other areas of the U.S. Constitution where the issue of slavery was advantageous to the slaves citing for instance that in article 1, section 9 that no further migration or importation of slaves would happen after 1808.Though clearly the U.S. Constitution wasn’t the abolitionist constitution that the Haitian government formed, it did offer a clear-cut path toward eventually phasing out slavery. Although, it took the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement and several hundred years before true freedom toward Americans of African decent was truly attainable.
So, not surprisingly, the two nations had completely different trajectories on the world stage once they gained their independence. The U.S. gained “acceptance within the broader concert of nations,” almost immediately whereas “no foreign nation even acknowledged Haitian independence officially until France did so in 1825.” In fact, it took the United States until 1862 to recognize Haiti, “the last nation to do so.”
This was due largely to the fact that Haiti was the first nation in the Americas to “breach in the hugely important systems of slavery in the Americas.” To further illustrate the reluctance to include Haiti’s role in bringing forth dramatic change to the Atlantic landscape during this time period is R.R. Palmers’ omission of the nation in his expansive history published in 1959.
The reluctance of Western historians to include the Haitian Revolution in the histories is a microcosm of the difficulty of the Western political powers to include the nation in its diplomatic realm. “The success of Haiti against all odds made social revolutions a sensitive issue among the leaders of political revolt elsewhere in the Americas during the final years of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century.”However, “the genesis of the Haitian Revolution cannot be separated from the wider concomitant events of the later eighteenth-century Atlantic world.”However, British and Americans viewed the successful revolution in Haiti by the Jacobin Blacks as “awkward;” whereas in France it was viewed with “increasing distaste and embarrassment.”
To further alienate the U.S. from Haiti were the stories about the slave revolt and massacres of whites. “By 1860 Saint Domingue had become a byword for slave revolt in many American minds and had developed into a trop for the massacre of whites.” The successful Haitian revolutionaries were viewed as “a barbaric and inhuman force.” The U.S., along with the British, encouraged Napoleon in 1802 “to reassert metropolitan power and to reestablish slavery and white supremacy in Saint Domingue.”
However, the U.S. and Haiti relied on each other as they formed their new nations despite the diplomatic and political difficulties of accepting Haiti on the international stage, so understanding the “prerevolutionary histories of the U.S. and Haiti is critical to understanding how the revolutions evolved.” It’s important to ask whether either revolution would have been successful without the assistance of the other, and compare the diplomatic relationship of each nation toward the other during their revolutions.
The economy of the Americas at the turn of the 18th century was significantly different than it is in the 21st century. “The Caribbean was an economic and strategic center, in many ways much more significant than North America from the perspective of European empires.”  Sugar and coffee plantations were vital to the economy of the Atlantic Region, and the economic impact Saint-Domingue had on the French economy was on par with the colonies impact on the English economy. “Though the size of Maryland, the French colony of Saint-Domingue created as much wealth for France as the thirteen colonies did for England.”
Trade was vital between the two colonies as well. North America relied on molasses from Saint-Domingue to make rum, despite the English and French empires’ attempt at banning the practice. When discussing story told in he 1790s about the importance of trade between the two new nations, Abraham Ritter said about a voyage to Saint-Dominque from Philadelphia that “the French colony had been ‘a fruitful source of life to the commercial interests of Philadelphia.’”
However, the story goes on to tell about the treatment of people of White skin by the former slaves and how the merchant trips to the island were perilous after the slave uprisings. “The ‘decrepit survivor of his race,’ this man had been spared death, yet the insurgents had ‘marred and mutilated .. his fingers and toes, and nose too, to prevent his escape and secure his services to whatever commercial interest might turn up.’” Despite this, “’scented by the rich odor of the garden’ before him’” merchants continued trade with the island because commerce between the two nations was vital to each other’s economies.
The former French colony also brought its goods to the U.S. to sale to the market. Newspaper accounts from Philadelphia detailed the Saint Dominque vessels bringing goods to the U.S. ports. Even thought there were difficulties stemming from racism toward each other, language barrios etc., the trade between the two nations was vital. “The records of the Philadelphia Customs House depict a significant and extensive commercial relationship between the city and the colony in this period.” In fact, from 1789 to 1793 the records indicate that close to a quarter of the merchant ships that docked in Philadelphia were from Saint Domingue and totaled roughly 56,500 tons of goods.
The trade between the former French colony and the British colony had a long history that dated back more than a century. Much of this trade was considered illegal under the French and British Empires because they were not receiving any benefit because the two colonies traded amongst themselves.
The illegal trade in lumber, molasses and rum between the two colonies was in fact part of what spurred both revolutions as the colonies demanded free-trade practices from England and France. The successful revolution in the United States helped spur planters in Saint-Domingue to call for more trade independence. The planters at the time were little worried about abolitionist sentiment because the United States had gained independence while still maintaining the institution of slavery. However, the situation in Saint-Domingue where the overwhelming population was enslaved proved different.
The issue of race appears to be the sticking point in diplomatic relations between the new American government toward Haiti, despite the Caribbean island’s role in helping U.S. gain independence from England.
Haitian Response to the American Revolution
Haiti was still a French colony when the British colony in the Americas declared independence on July 4, 1776. However, Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. Ambassador to France, signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance with the French government on Feb. 6, 1778, which recognized the United States as an independent nation and giving the new nation a much-needed military ally against the British. The aid consisted of “armaments and loans,” but the French sent roughly 12,000 ground troops and 32,000 sailors to help fight the British, which included troops from the French colonies.
Of these troops, “several hundred gens de couleur – free men of African descent – joined the French military and fought at the siege of Savannah.” Unfortunately researchers have not located documents, detailing the specific individuals from Saint-Domingue who participate in the campaign. However, Haitian Revolutionaries claimed to have been a part of the campaign, most notably Andre Riqaud and Henry Christophe.
Although there was no independent government in Haiti during the American Revolution, Haitians did contribute to the successful revolution through a military campaign and by continuing to trade with the United States, supplying the war effort with much-need supplies. The United State’s effort to helping the Haitians gain independence is much more complicated.
American Response to the Saint-Domingue Revolution
The American Response was much different than that of the French colony of Saint-Dominque during the American Revolution. Haiti in the 17th and 18th centuries was a “strategic statecraft of William Pitt, John Adams, Timothy Pickering, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Bolivar.” The violent slave revolt in Haiti was abhorrent even to the most strident abolitionist in the United States. Furthermore, Haiti’s survival as a nation “had implications for the future of slavery in the Americas and tested and tempered the outlook of the abolition movement.”
Simply put, the independent nation of Saint-Dominque was the outlier amongst all the other nations that had gained their independence during the Atlantic Revolution period. Though the nation was at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, the nature by which they gained their independence left even those in the United States who opposed slavery reluctant to have any official ties to the new Caribbean nation.
The administration of Great Britain and the United States was so openly aghast to the newly formed “slave nation” that they even offered support to Napoleon in 1802 to “reestablish slavery and white supremacy in Saint-Dominque.” However, to no avail and Saint-Dominque became the nation of Haiti in 1804. However, interestingly enough, despite the U.S. government’s backing of the French government, U.S. merchants continued to supply the Haitians with “arms shipments that … were crucial in the victory of the Haitian revolutionaries against France.”
However, the United States couldn’t simply ignore its new neighbor to the south, especially after refugees of Saint-Dominque began to stream “into U.S. cities, particularly Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, where they became a crucial part of the cultural and social fabric of urban life.” These refugees included slave owners, slaves and free people of color. The presence of these Saint-Dominque refugees began to turn the tide of public opinion, for some, about the nature of slavery. However, the real impact between the two nations involved their intertwined economies.
The United States’ diplomatic policy toward Saint-Dominque varied from one administration to another. “Adams and Jefferson pursued very different policies.” Adams was supportive of the newly formed Caribbean nation offering “support to Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution.” In fact, that support even included military intervention as “the U.S. Navy actually helped the black general defeat one of his internal enemies, Andre Rigaud, by blockading and bombarding the port town of Jacmel.”
American President Thomas Jefferson, however, didn’t offer the same type of support to the newly formed Haitian government. He feared “how the example of slave revolt might spread to the United States.” However, the U.S. continued to trade with Haiti because as previously mentioned the small Caribbean island was a financial hub during the Atlantic Revolution time period. Only briefly did President Jefferson outlaw trade to Haiti.
It would appear that though there was really no diplomatic relationship between the two nations shortly after the Haitian’s successful revolution, “unofficially, through commerce rather than any direct U.S. aid – as weapons from the U.S. ended up contributing to the creation of the second independent nation in the Americas,” the new nations found a common cause in their economies.
However, with the independence from the French official, the Haitian leader Dessalines “ordered the massacre of most of the remaining French planters on the island.” This further alienated the U.S. government from the Haitian government. Their success “deeply affected the psychology of the whites throughout the Atlantic world.” “The Haitian Revolution undoubtedly accentuated the sensitivity to race, color, and status across the Caribbean.”
The nature at which the Haitians’ gained their independence coupled with the fact that they were now an self-governed nation of free slaves further alienated the country from the other Atlantic Region powers. In fact, in the United States white Americans now had a battle cry ‘Remember Haiti’ that justified their belief in slavery and likely retarded the abolitionist movement in the U.S.
However, the economic tie between the two countries was too great despite the Haitians becoming diplomatically isolate on the international scene. Though Haiti was diplomatically isolated, it “did not sever the links between the two countries.”
Haiti was determined to be its own nation, even though it suffered and continues to suffer from that independence to this day. Jean-Jacques Dessalines “explicitly refused a version that was based on the U.S. Declaration of Independence,” when forming his new government. Instead, the new nations focused on the emancipation of slaves an abolition of slavery.
Though the language of the two constitutions was different, “certain concepts were shared.” The American Declaration of Independence spoke of the rights of all men, as equals. However, it was the Haitians who first lead the way by declaring, in fact, that all men were equal – to include slaves. But, as is typically the case, especially in light of the brutality in which Haiti gained its independence, the nature of the two nation’s intertwined paths is quite complex.
The United States and Haiti were born out of the ideals of the Enlightenment. And though it’s difficult to understand now as the nations’ paths have gone completely different trajectories, the new countries were vital to each other’s success in the infancy of their creation.
The economic tie the two countries had kept an awkward relationship that relied on the economic strengths of the other. Without the first steps toward independence taken by the United States, it’s arguable that no other nation would have found the wherewithal to fight for their independence. It’s also clear that without the French and thus Haitian’s help in fighting for that independence is possible the U.S. would have failed to become independent. Conversely, if not for merchants providing military equipment to the Haitians it’s likely they would not have been able to defeat Napoleon.
The nature of the U.S. and Haitian relationship is to this day is too complex to truly delve into in a short essay, but it’s clear they needed each other in the beginning. It’s also true, that once the Haitian ports no longer held the economic importance it once had the Haitians soon thereafter became the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. To what extent the Haitian’s isolation due to their race plays into the woes their nation faces today is debatable. What is not, however, is that the Americans and Haiti were invaluable for providing that first push toward independence and equality for all race and eventually gender of people.
- Ludwell Lee Montague review “The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with Haiti, 1776-1891,” by Rayford W. Logan. The Journal of Negro History, vol. 26, No. 3 (July, 1941) pp. 389-390.
This review, along with various others reviewing Logan’s work, contains information Logan used to write his diplomatic history between the two nations. The work is older, and may not reflect current norms, but it provides the best information between the two nations during this period of time.
- Dubois, Laurent and Garrigus, John. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006)
Laurent Dubois is a professor of Romance and History studies and co-director of the Haiti Laboratory of the Franklin Humanities Center as Duke University. Dubois who is considered an expert on Haiti’s revolution teamed up with Garrigus to provide a history that is detailed with primary resources that will be used for the final project.
- S. Relations with Haiti. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Fact Sheet, June 9, 2014.
This fact sheet from the U.S. Department of State explains in detail U.S. policy toward Haiti currently. It provides statistics such as aid, economic relation etc.
- S. Department of State Office of the Historian. A guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by country, Since 1176: Haiti
The information provided on this web page is the United States’ official version of their diplomatic relations with Haiti.
- Logan, Rayford. Haiti and the Dominican Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968)
Logan, a prominent African-American historian in the early 20th century, provides a general history of relations between the Dominican Republic from 1750-1960, which also illustrates friction between the U.S. and Haiti.
- Dubois, Laurent. “Two Revolutions in the Atlantic World: Connections between the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed Dec. 20, 2014.
Laurent Dubois is a professor of Romance and History studies and co-director of the Haiti Laboratory of the Franklin Humanities Center as Duke University. His article for the Lehrman Institute of American History – a nonprofit organization that aims to help history teachers – provides a brief overview of the American and Haitian Revolutions and how they connect. The primary use of this source is that if provides a plethora of other secondary and primary sources for the study of Haiti.
- Blackburn, Robin. “Haiti, Slavery and the Age of Democratic Revolutions,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 63 No. 4 (October, 2006) pp. 643-674.
Blackburn’s article summarizes the issue of slavery during the Atlantic Revolution period. The issue of race is central in relations between the U.S. and Haiti.
- Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2004)
Laurent Dubois is a professor of Romance and History studies and co-director of the Haiti Laboratory of the Franklin Humanities Center as Duke University. His book centers on Haiti as being out front as abolitionists whose anti-slavery stance were contrary to the slavery in the U.S. and made relations between the nations difficult.
- Geggus, David P. and Gaspar, David B. A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean. Indiana University Press, 1997.
This book provides an overall look at the French controlled Caribbean islands and the islands’ march toward independence from the colonization. It goes into detail about the racist tension in the island as well as those felt from the U.S. The book has a more general focus on all the islands, but does have information that solely concerns Haiti and its revolution.
- Rayford W. Logan review of “Papers of the Conference on Research and Resources of Haiti,” by Richard P. Schaedel. The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 51, No. 1 (February, 1971) pp. 206-208.
This review provides Logan’s assessment of diplomatic papers during the Haitian revolution.
- Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).
Dubois’ book focuses on the Haitian’s responsible for the revolution.
- Popkin, Jeremy. You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Popkin’s research focuses on the abolitionist movement in Haiti that helped the country move toward revolution and independence. This movement was contrary to the new nation on the mainland that didn’t address the issue of slavery.
- White, Ashli. Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2010).
White’s research focuses on the Haiti’s early efforts toward becoming an independent nation and the struggles as a nation formed by slaves.
- Matthewson, Tim. A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during The Early Republic (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003).
Matthewson looks at the foreign policy between the U.S. and Haiti, which is the primary emphasis of the final research project. Slavery is the largest issue that seemed to drive a wedge between the two nations diplomatically.
- Buschschluter, Vanessa. “The long history of troubled ties between Haiti and the US,” BBC News, Washington, January 16, 2010.
This article by the BBC provides an in-depth look at the relationship between the two nations dating back to their struggles for independence. The article was published during the Haitian earthquake crisis of 2010.
 Thomas Paine. Common Sense. Published 1776 accessed Jan. 2, 2015 on http://www.ushistory.org/paine/commonsense/
 Dubois, Laurent. Two Revolutions in the Atlantic World: Connections between the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed Dec. 20, 2014.
 Klooster, Wim. Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History. (New York: University of New York Press, 2009), pp. 84.
 Klooster, pp. 92.
 Klooster, pp. 92.
 Klooster, p. 92.
 Blackburn, Robin. Haiti, Slavery and the Age of Democratic Revolutions. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 63 No. 4 (October, 2006) pp. 643-674.
 Douglass, Frederick. The Constitution and Slavery. The North Star (March, 16, 1849) accessed Jan 25, 2015 at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-constitution-and-slavery/.
 R.R. Palmer. The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1959).
 Knight, Franklin. “The Haitian Revolution.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 1 (Feb. 200), pp. 103.
 Dun, James. “’What Avenues of Commerce, Will You Americans, Not Explore!’: Commercial Philadelphia’s Vantage onto the Early Haitian Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 62, No. 3, The Atlantic Economy in an Era of Revolutions (Jul., 2005), pp. 474.
 Dun, James, pp. 473.
 Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).
 The Library of Congress. Revolution Period (1764-1789), accessed Jan. 25, 2015 at http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/revolut/jb_revolut_francoam_1.html