The U.S. Has Never Forgiven Haiti

In this series commissioned by Marlene L. Daut, scholars reveal what 220 years of Haitian independence means for how we tell the story of abolition and the development of human rights around the world.
For Frederick Douglass, and for Black activists across the United States, there was no place more important to global Black freedom than Haiti.

Frederick Douglass dreamed about Haiti. He longed to stand on Haitian soil—the only place in the Americas where enslaved Africans had fully eradicated slavery, ousted European colonialism, and established an independent nation. In Haiti, Douglass saw the potential of the Black race, the physical, tangible evidence that Black people could be free, equal, and sovereign. Despite the Western world’s “crafty machinations” to “crush” it, Douglass wrote in 1861, “Hayti has during more than sixty years maintained a free and independent system of government and … no hostile power has been able to bend the proud necks of her people to a foreign yoke. She stands forth among the nations of the earth richly deserving respect and admiration.”1 For Douglass, there was no place more important to global Black freedom.

Douglass’s obsession with Haitian sovereignty was not unique. Most US Black activists during the antebellum era viewed Haiti with similar reverence. Free from the stench of racism and slavery that hung over the US, Haiti proved that former slaves could become free, equal, and independent, and the country served as irrefutable evidence that slavery and white supremacy could be defeated. During the early 19th century, Haitian independence inspired Black activism ranging from slave revolts to waves of migration designed to help fortify the Black nation. But most of all, Black people in the US were captivated by Haiti’s sovereignty.2

In June 1804, an anonymous author calling himself “An Injured Man of Color” published an open letter to Haitian head of state Jean-Jacques Dessalines honoring him for protecting Haiti’s independence until his “last breath.” Through Dessalines’s courageous leadership, Haiti could show the world that all attempts to deny Black freedom and sovereignty would “terminate in the disgrace and the ruin of your adversaries.” After all, he reminded Dessalines, “a united and valiant people … are an unconquerable bulwark against an empire of treachery, violence, and unrelenting ambition.”3

Other Black activists echoed these sentiments, praising Haiti’s success and its sovereignty. In 1824, abolitionist Thomas Paul lauded Haiti’s thriving economy, educational system, and effective government. He also commended Haitians for their determination “to live free or die gloriously in the defense of freedom.”4 William Watkins, Sr., likewise declared that the country’s mere existence dealt a powerful blow against white supremacist ideology. “I recollect nothing so fraught with momentous importance—so pregnant with interest to millions yet unborn,” he reflected, as Haitian independence. The sovereign republic affirmed that Black people were “never designed by their Creator to sustain an inferiority, or even a mediocrity, in the chain of beings; but that they are as capable of intellectual improvements as the Europeans, or people of any other nation upon the face of the earth.”5

For decades, US Black activists regaled audiences with stories of Haiti’s freedom and independence, establishing it as the ideal model for the Black freedom struggle. But by the late 1820s, this argument had become increasingly difficult to make. In 1825, France finally agreed to recognize Haitian sovereignty, but only after forcing the Haitian government into a disastrous agreement, known as the indemnity, which shackled the fledgling nation in a usurious and untenable financial arrangement.6 Forced to pay reparations for its independence, Haiti plunged into a devastating economic crisis. Black leaders in the US watched helplessly, but their passionate commitment never wavered. Instead, they faithfully defended Haitian sovereignty with the resolute belief that the Black republic would eventually fulfill their dreams.

Free from the stench of racism and slavery that hung over the US, Haiti proved that former slaves could become free, equal, and independent, and the country served as irrefutable evidence that slavery and white supremacy could be defeated.

In 1827, shortly after the indemnity’s repercussions had become painfully apparent, Black newspaper editors John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish celebrated Haiti’s rise as a free and sovereign nation. In their minds, Haiti was testament to the potential for the Black race across the globe. “We have seen the establishment of an independent nation by men of our own colour,” they wrote. “The world has seen it; and its success and durability are now placed beyond doubt.”7 Africanus, an anonymous correspondent to their newspaper, shared similar views months later, hailing Black self-governance and gloating about Haiti’s brilliant success. “The republic of Hayti,” he wrote, “exhibits a spectacle hitherto unseen in these modern and degenerate days: it is now demonstrated that the descendants of Africa are capable of self-government.”8

By the early 1830s, conditions had dramatically worsened. In Haiti, the indemnity wreaked havoc throughout the country, causing economic depression and political instability. And in the US, as slavery rapidly expanded, American political leaders repeatedly denied Haiti’s sovereignty.9 Even so, Black activists steadfastly championed Haitian independence and insisted on Haiti’s right to global acknowledgment. In 1831, Maria Stewart lambasted white Americans for denying Haiti’s sovereignty and predicted that the country’s enemies would suffer the wrath of God. “You have acknowledged all the nations of the earth, except Hayti,” she wrote. “I am firmly persuaded that [God] will not suffer you to quell the proud, fearless and undaunted spirits of the Africans forever; for in his own time, he is able to plead his own cause against you, and to pour out upon you the ten plagues of Egypt.”10

Maria Stewart’s justified rage soon developed into a formal movement. Between 1837 and 1844, abolitionists bombarded the US Congress with petitions demanding recognition of Haitian sovereignty.11 And in a blistering critique, Samuel Cornish denounced the power that racism and slavery wielded over US foreign policy. “There is no apology to justify, or even extenuate our meanness and guilt, in refusing the recognition of Haiti,” he railed. “Are the American people so weak and wicked, as to imagine they can counteract the economy of God, and trample on colored men forever and everywhere?” Outraged that slavery’s reach extended across the ocean to condemn Haiti—the only sovereign Black republic in the Americas—Cornish resolved to extract justice.12

Browse

Haiti’s New Political Worlds

By Crystal Eddins

Ultimately, this early campaign failed, but US Black abolitionists did not surrender the cause and continued the fight throughout the antebellum era. In 1857, James Theodore Holly reiterated Haiti’s importance in the battle against slavery and white supremacy, reminding his readers that for centuries, “vile aspersions and foul calumnies” had been heaped upon Black people to justify their enslavement and oppression, but Haiti had proved everyone wrong. Haiti’s resilience inflamed “the latent embers of self-respect” that flickered in the hearts of all Black people and inspired them to embrace their destiny as free and independent people.13 Likewise, Frederick Douglass issued an appeal for Pan-African solidarity between US Black people and Haitians, insisting: “Hayti is a country which must ever remain … dear to every colored man in America. We feel that she belongs not only to Haytians, but to us, and that our fortunes are in some measure connected with hers.”14

Meanwhile, throughout the 1840s and 1850s, US politicians secretly conspired to overthrow the Haitian government and reimpose slavery. Each time, their efforts were stymied.15 Then, in 1861, their scheming took a strange and unexpected turn. President Abraham Lincoln asked Congress to consider formally recognizing both Haiti and the west African country of Liberia. On the surface, this appeared to be a victory for Black abolitionists. Congress eventually passed a bill acknowledging their independence and extending diplomatic recognition.16 An insidious motive, however, soon emerged.

US politicians had not, in fact, experienced a sudden moral awakening. They only agreed to extend diplomatic courtesies because it served US economic interests. Dripping with racism and greed, the congressional debate exposed their true plan: to control and exploit Haiti’s natural resources.17 As Frederick Douglass explained, white people always viewed Black people with “dollars in their eyes,” and therefore, the US government’s policies toward Haiti and Liberia were driven solely by money. When they cast their eyes on Haiti, they did not see a magnificent, shining Black republic; they only saw “twenty hundred millions of dollars invested in the bodies and souls of the negro race—a mountain of gold … [which served as] a perpetual temptation to do injustice to the colored race.”18

Douglass was right. Less than a decade after the US acknowledged Haitian sovereignty, US politicians and businessmen set their imperialistic eyes on the Black nation. Beginning in the late 1860s and extending into the 1870s, the US tried, again, to annex the island, in hopes of acquiring Haiti’s resources. This idea was particularly appealing to American capitalists since slavery had recently been abolished within the borders of the US. Although formal annexation failed, the US government’s crusades dramatically expanded, beginning with a brutal military occupation in 1915 and continuing throughout the twentieth century, finally achieving the economic control over Haiti that US political and business leaders had been seeking for decades.19

Which brings us to the contemporary moment—a time when we simultaneously honor the 220th anniversary of Haitian independence and also mourn the centuries-long battle that the white Western world has waged against Haiti. Now, more than ever, we are haunted by Frederick Douglass’s words in 1893. More than three decades after he dreamed about Haiti’s sovereignty, he sadly reflected on how Haiti had been mistreated in the global political arena. “Haiti is black,” he flatly stated, “and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black.” Long “after Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations,” he concluded, “we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.” Due solely to its Blackness, the world perpetually abused Haiti and felt justified in exploiting its citizens, land, and natural resources.20

Now we must begin the hard work of repair, so we might have an honest reckoning with Haiti’s long and painful journey: the first 100 years, when the country suffered derision, exclusion, and financial theft by the global political community; its second 100 years, continuing now into its third, when US politicians and corporate leaders have occupied, controlled, manipulated, and exploited Haiti, enacting a series of abusive policies and strategies simply because Haiti is a Black nation that insisted on its right to freedom and sovereignty.

But such reparatory justice cannot begin until the US and the white Western world finally decide that they are ready to forgive Haiti for being Black. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Marlene L. Daut
on the 220th anniversary of Haitian independence.

  1. Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861.
  2. Leslie M. Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic: Haiti and the Birth of Black Internationalism in the United States (University of Illinois Press, 2022).
  3. Spectator, June 12, 1804; Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, pp. 17–24.
  4. Columbian Centinel, July 3, 1824.
  5. Genius of Universal Emancipation, August 1825.
  6. Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (Picador, 2012), pp. 7–8.
  7. Freedom’s Journal, April 6, 1827.
  8. Freedom’s Journal, October 12, 1827.
  9. Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, pp. 55–62; 70–83.
  10. Maria W. Stewart, Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (W. Lloyd Garrison & Knap, 1879), p. 33.
  11. Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, pp. 105–32.
  12. The Colored American, November 10, 1838. Emphasis is his.
  13. James Theodore Holly, A vindication of the capacity of the negro race for self-government, and civilized progress, as demonstrated by historical events of the Haytian revolution and the subsequent acts of that people since their national independence (W. H. Stanley, printer, 1857), pp. 6, 45.
  14. Douglass’ Monthly, June 1861.
  15. Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, pp. 152–55; 172–79.
  16. Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, pp. 221–35.
  17. Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, pp. 221–29.
  18. Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861; Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, p. 235.
  19. Millery Polyné, From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870–1964 (University Press of Florida, 2010), pp. 34–43; Gerald Horne, Confronting Black Jacobins: The United States, The Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic (Monthly Review Press, 2015), pp. 285, 288–315; Brandon Byrd, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), pp. 30, 44–49; Alexander, Fear of a Black Republic, pp. 244–58.
  20. Frederick Douglass, Lecture on Haiti: The Haitian Pavilion Dedication Ceremonies Delivered at the World’s Fair, in Jackson Park, Chicago, January 2nd, 1893 (Violet Agents Supply Company, 1893), p. 9.
Featured image: Jean Jacques Dessalines (19th Century) via Wikimedia.