Haiti has a tumultuous and fascinating history, and was the focus of a clash of opinions between Jefferson and the Federalists from 1799-1806. Hamilton supported the Haitian revolution and the government established under Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave. He helped draft Haiti’s constitution and advocated open trade with the new nation. On the other hand, Jefferson and his southern constituency were horrified by the idea of a free black republic.
Haiti was first discovered and conquered by Columbus and claimed for the Spanish as Hispaniola in 1492. The Spanish used it as a trading port and maintained control of the island until 1625, when the Spanish lost control due to Dutch resistance and retreated from most of the island. The French began establishing their presence on the island in the 1620s and in 1664, the French West India Company claimed the western part of the island. The French began to import large numbers of African slaves and set up a plantation economy focused on the production of sugar and coffee. Slave rebellions were frequent because of brutal conditions, so in 1685, King Louis XIV enacted the Code Noir, which served as the basis of the law of slavery in Saint- Domingue and the other French plantation colonies. Although the Code Noir legalized manumission of slaves and provided some rights for free blacks, it also created “a rigorously punitive scheme for the discipline of slave labor.” As time passed, the government began to pass laws restricting the rights of the large free black population, the gens de couleur. The combination of oppression towards slaves and towards the free black population created a tinderbox situation. In 1789, Vincent Ogé, a wealthy member of the gens de couleur petitioned the colonial government for equal rights for free people of color in Haiti. When his demands were rejected, he tried to lead an uprising, but was unsuccessful. In 1791, more slave rebellions occured, and successfully overthrew the government. Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as the leader of the movement and the unofficial leader of the government. France officially ended slavery in its colonies in 1794, prompting L’Ouverture to support the French against the Spanish. Then, the British attempted to invade the island, but L’Ouverture drove them out in 1798 and took control of the government.
Now, the American government had to decide what to do with this new, unique political situation of slaves rebelling and actually controlling the government and military.
In Nation Among Nations, Thomas Bender describes the Haiti debate:
“Haiti heightened the partisan division. Much of the debate over American policy towards Haiti was framed within the larger debate between France and Britain, as Britain maneuvered to take advantage of troubles on the island. But, as Linda Kerber has observed, the debate about foreign policy “kept sliding into the subject of slavery.” When Federalists talked about the profits of trade, southern Republicans- Jefferson’s core constituency- saw only the question of American recognition of a black republic.”
Ted Widmer states: Under the Washington and Adams administrations, “a policy of quiet indifference [towards Haiti] gradually turned into commercial and even military support– support without which it would have been impossible for the experiment in black democracy to survive. ”
Hamilton understood the complicated political landscape surrounding the decision and on February 9, 1799 wrote:
…as in every thing else, we must unite caution with decision. The United States must not be committed on the independence of St. Domingo. No guaranty—no formal treaty—nothing that can rise up in judgment. It will be enough to let Toussaint be assured verbally, but explicitly, that upon his declaration of independence a commercial intercourse will be opened, and continue while he maintains it, and gives due protection to our vessels and property. I incline to think the declaration of independence ought to precede.
In June 1799, Adams issued a proclamation regarding Commerce with St. Domingo and allowed US ships to trade with Haiti. Hamilton worked closely with his friend and Adams’ Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering to develop this support. While some historians have inaccurately characterized this collaboration as occurring behind Adams’ back, Adams was in fact fully aware of these events and told Pickering that the negotiations with L’Ouverture “enjoyed his fullest approbation.” Hamilton was impressive in his “active sympathy for Haiti.” Hamilton and Pickering worked to have Hamilton’s close boyhood friend Edward Stevens deployed as Consul General of the United States at Cape-Francais in 1799. Hamilton also drafted the Haitian Constitution.
However, when Jefferson came to power, he immediately tried to recalled Stevens and embargoed trade with Haiti. As Bender states:
“Unlike Adams, [Jefferson] was widely recognized for his support of revolutions, even the French one. In defense of its turn to violence, he observed that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ But was what tolerable in Paris was not so in Cap Haitien. The revolution there terrified Jefferson.”
Jefferson’s complete resistance to the events in Haiti was a direct product of his racism and his desire to help his constituents maintain a slave system in the South. He feared that the example of a black republic would encourage resistance in the South. Ironically, the Louisiana Purchase was made possible only because Napoleon’s defeat in Haiti made a French empire in America pointless. Henry Adams described the acquisition of that territory and the prevention of French invasion as a debt owed by the American people “to the desperate courage of five hundred thousand Haytian negroes who would not be enslaved.” Clearly, Jefferson never saw it that way. After Hamilton’s death, American foreign policy became increasingly proslavery, and in 1806, a stiff embargo was placed on Haitian trade. Napoleon captured Toussaint L’Ouverture, who died in captivity. For a complete background of the Haitian revolution and the response of the Founding Fathers, see Gordon S. Brown’s Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution.