The American System and the Haitian Republic
The Surprising Connections between our Nations
By Nancy Spannaus
July 27, 2020—A highly fitting tribute to Alexander Hamilton was presented by Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society president Nicole Scholet during this year’s annual celebrations around his death anniversary. It came in the form of a rebroadcast of Scholet’s talk on “Alexander Hamilton and Haitian Revolution,” first given at Black History Month events held at the Hamilton Grange in February of this year.
The shocker to most Americans will be the fact that Hamilton, who is so often vilified as a would-be aristocrat who didn’t care a whit for the common man, actually pursued a policy of support for the revolutionary struggles of the Haitians, and drafted the fundaments of a Constitution for what became the second independent nation in this hemisphere, and what has been heralded as “the first modern nation to be governed by blacks.” Scholet chronicled the complex story of the interplay between U.S. politics, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s and early 1800s in a 36-minute talk.
While recommending that my readers view the video, I will nonetheless summarize it here. Then I will supplement it with other little-known history of American System interventions to support Haiti, interventions which were halted many decades ago, to devastating effect.
The Fight for Haitian Liberation
Scholet began by reminding her audience of just how important the Caribbean Islands, including Haiti, were to the imperial powers, especially Britain and France, during the 18th century. These islands generated a huge amount of wealth which they sent back to Europe, all of which, of course, was produced by slave labor. On Haiti, 90% of the population was enslaved, and most of it was descended from enslaved Africans, brought by the French to the island after virtually depopulating it of its native peoples.
There were periodic slave revolts in Haiti (as well as other islands), but they had all been put down. Scholet cited one such revolt in 1733, in which the rebels face all the colonial powers of the era and were ultimately defeated in what became a civil war. The small French elite ruled with a system which delineated 130 different categories of persons, depending on their racial mixture, degree of servitude, etc. It has been well-documented elsewhere that the death rate was horrific.
The first revolt in the 1790s was led by a free man of property and color, Vincent Ogé, who was inspired by the idea of the French Revolution (itself originally spurred by the American revolt), and demanded citizenship rights for free men of color (Ogé was categorized as a quadroon, meaning he was ¾ white) on Haiti. His small military force included Haitians who had participated in the American Revolution. His revolt was ultimately crushed, and he was brutally executed.
But the war for liberation continued, picked up by a free Black man, Toussaint L’Ouverture, who had been born a slave, but gained his freedom and was working as a coachman for his former master. Toussaint led his forces through a series of shifting alliances, depending upon the stances of the colonial powers, but when the French Assembly declared an end to slavery in 1794, he shifted to fighting against the British and Spanish. The war continued until 1801 with the aid of the Americans, led by Alexander Hamilton and his friends, and beyond to 1804.
Scholet provided details. First, during the U.S. Quasi-war with France (1798 to 1800), a war in which Hamilton was second in command to General Washington, the United States banned trade with France, but allowed trade to proceed with Haiti, which was not yet formally independent. Secretary of State Thomas Pickering informed Hamilton at that time that Toussaint was looking for an alliance with the United States, and would appreciate his ideas on forming a government. In 1799 Hamilton’s best friend Edward Stevens was appointed Consul General to Haiti, and took Hamilton’s plan to Toussaint.
Equally important, Stevens took supplies. Arms, money, and uniforms all came on U.S. ships to Haiti. Scholet cited 600 American ships travelling to the Caribbean in this period, mostly to Haiti.
With that aid and advice, Toussaint went ahead to consolidate his power, and carry out reforms along the lines Hamilton proposed. Yet he did not fully succeed, thanks to the machinations of the British and the halting of American support when President Jefferson came into power.
Scholet put it bluntly. Jefferson immediately told France that the U.S. opposed Haitian independence, she said, and provided $300,000 for support of the white population there. Trade was cut off and the Jefferson policy was to starve the rebels out. Faced with reverses, Toussaint surrendered, but was soon handed over to the French, back on a pro-slavery policy under Napoleon since 1802, and left to die in a prison in Switzerland.
It was left to Toussaint’s followers, who fought on, to keep up the war for independence. That resistance to the French played a major role in convincing Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the Americans, as Alexander Hamilton acknowledged in a July 1803 editorial in the New York Evening Post. The relevant section reads as follows:
To the deadly climate of St. Domingo [the former name for Haiti-nbs], and to the courage and obstinate resistance made by its black inhabitants are we indebted for the obstacles which delayed the colonization of Louisiana, till the auspicious moment, when a rupture between England and France gave a new turn to the projects of the latter, and destroyed at once all her schemes as to this favourite object of her ambition.
Haiti declared itself a republic in 1804, but was not recognized by France until 1825, and by the United States until 1862! Quite a turnaround from the policies of Hamilton and his friends.
Haiti and the American Revolution
My friend Carlos Wesley, cited above, provided additional background on the Haitian role in the American Revolution in his 2004 article. He wrote:
St. Domingo played a large role in the American War of Independence. Much of the weapons, ammunitions, and men France contributed to that cause went through St. Domingo. The Marquis de Lafayette himself travelled to America through St. Domingo. And many St. Domingans of all races and classes fought on the side of the American patriots throughout the Revolution, through the concluding battle at Yorktown.
Perhaps the most celebrated of these were the 500-800 free blacks and mulattoes who fought under the Vicomte Françoise de Fontages in the battle of Savannah, Georgia, in October of 1779, whose ranks reportedly included the then 17-year-old sergeant Henri Christophe, who later became one of Toussaint’s generals, and later still King Christophe.
These veterans returned to Haiti imbued with the ideals of the American Revolution. After the fall of the Bastille in Paris in 1789, Haiti was also filled with plantation owners and “petit blancs” (white tradesmen, soldiers, minor officials, etc.) alike talking about “liberty, equality, fraternity.” These concepts struck a responsive chord, in particular, among the free blacks and mulattoes, many of whom owned slaves themselves, but whose rights were otherwise severely restricted.
Who Was Touissant L’Ouverture?
Within this ferment, Wesley situates the key leader in the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture.
A frail child, he had the good fortune of belonging to relatively enlightened masters who did not force him to work the fields, and allowed him to learn to read and write; among his readings there was Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, and other military writings, from which he learned the rudiments of strategy and tactics.
He also acquired a smattering of Church Latin, became an avid naturalist, concentrating on learning the medicinal properties of plants, and, despite his infirmities, he became such a superb horseman that he was called the “Centaur of the Savannah.”
Toussaint did not participate in the 1791 uprising. When hostilities broke out, he led his master to safety. Not one to act without all deliberate thought, he did not marry until he was about 40. “I chose my wife myself,” he said. “My masters wished me to marry a dashing young negress, but in matters of this kind I always managed to resist pressure contrary to my own idea of what constituted a happy union.”
In the same manner, he did not join the rebels until weeks after the insurrection had started. He was 48 years of age at the time.
With this background and outlook, it is not surprising that Toussaint turned to the Americans for an alliance, once he took leadership of the revolt. He reached out in November of 1798 to seek a restoration of commercial relations, which were in fact restored, as noted by Scholet.
Strengthened by this collaboration, Toussaint gained against both the British and his rivals in the military. As of July 1800, he was running a de facto parallel government, with significant progressive policy changes. I quote Wesley:
U.S. collaboration with Toussaint now extended beyond trade: the fledgling U.S. Navy was now deploying “Ships of War,” as Steven’s referred to them, to help Toussaint consolidate his power. Toussaint had implemented the tax policy designed by Hamilton, which greatly streamlined collection, and increased the amount of revenue gathered by the state, beside stimulating trade and production. White planters who had gone into exile, were asked to return, and their property rights fully restored, except to their slaves, of course. Even during the rule of slavery, agricultural production in St. Domingo required more than a whip; among other things, there was an extensive irrigation system built, which explained why an acre of land in St. Domingo yielded two-thirds more sugar than the same area in British-run Jamaica. But to maintain that system required the skills of the white planters, as well as their capacity for organizing production.
For the blacks, slavery had meant back-breaking labor on the plantations. Emancipation meant, above all, no longer having to work on the plantations. Were that to continue, the economy would have collapsed, and the country re-enslaved. Toussaint forced them back to the land. “In order to secure our liberties, which are indispensable to our happiness, every individual must be usefully employed, so as to contribute to the public good and general tranquility,” explained Toussaint. “You will easily conceive, Citizens, that Agriculture is the support of the government; since it is the foundation of Commerce and Wealth, the source of Arts and Industry, it keeps everybody employed, as being the mechanism of all Trades.”
One-fourth of all revenues from the plantation now went to the workers; corporal punishment was forbidden; and the work day was fixed at nine hours, probably for the first time ever in history. Another share of the earnings went to the state, and with this revenue Toussaint built roads, schools (although Napoleon refused to send him teachers, of which there was great need); bridges, even whole cities; and paid for the defense of the country. As much as 6 million francs to purchase arms that he deposited with the banker Stephen Girard in Philadelphia, were misappropriated by Girard, according to one of Girard’s former employees.
Hamilton’s program paid off. Under Toussaint’s administration, within 18 months, production had been restored to two-thirds the level it had been during the most prosperous times before the Revolution, this, despite the ravages of a decade of nearly uninterrupted warfare.
But while providing for the material well-being of his fellow citizens, he did not neglect their moral uplifting.
“In all of his proclamations, laws and decrees,” the historian C.L. R. James tells us, Toussaint “insisted on moral principle, the necessity for work, respect for law and order, pride in San Domingo, veneration of France. …”
An Ugly Shift
Friendly U.S. relations with Haiti continued even after Hamilton’s close friend Pickering was fired by President Adams in 1800. The new Secretary of State John Marshall, another close collaborator of Hamilton, continued the policy of commerce with Haiti and engaged in personal communication with Toussaint. A letter dated Nov. 26, 1800 concludes with Marshall saying the following:
Be assured, Sir, of our sincere desire to preserve the most perfect harmony and the most friendly intercourse with St. Domingo, and we shall rejoice at every occasion of manifesting this disposition compatible with those fixed principles, which regulate the conduct of our Government.
When Jefferson was inaugurated, Marshall (who had already been appointed to head the Supreme Court) was replaced with Tobias Lear, and policy immediately changed. The Administration hastened to ensure France that it prioritized good relations with it, whatever the consequences for the Haitian independence movement. Those consequences included Napoleon’s decision to militarily intervene to crush Toussaint’s rebellion.
In 1801, Toussaint proclaimed a Constitution which was based in large part on Hamilton’s proposal, which acknowledged that the island had to have a military government, with a single governor for life. But by May of 1802, he was forced to surrender to the French.
His successor Dessalines, who finally formally declared Haiti’s independence on January 1, 1804, represented a radical change from Toussaint. According to Wesley, he declared himself Emperor and ordered the massacre of all whites except Americans and Englishmen. According to historian C.L.R. James, however, cited by Wesley, this action was taken at the insistence of a representative of the British government, Cathcart, who said: “Only when the last of the whites had fallen under the axe,” would England trade with Haiti.
Such action, of course, simply fed the hysteria of the pro-slavery forces in the United States, who used every act of violence as justification to tighten their own laws against blacks, both slave and nominally free.
Who Took Up the Torch of Freedom?
Not surprisingly, it was the proponents of Hamilton’s American System.
It was in 1862 that Sen. Charles Sumner, the leading abolitionist from Massachusetts who was caned in the House chamber by Sen. Preston Brooks in 1856, got a resolution to extend diplomatic recognition to Haiti passed in the Senate. President Lincoln signed the bill, and what Wesley called the “high-points of U.S.-Haitian relations since the Administration of John Adams” ensued. In 1889, the great orator and editor Frederick Douglass served as ambassador to Haiti.
But as Reconstruction was rolled back in the United States, to be replaced by Jim Crow and Wall Street control, relations with Haiti became predictably more problematic. In 1915, that noted racist Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion of the island, and the United States ruled until 1934, when Franklin Roosevelt reversed course once again.
The FDR Administration, the last of our great American System presidents, recognized Haitian independence and withdrew U.S. troops in 1934. This could be seen as a precursor of his policy in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, where he insisted, over Churchill’s moot objection, that all nations, large and small, are entitled to the prerequisites for economic prosperity.
Over the succeeding period, U.S. government policy was to help Haiti build up its capacity to be self-sustaining in agriculture and begin to thrive. At a state dinner with Haitian President, FDR expressed great joy at the progress that had been made. Two years earlier, acting under the aegis of his Good Neighbor Policy, Roosevelt’s government helped set up SHADA (Société Hatiano-Americaine de Developpement Agricole). With a $5 million credit line from the U.S. government, and active involvement by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, SHADA aided Haiti to become self-sufficient in food production. It not only produced enough to feed its own people; it also exported products such as coffee, cocoa, meat, and sugar.
Post-FDR administrations have, over time, totally reversed such a policy, leaving Haiti the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and the constant victim of natural disasters, economic looting, and political instability.
One more reason we need to return to the American System principles of Alexander Hamilton.
 The phrase comes from a ground-breaking article written by the late Carlos Wesley, a good friend, back in January 2004. It was entitled “The U.S. Debt to Haiti” and can be found on the site of the Schiller Institute here.
Nancy Spannaus is the author of the book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, which can be found here.