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Thomas Jefferson: The Private War: Ignoring the Revolution Next Door

5 minute read
Edwidge Danticat

Exactly 200 years ago, the western hemisphere’s second republic was created. However, there were no congratulatory salutes from the first, the United States of America. The new republic, Haiti, had gained its independence through a bloody 12-year slave uprising–the only time in the history of the world in which bond servants successfully overthrew their masters and formed their own state.

The two young nations had several things in common. Both had been heavily taxed colonies, and both had visionary leaders whose words had the power to inspire men to fight. Compare, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the tree of liberty as one that must be “refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” with that of Haitian General Toussaint Louverture who, as he was captured by the French and was being taken to his death, declared, “In overthrowing me they have only felled the tree of Negro liberty … It will shoot up again, for it is deeply rooted and its roots are many.”

The fact that the U.S. was not more supportive of its smaller, slightly younger neighbor had a great deal to do with Louverture’s roots, which were African and which were now planted in America’s backyard. For Jefferson, who had drafted the declaration that defined his nation’s insurgency and who had witnessed and praised the French Revolution, knew exactly what revolutions meant. Their essence was not in their instantaneous bursts of glory but in their ripple effect across borders and time, their ability to put the impossible within reach and make the downtrodden seem mighty. And he feared that Haiti’s revolt would inspire similar actions in the U.S. “If something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children,” Jefferson wrote about the potential impact of the Haitian uprising.

Haiti’s very existence highlighted the deepest contradictions of the American revolutionary experiment. Though the U.S. Declaration of Independence stated that all men were created equal, Haitian slaves and free men and women of color battled what was then one of the world’s most powerful armies to prove it. Yet how could the man who wrote about freedom in such transcendent terms have not seen echoes of his struggle in the Haitians’ urgent desire for self-rule? Possibly because as a slave owner and the leader of slaveholders, he could never reconcile dealing with one group of Africans as leaders and another as chattel. So Haiti’s independence remained unrecognized by Jefferson, who urged Congress to suspend commerce with the nascent republic, declaring its leaders “cannibals.”

Timothy Pickering, a Senator from Massachusetts who had served as John Adams’ Secretary of State, wrote Jefferson to protest his refusal to aid the new Haitian republic: “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?”

Yet the U.S. benefited greatly from the colonial strife next door. Broke after its Haitian defeat–“Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!” Napoleon exclaimed–France sold a large region, 828,000 square miles, from the western banks of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, to the U.S. for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase would prove to be one of the most profitable real estate transactions ever made, nearly doubling the size of the U.S. at a cost of about 4¢ an acre. Alexander Hamilton said Napoleon would not have sold his claims except for the “courage and obstinate resistance [of the] black inhabitants” of Haiti.

It would take six decades for the U.S. to acknowledge Haiti’s independence. By the time Abraham Lincoln did so in 1862, America was already at war with itself over the issue of slavery. Haiti, burdened by its postindependence isolation and the 100 million francs in payment it was forced to give France for official recognition–an amount estimated to be worth nearly $22 billion today, which some Haitians insist should be repaid–began its perilous slide toward turmoil and dependency, resulting in a 19-year U.S. occupation and two subsequent interventions in the past 100 years. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson presented dire warnings about what might happen to the U.S. political system in a worst-case scenario, but his words turned out to be a more accurate prophecy for America’s plundered neighbor: “The spirit of the times … will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt … The shackles … which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of war will remain on long, will be made heavier and heavier.” Given a fair chance, Haiti could have flourished and prospered. If that had been the case, this year Haiti would be celebrating the bicentennial of its independence with fewer and lighter shackles.

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