By LaKeshia N. Myers
James Brown once said, “You’ve got to pay the cost to be the boss”—truer words have never been spoken, especially when one considers the plight of Haiti. A small Caribbean nation bordering the Dominican Republic; separated by the Dajabon River and hundreds of years of history, Haiti fought for its independence from European control and has continued to pay the price ever since.
Prior to its independence, Haiti was a French colony known as St. Domingue. St. Domingue’s economy was built using the labor of enslaved Africans who powered the sugar and coffee industries, and by the 1760s it had become the most profitable colony in the Americas. With the economic growth, however, came increasing exploitation of enslaved Africans who made up most of the country’s population (U.S. State Department, 2021).
The French Revolution had a great impact on the colony. St. Domingue’s white minority split into Royalist and Revolutionary factions, while the mixed-race population campaigned for civil rights. Seizing the opportunity, the enslaved people of northern St. Domingue organized and planned a massive rebellion which began on August 22, 1791. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved citizens of St. Domingue negotiated with the French revolutionaries, who had expressed their willingness to outlaw slavery. This led to a complex and multifaceted civil war in which Spanish and French military fleets were involved (U.S. State Department, 2021).
According to state department records, “The situation in St. Domingue put the Democratic-Republican party and its leader, Thomas Jefferson, in somewhat of a political dilemma. Jefferson believed strongly in the French Revolution and the ideals it promoted, but as a Virginia slaveholder popular among other Virginia slaveholders, Jefferson also feared the specter of slave revolt. When faced with the question of what the United States should do about the French colony of St. Domingue, Jefferson favored offering limited aid to suppress the revolt, but also suggested that the slave owners should aim for a compromise similar to those which Jamaican slaveholders made with communities of escaped slaves in 1739. Despite their numerous differences on other issues, Secretary of the Treasury and leader of the rival Federalist Party Alexander Hamilton largely agreed with Jefferson regarding Haiti policy” (U.S. State Department, 2021).
This is important, as Jefferson had long been a friend of the French, having spent many years there prior to the revolution; as well as his own personal juxtaposition as an American slaveholder and author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s response to the role of enslaved people in the revolution was especially tempered, as to not alienate St. Domingue’s white ruling class or spark thoughts of rebellion among the enslaved population in the United States. As white refugees fled St. Domingue for the United States, they brought with them xenophobia, anxiety and radical speech regarding France. This led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. John Adams, a resolute anti-slavery advocate, chose to support Toussaint L’Ouverture financially, this ended with Jefferson’s ascension to the presidency.
Under Jefferson’s tenure, the United States cut off aid to L’Ouverture and instead pursued a policy to isolate Haiti, fearing that the Haitian revolution would spread to the United States. These concerns were in fact unfounded, as the fledgling Haitian state was more concerned with its own survival than with exporting revolution. Nevertheless, Jefferson grew even more hostile after L’Ouverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, ordered the execution of whites remaining after the Napoleonic attempts to reconquer St. Domingue and reimpose slavery (U.S. State Department, 2021). Instead, Jefferson sided with Napoleon and acquired of the territory of Louisiana 1803. For the handsome sum of fifteen million dollars, or approximately $18 per square mile, the United a total of 828,000 square miles (530,000,000 acres).
The policy of U.S. political isolation of Haiti remained intact until 1862, even though the revolution ended in 1804 and the country had become an independent nation in 1825. Over the years, Haiti has continued to suffer because they chose freedom from colonization. In exchange for freedom, the French demanded indemnity of 100 million francs, approximately $21 billion (USD) today. It took Haitians more than a century to pay off the debt to its former slave owners, most certainly underscoring its economic instability. This, combined with its vulnerability to natural disasters and internal corruption have ensnared Haiti in a conundrum of unforced errors.
As I think about the plight of the Haitian people, I think about the policy of isolation that existed during the Jeffersonian era. America, for generations has turned a blind eye to Haiti. When the country has been in need, our government steps in as a perimeter-level ally; giving funds through USAID or other Non-governmental Organizations, but the impact has been difficult to measure and messy at best. But never becoming fully immersed in the inner workings of the government to help establish stability. When looking at our other relationships (Israel and Afghanistan come to mind), the responses have differed completely.
If we are to retain (and in some cases regain) our international standing, America needs to understand the power, prowess, and responsibility of equity. As Haitian immigrants sleep under makeshift tents at the Texas border, we need to examine our policies and reckon with our seemingly misguided notions of freedom and independence. Lord knows, Haiti has paid the ultimate cost to be free.