- Thomas Jefferson’s Haitian Policy: Myths and Realities
Thomas Jefferson, Haiti, Haitian Revolution, Slavery, Slave revolts
Did Thomas Jefferson hate the Haitian Revolution to the point of seeking to destroy it? In Thomas Jefferson’s Haitian Policy, Arthur Scherr argues that no, he did not. Instead, he argues that historians, particularly American historians, need to read Jefferson on the Haitian Revolution more carefully. In aiming to write a “revaluation of values relating to Thomas Jefferson and the political, social, and cultural history of the United States in the Long Eighteenth Century” (ix), he challenges historical interpretations, both older and more recent, that commonly claim that Jefferson so wished to destroy the Haitian Revolution out of fear and hatred for blacks that he cooperated with France in embargoing trade with Haiti, to say nothing of how the Federalists were far more progressive than their Republican counterparts in their treatment of the emerging black republic.
Far from simply being a racist who sought to do little more than to crush and starve Haiti to assuage his own paranoia, Jefferson’s position was far more nuanced: The founding father was actually sympathetic to [End Page 714] the Haitian Revolution for various reasons. Slave revolt did not surprise Jefferson, and indeed, he saw it as justified in the face of the brutal injustice of slavery. Furthermore, Haiti was a potential solution to the young republic’s slavery problem. In accordance with his earlier thoughts in Notes on the State of Virginia, Haiti was potentially a place where the United States could send its freed slaves and free African Americans. White and black could not hope to live in harmony due to the latter being a captive nation that resented their servitude, and slavery ultimately degraded southern whites. Therefore, manumission and subsequent deportation would prevent sectionalism and race warfare on American soil. Jefferson’s complex feelings about slavery notwithstanding, some of which continue to grate on modern sensibilities for their presumption of a United States where African Americans had no place, Scherr argues that it did not necessarily follow that Jefferson wished to crush Haiti either directly or indirectly. Thus, Jefferson’s policy toward Haiti was far from malevolent.
Scherr’s purpose is to examine what historians have said about Jefferson and Haiti, what Jefferson actually said about slave revolts in general and Haiti, as well as his views and policies toward Haiti and its slave insurrection. His focus is largely one of diplomatic power politics, laying out the tenuous triangular relationship between France, the United States, and the emerging independent republic of Haiti. The picture of Jefferson that emerges is that he was well acquainted with power politics and was no mere idealist: Between 1793 and 1799, Jefferson linked the slave revolt on St. Domingue, the foreign policy of the Franco–American Alliance, and the French Revolution (87–88). In his strategic calculus, Atlantic isolation plus proximity to vulnerable and valuable European colonies would afford the United States military supremacy in the Western hemisphere. The foreign policy of the Jefferson administration was not subservient to French influence and power, and Jefferson was not sympathetic to Napoleon’s efforts to crush the Haitian insurrection. Rather, the French complained bitterly about American hostilities to French interests, given that American merchants aided and supplied the Haitians (346, 354). Furthermore, it was mostly northern Federalists who harbored fears of a joint Haitian–French invasion of the southern states; southerners like Jefferson and Madison were largely indifferent (304). Also, it was a Pennsylvania Republican, George Logan, who initiated the embargo, and not Jefferson (483), and it was those who had no trading interests who advocated for its stricter enforcement. [End Page 715]
This book builds on builds on earlier work the Haitian Revolution and slavery in the United States, such as Rayford Logan’s The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with Haiti (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011), Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1968), and Laurent Dubois’s Avengers of the...