- Diplomacy in Black and White: John Adams, Toussaint Louverture, and Their Atlantic World Alliance by Ronald Angelo Johnson
RONALD ANGELO JOHNSON
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014
US historians of the colonial and Revolutionary eras have realized the need to eschew parochial celebrations of American exceptionalism and to situate historical developments within a wider (the buzzword is “Atlantic”) context. More specifically, US debates on race and slavery in the 1790s were directly inspired by the events of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). In his classic From Rebellion to Revolution (1979), Eugene Genovese used [End Page 793] that revolution as the pivotal moment when slave resistance in the Americas transitioned from narrowly focused uprisings aimed at escaping the plantation world to full-fledged revolts that challenged the very notion of human bondage. Early America may have been a “city upon a hill,” but it did not develop in isolation from neighboring towns.
A field that lends itself particularly well to cross-national approaches is foreign policy, especially since the early US Republic was not yet a hegemon and it had to contend with the demands of its partners. Scholarly interest in the diplomatic relations between the United States and Haiti (known before 1804 as French Saint-Domingue) goes back to the 1930s, following a nineteen-year US occupation of Haiti. Early works included Charles Tansill’s The United States and Santo Domingo (1938), Ludwell Montague’s Haiti and the United States, 1714–1938 (1940), Rayford W. Logan’s Diplomatic Relations of the United States with Haiti (1941), and Alexander De-Conde’s The Quasi-War (1966). These authors embraced the traditional approach dominant at the time, both in style and substance: readers were treated to a series of diplomatic dispatches written by great men eager to defend national security interests for the greater good of the country.
The culture wars inherited from the 1960s did not leave the field untouched. As part of a larger reassessment of the Founding Fathers and their involvement in plantation slavery, revisionists denounced their policies toward the Haitian Revolution. According to Tim Matthewson’s A Pro-slavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic (2003) and Gary Wills’s “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power (2003), US policymakers were motivated at best by their financial interests and at worst by their racist impulses. Those two factors overlapped when it came to one key issue, slavery, and they underpinned the knee-jerk opposition of Virginian planters like Thomas Jefferson to the Haitian Revolution.
As often with historiographical developments, the pendulum has now swung back. The most outspoken member of this postrevisionist school is Arthur Scherr, whose long and argumentative Thomas Jefferson’s Haitian Policy: Myths and Realities (2011) took no prisoners as it strove to rescue Jefferson’s unjustly maligned reputation. Gordon S. Brown embraced a more nuanced and convincing approach in his Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution (2005), which took into account the legitimate questions raised by the revisionists while underlining the manifold priorities of US policymakers torn between their eagerness to [End Page 794] foster close relations with Haiti for commercial purposes and their desire to contain its slave revolt for national security and racial reasons.
Into this crowded field steps Ronald Angelo Johnson, an associate professor of history at Texas State University in San Marcos and the author of Diplomacy in Black and White: John Adams, Toussaint Louverture, and Their Atlantic World Alliance. Like Brown, Johnson may be labeled a moderate postrevisionist. He champions President John Adams and his secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, whom he largely portrays as well-intentioned statesmen. Under their leadership, “the United States financed a fight for universal emancipation and independence for people of color” (4). Johnson is not blind to the inability of these men to fully escape the racism prevalent in their time, but he emphasizes their willingness to engage their Haitian partners almost as equals, which stood in sharp contrast with Jefferson’s later attitude.
Johnson would not have added much to Brown’s own work if he...