How Haiti Saved America
Two centuries ago, a glittering Caribbean Island helped finance the Revolution
The United States has been leading the response to the Haitian earthquake for all of the reasons that we would expect: our geographical proximity, our competence at emergency response, and our innate generosity. That fits the narrative most of us hold in our heads, for we typically think of Haiti and America as a basket case and a basket, joined only by their contradictions, and the beneficence of one to the other.
On the surface, that is true enough. Haiti was desperately poor well before this latest catastrophe and routinely faces problems that border on the biblical — floods, epidemics, and a deforested landscape that suggests a plague of locusts (sadly, it was just human beings). The United States is the world’s all-time winner, whether defined by Olympic medal count or GDP or any other national sweepstakes.
Yet a closer look at the early history of the United States and Haiti — proudly, the two oldest countries in this hemisphere — suggests that the relationship was once very different. In fact, it was the island’s wealth that turned heads in those days. And the United States was hardly a foregone conclusion. In the darkest days of the American Revolution, when it seemed preposterous to believe that the mighty British empire might allow 13 rogue colonies to come into existence as a new nation, the support that came from a 14th colony — French Saint Domingue, Haiti’s predecessor — made an important difference.
In recent years, the bestseller lists have been dominated by history books arguing that our founding moment is the key to understanding everything that has happened since. That is all well and good — in fact, it’s great news that so many Americans are willing and even eager to read about the 18th century. But to tell the story right, we need to think about all of the people who worked for our independence. In the appeals for aid that have gone out over the last few months, there is one powerful reason for aiding Haiti that has never been articulated. Simply put — the United States might never have come into existence without the help of our island neighbor.
That is a counterintuitive thought, to put it mildly. But to avoid defeat, Americans needed guns and powder and bullets and warm clothing. To buy those necessities, they needed money. And money in those days came from France, eager to twist the tail of the British Lion. France supported America for many reasons, including the ones we learn in school — Benjamin Franklin’s
roguish charm and the appeal of the underdog and England’s comeuppance. But a reason we hear less often is that France had a vested interest in protecting a lucrative overseas possession with a strong connection to the United States, and to New England in particular.
Here in Boston, where the American Revolution is an everyday fact, it helps to pull the camera back, away from this tiny peninsula, and consider the broader hemisphere. In the late 18th century, the situation was very nearly reversed — Haiti’s predecessor, Saint Domingue, was the richest colony in the world. Its capital city, Cap Français (today’s Cap Haïtien) was larger than Boston, and among the most cosmopolitan places in the Americas. Its culture matched anything in New York, Havana, Philadelphia, or the dour Puritan city jutting into Massachusetts Bay.
Early in the century, Benjamin Franklin had learned that modest displays of wit were punishable by jail in Boston — why he soon found it convenient to flee to Philadelphia. In Saint Domingue, by contrast, wit was everything. Comedies were performed at playhouses around the country (the largest theater in Cap Français seated 1,500). Le Cap’s first theater preceded Boston’s by more than 50 years. The historian James E. McClellan III said that Haiti’s scientific clubs “certainly rivaled, if they did not eclipse” those of Philadelphia and Boston. A highly sophisticated urban life sprang into existence — more than 11 towns had more than 1,000 people, and in the capital, all of Cap Français danced to orchestras, laughed at cabarets, played at cards and billiards, and visited wax museums. (In 1789, a waxen George Washington was put on display, in what might have passed for the first state visit by a US president.)
As these accounts would suggest, a great deal of money was made in Saint Domingue. To be “as rich as a Creole” was a familiar boast in Paris, and a substantial portion of the French economy depended on this one distant settlement. This was the jewel of the French empire, furnishing the coffee drunk in Paris, the sugar needed to sweeten it, and the cotton and indigo worn by men and women of fashion. Saint Domingue’s commerce added up to more than a third of France’s foreign trade. One person in eight in France earned a living that stemmed from it. By 1776, this tiny colony produced more income than the entire Spanish empire in the Americas.
But Haiti’s superheated economy required constant, grinding labor in the plantations — and that meant massive importation of human beings from Africa. To a greater degree than in South Carolina or Virginia, the planters of Saint Domingue worked their slaves to death. This was a slave society on a scale beyond anything seen in North America. The profits were bigger, and so were the cruelties, distributed as generously. A small colony of 10,000 square miles — roughly the size of Massachusetts — held a teeming population of Africans, half a million strong, ruled over by a mixture of French families, light-skinned mulattoes, and the profiteering adventurers who always congregate in lively Caribbean cities.
To a surprising degree, Boston was economically linked with a city that was in many ways its polar opposite. New England merchants had been getting rich in Hispaniola since at least 1684, when a young adventurer, William Phips, found a Spanish treasure that made his fortune there. Foodstuffs like dried fish were sold by enterprising Yankees to the rich French island, and the trade in molasses (a run-off of the sugar refining process) became a New England specialty, part of the so-called Triangle Trade. The difficulty of regulating this trade led to the strictures by which England tried and generally failed to bring New England to heel, enraging Americans in the process.
So, well before the first shots were fired at Lexington Green, New Englanders had a mutually beneficial relationship with Saint Domingue that was irritating to England. And France was highly protective of Saint Domingue, which the English had tried on several occasions to seize. All of this provided essential background to the key fact — the French alliance — that allowed the United States to lurch into existence.
Why did the French pour money into our cause? A large portion of the answer lies in Haiti, unremembered by Americans. France did not want to lose its jewel, and so it sprang into action when the American colonists began to agitate for their freedom. The king’s advisers worried that the British would use the conflict to shore up their Caribbean possessions, and seize Saint Domingue once and for all. To support the Americans would not only weaken the British and help avert that disaster, it would support a people with a known interest in trading with the French colonists. The loans were small and secretive at first, often funneled through clandestine agents. But eventually, French support grew open and robust. As recounted by Stacy Schiff in “A Great Improvisation,” France ultimately provided 1.3 billion livres, or the equivalent of $9 billion today.
Without this help, the Revolution probably would have fizzled. Certainly it would not have lasted as long. When the Declaration of Independence announced the United States, the Americans had only about 30,000 fighting men and very little money. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “the world wondered that we so seldom fired a cannon. We could not afford it.” France’s aid made all the difference. The battle that ended the war — Yorktown — was essentially a French production.
But not entirely French. To do their part, the people of Saint Domingue responded enthusiastically to the call to defend the infant United States. Haitians of all complexions fought alongside the continentals at the Battle of Savannah in 1779 (one of them was a 12-year-old drummer named Henri Christophe, who went on to pronounce himself king of Haiti in the 19th century, after getting a taste of independence in America).
Just as importantly, Saint Domingue served as a vital point of transfer for the men, arms, and gunpowder flowing from France to the patriot cause. As those essential donations poured in to the United States, they came through what is now Haiti. Americans were buying powder there as early as 1775. The powder that won the battle of Saratoga came from there. The military engineers who designed the plans for victory at Yorktown and the cannons needed to win it and the French fleet who made sure it happened all came to us via our island neighbor. Yorktown essentially won it all for us.
Perhaps the most important gift of all from Haiti to the United States came in a form that remains difficult to quantify, but was essential all the same. The money that kept the United States afloat during the long war for independence came from those enormous loans, negotiated by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams during their long stay in Paris. Does it not seem plausible that France had money to lend to one part of America because of the huge profits that another part of America — Saint Domingue — made possible? It is hard enough today to know how money goes from one pot into a government expenditure; the difficulty increases exponentially when looking at the distant finances of a country that no longer exists. But the vast sums pouring into France from Saint Domingue at exactly the same time made foreign aid to the New World a distinctly more attractive option than it would have been otherwise. The 1770s and 1780s were the richest decades Saint Domingue had ever seen. It goes without saying that the entire enterprise rested on the backs of the men and women whose labor powered it.
We are naturally drawn to the most elevated part of the story of our national birth, and there is plenty of inspiration in the orations of Sam Adams, the immortal words of the Declaration, and the valor of American soldiers at Lexington and Bunker Hill and Valley Forge. But we do a disservice to the people of Haiti, and ultimately to ourselves, if we do not remember that a large contribution toward American freedom was made by the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans who, in their way, toiled and died for the cause.
Ultimately, America’s cause merged into Haiti’s own, for the huge loans given to America weakened the French economy sufficiently that another revolution broke out in Paris and the world turned upside down all over again. Out of that chaos emerged a third revolution, and a new Haitian nation, which declared independence in 1804, the second American country to do so. Its path since then has been rockier than our own, to put it mildly, but it overcame more difficult challenges than we did, including the opposition of nearly every nation on earth, the United States among them.
There were voices, then as now, that saw some justice in bringing the two independent nations into closer orbit. Timothy Pickering of Salem, secretary of state from 1795 to 1800, considered the revolution’s leader, Toussaint Louverture, “a prudent and judicious man possessing the general confidence of the people of all colors.” Under John Adams, there was a flourishing trade, and even some US naval support for Toussaint’s maneuvers. In return, Toussaint’s supporters began to call Americans “the good whites.”
On rare occasions, Americans even saw some similarity between the revolutions that each country experienced. In 1791, as the Haitian Revolution was just getting underway, a young Pennsylvania politician rose to defend the slaves fighting for their freedom, arguing, “if the insurrection of the Negroes were treated as a rebellion what name could be given to that of the Americans which won their independence?” In 1804, a Boston newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, wrote, “their case is not dissimilar to that of the people of the United States in 1778-1800.” But in 1806, the Jefferson administration succeeded in a ban on all trade with the newly independent nation of Haiti, extinguishing its hopes for prosperity, at the beginning of its new history.
It is easy to see why we have generally passed over this history. It is obscure, buried in old newspapers and articles, many written in French. It describes a lost colony that seems to have slid off the face of the earth. But Haiti survived Saint Domingue, and now it has survived what may be the greatest crisis in its history.
But the story does not end there. In fact, it doesn’t end anywhere, because Haitians and Americans will always bump into each other in the small hemispheric space that we occupy together. Many more arguments could be cited to convey how entangled are the roots of our liberty trees. How many Americans live in the great heartland that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains? They owe a debt not only to Thomas Jefferson, Louisiana’s purchaser, but to Toussaint Louverture and the Haitians who fought so tenaciously for their freedom that Napoleon was forced to cash out of America. (He exclaimed, on hearing of the death of his best general, “damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!”) How many Americans have been moved by the prints of John James Audubon, or the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, or the many other descendants of Haitian families, white and black, who came here in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution? How many of us have admired the iron balustrades of New Orleans and Charleston, wondering where the artisans came from who designed them?
Thousands of Americans have rushed to Haiti’s hospitals and shelters and with their expertise and aid. We have given deeply — $700 million and counting. But as the spring rains come, perhaps we can pause to consider this shared history, and do more by a sister republic that has dogged our steps and weighed on our consciences since the dawn of the American experiment. It has often been said that freedom is not free. Should we not show how highly we value it, by repaying a small fragment of the debt we owe to the descendants of a people whose blood, sweat, and tears helped us to become the United States of America?
Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. The library has formed a fund, ”Saving Haiti’s Libraries,” to protect the endangered cultural treasures of Haiti. See jcbl.org for details.