Why We Are Partly Responsible for the Mess that is Haiti

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Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I , was published by Basic Books on June 1. He is a member of the corporate board of HNN.

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As Haiti reels toward civil war, my mind is gripped by an historical memory. The story opens the book I published last year on the Louisiana Purchase. A smiling President Thomas Jefferson, barely ensconced in the White House, invited Louis Andre Pichon, the French charge d'affaires, for a visit and cheerfully informed him that if the French wanted to regain the island of St. Domingue, the Americans were ready and eager to cooperate.

Then as now St. Domingue was divided into a French-speaking western third (the future republic of Haiti) and a Spanish-speaking eastern two thirds (the future Dominican Republic) with a range of mountains as a barrier between them. Spain had ceded the Spanish part of the island to France in 1795. The French section's sugar, coffee and indigo plantations made it France's most valuable overseas possession until the 1789 revolution triggered a civil war that wrecked the island's economy.

Out of the turmoil emerged an extraordinary black leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture, who ruled both enclaves, in which some 400,000 ex-slaves lived uneasily with thousands of whites and free mulattoes. Toussaint was immensely proud of his martial prowess and did not complain when his followers called him "the first of the blacks" and compared him to the great conquerors of history.

"Nothing would be easier than to supply everything for your army and navy, and to starve out Toussaint," Jefferson told Pichon. The president wanted to show his undying enthusiasm for the French Revolution, in spite of the way it had turned into an orgy of mob violence and then morphed into a military dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. His focus on Toussaint suggests he was also motivated by a desire to remove a figure that gave the South's millions of black slaves dangerous dreams of glory. A few months earlier, Virginia had narrowly escaped an explosion of violence when a slave insurrection led by Gabriel and Martin Prosser had been detected at the last moment.

Before President Jefferson knew what was happening, Napoleon had a 15,000 man army heading for St. Domingue. Then came news from Paris that did not fit the founder of the Democratic Party's blithe assumption of perpetual affection between democratic America and revolutionary France. Secretly, Napoleon had persuaded Spain to return the immense territory of Louisiana to France. The French had given it to Spain to compensate its ally for losses elsewhere in the Seven Years (1754-61) war with England. The news also included a soon verified rumor that the French Army, after occupying St. Domingue and disposing of Toussaint, was going to head for New Orleans to assume control of Louisiana. All they needed were flatboats to ascend the Mississippi and create bayonet-bristling outposts in Natchez, St. Louis and other towns along the America's western border, where restless frontiersmen frequently cast aspersions on their rulers in distant Washington D.C.

At this point, the tough cool realism of Secretary of State James Madison took charge of the situation. He soon persuaded his close friend President Jefferson that when the French Army arrived in St. Domingue, it would NOT receive an iota of food or a dollar of American money. This decision played no small part in wrecking Napoleon's plans for a restored New World empire. Another large factor was the fierce resistance of St. Domingue's blacks, even after Toussaint was captured and shipped to France to die in an icy dungeon in the Jura Mountains. Also in the game was aedes egypti, the female mosquito that carries the yellow fever virus. Thanks to that small buzzing creature, the French army melted away to a forlorn remnant.

Out of this hugger mugger emerged an improbable triumph that made Jefferson a two term president and the icon of the Democratic Party: The Louisiana Purchase. A disgusted Napoleon sold the stupendous chunk of the trans-Mississippi west to the United States to raise money for a new war with England. In the peans of praise for this piece of marvelous luck, St. Domingue was more or less ignored by almost everyone in America.

But Jefferson was paying attention -- for the second of the two reasons that had motivated his original offer to Louis Andre Pichon. Out of the savage war between the French and the black ex-slaves had emerged a grim new leader, Jean Jacques Dessalines. He abandoned Toussaint's attempt to create a multi-racial society. Instead, Dessalines removed the white stripe from the French tricolor to create a new flag -- and chose the Carib Indian name Haiti for his country. His army marched through Haiti, ruthlessly slaughtering every white person still alive on the island. This brutal denoument sent a shudder of dread through the American South.

In 1804, after Jefferson's landslide reelection for a second term, the president's son in law, Congressmen John W. Eppes of Virginia, rose in Congress to declare that U.S. merchants should have nothing to do with people of a race Americans needed "to depress and keep down." Congress soon concurred and passed a law prohibiting all trade with Haiti, which Jefferson signed. This ukase guaranteed Haiti's isolation for most of the nineteenth century, during which it became the poverty-ridden coup-tormented mess it remains today.

One of the few who objected to the Eppes-Jefferson policy was Federalist Senator Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts. This forerunner of the Republican Party, who hated Jeffersonian democracy so much he wanted New England to secede from the Union, attacked the trade ban, claiming that the Haitians were only guilty of having "a skin not colored like our own."

Now we hear that France, in the person of Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, a self styled admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, is thinking of sending an expeditionary force to restore order in Haiti. One can only hope that the Republican administration in Washington can think of a better solution than allowing this American hating reactionary to meddle in the mess we and the French created two hundred years ago.

This article was first published by the New York Sun and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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Iridescent Cuttlefish - 1/18/2008

“Partly responsible?”

“…a desire to remove a figure that gave the South's millions of black slaves dangerous dreams of glory.”

So, when old Tommy and the boys—you know, respectable, land-owning white men who don’t want to pay their taxes anymore—decide to have a revolution it’s all noble & historical, etc, etc ad nauseum et patriotismus über alles, but when slaves want their damned freedom it’s “dangerous dreams of glory,” is it? Mighty fine double standard you got going here—so emblematic of the real nature of American democracy.
And who do we find polishing that knob? Why, historians, naturally: that’s their job in a culture that is dependent upon its image of itself in order to justify its countless transgressions of its own declared principles.
Just to be fair, however, I’ll trade you my history for your history. Now how could it be that the very same events sound so very different in this telling?


Tim Matthewson - 1/29/2006

The notes/references above illustrate the point that nobody much cares about Haiti, except for Haitian themselves and other West Indians. Most Americans would prefer to ignore Haiti and are repelled by the appalling conditions of life in Port-au-Prince and much of the remainder of Haiti. These conditions are appalling, far worse than most imagine.
The U.S. has intervened and occupied Saint Domingue-Haiti on several occasions and throughout the past two centuries has following a policy of isolating Haiti, expressing fears of Haitian subversion during the days of slavery in the U.S. and serving as an example during most of American history of the evils of black rule, projecting said fears onto the southern states of the US. Powerful southern congressmen and southerners over the course of said centuries have at every opportunity to attack Haiti as an example of the evils of black domination.
No country has suffered so much as Haiti owing to the export of American racial prejudice abroad. Southerners have had an interest in seeing Haiti and Haitian fails at everything they have attempted and American efforts to subvert the Haitian experiment at interracial social democracy is partially documented in the Flemin essay. But there is much more to be said on the subject of American subversion of the Haitian experiement.

Daniel B. Larison - 3/7/2004

Your points about Napoleon are good ones. I suppose the extent of Napoleon's 'reaction' is a matter of degree. Napoleon might properly be considered to be 'to the right' of the Jacobins, but by the standards of his own time he is solidly well 'to the left' of his contemporaries Pitt or Metternich.

I suppose it is the difference between being a republican rightist in later French or Spanish history and a legitimist. Both might seem like 'reactionaries' to their opponents, but the republican and the legitimist often propose significantly different visions of society and politics. Both may have advocated similar policies in certain areas (a restricted franchise, perhaps), but the legitimist remains convinced that just authority derives from the dynasty and, I suppose, from God, where the republican has already accepted the basic revolutionary tenet of popular sovereignty. The republican rightist in France, much like some right-liberals in Austria in the late nineteenth century, would like to preserve the fruits of 1830 or 1848 respectively, but go no further. Their position seems to have been that the middle-class has rights to self-government, while the lower classes do not really possess the same rights, whereas the legitimist would prefer to keep all government, as much as possible, with the monarch and his immediate supporters.

Locke and Sydney possess in them the same seeds of majoritarian tyranny in their advocacy of popular sovereignty. For that matter, the assumption that government is based on consent carries with it the same risks. They do try balance that with their affirmation of rights guaranteed by natural law, but their theories, if stripped of English legal traditions of customary rights and precedents, could be just as pernicious as those of Rousseau. It may be that America did not descend into the autocracy of the French example only because of the precedents and previous experience that the colonists possessed. Their theory was not really that much safer.

Grant W Jones - 3/4/2004

Democracy is not an end in itself. By installing Aristide (20,000 Marines required, let's not banter semantics) the U.S. took a responsibility it should not have. There is no way of knowing if the military regime would have, or was, worse than Aristide. It is counter-intuitive, but sometimes a relatively benign dictatorship is better than an elected thug. But Aristide, a defrocked Priest and devotee of "Liberation Theology," became the darling of the New York and Washington D.C. liberal/left. Sending the the Marines to, yes inflict, this rat-bastard on the Haitian people was a high-handed action which caused a great deal of damage to the country, which was predictable.

The question is how were vital U.S. interests involved either way? Clinton's action is just an example of Wilsonian do-goodism, and the usual results, making a bad situation worse.

mark safranski - 3/3/2004

" I don't accept that autocracy or dynastic rule necessarily represents reaction. If reaction means anything, it means a commitment to the sort of society and politics that prevailed before or operated actively against the Revolution."

Actually, a return to a dynastic monarchy in the First Empire could easily be described as a retreat * in principle* from the Revolution even if in terms of degree Napoleon's Empire with it's lists of " Notables " and parvenu titles was more egalitarian and meritocratic than the ancien regime. ( We are, of course, engaging in the fundamental argument of Napoleonic historiography) It all depends how narrowly or to what degree of relativity you wish to define and contextualize the term " reaction "

" To call the Empire period a strict reaction to the Revolution assumes that there is some necessary contradiction between autocracy and the democratic principles of the 1790s "

Which is what makes the French Revolution so troublesome and historically speaking, pernicious. It legitimized authoritarianism via majoritarianism and Rousseau's general will as opposed to fostering the Lockean individualism of the American Revolution. While it swept away the old, corporate society of the ancien regime the Revolution also opened up a pandora's box that led to modern totalitarianism.


Charles Johnson - 3/3/2004

It seems to me to be a bit tendentious to describe Clinton's military intervention in Haiti as "install[ing] [Aristide] back in power". Aristide was democratically elected to his position; it was the military dictatorship which overthrew him which "installed" themselves into power.

I think the best thing that the U.S. could do for Haiti is to leave them the hell alone forever, so I don't think that Clinton's little war was a good idea; and I don't have any particular love for Aristide, who has repeatedly shown a proclivity for responding to violence by becoming himself more of a thug. But the idea that Aristide was "inflicted" on Haiti (or that the military dictatorships which preceded him and then ousted him were in any way better!) is simply bizarro.

Charles Johnson - 3/3/2004

William Livingston writes: "The French are welcome to resist our power the next time they again come begging us to bail them out of trouble, as we did in World Wars I & II."

Come on now. We fought alongside France World War I and World War II, so the French government now owes perpetual agreement with U.S. foreign policy, even when they think it is profoundly stupid and destructive?

You might as well argue that the United States is obligated to agree with everything France says, since they saved our asses in the Revolutionary War...

Ken Melvin - 3/2/2004

Well, time to reatore the natural order; put a wealthy light skin dictator who understands the role of capital in charge. Should we dig old Batista up and put him back in Cuba?

Tom L Cox - 3/2/2004

As pointed out the problems of Haiti go back to George Washington and before if you consider Haiti's time as a French colony. However, our nation building efforts during the occupation of 1915-1934 certainly did not turn out very good.

Aristide is just another in a line of failed Haitian Presidents, the real question is what to do now?

Daniel B. Larison - 3/1/2004

From what small portions of Les Cent Jours I have had time to read, and from reviews of it that I have read, de Villepin engages in a sort of retrospective consideration of Napoleon's career through the lens of "the hundred days" from the time he escapes Elba until Waterloo. He regards the career as a coherent whole, I think, and he seems to regard the dash to Waterloo as a sort of typical example of some kind of French heroic spirit that de Villepin finds so enchanting. There is some romanticism and nostalgia at work here, waxing poetic about the Lost Cause, as it were, I do not get the impression that de Villepin is advocating Bonapartism as a result.
I don't accept that autocracy or dynastic rule necessarily represents reaction. If reaction means anything, it means a commitment to the sort of society and politics that prevailed before or operated actively against the Revolution. To call the Empire period a strict reaction to the Revolution assumes that there is some necessary contradiction between autocracy and the democratic principles of the 1790s, or that Bonaparte saw himself as reversing the 'gains' of the Revolution. Reaction would presumably include the restoration of the Bourbons with Louis XVIII, after which there were a series of lurching conflicts over which sort of bourgeois society France was going to become (the less said about Charles X the better). Autocratic rule not only did follow from democratic government, but is very often likely to do so, especially in times of external threat and war.

Grant W Jones - 3/1/2004

Lincoln recognized Haiti in 1862, I assume he also lifted the embargo at this time.

Grant W Jones - 3/1/2004

In 1994 Clinton sent 20,000 Marines to Haiti in order to install is good buddy back in power. Every Haitian I know therefore hates Clinton.

mark safranski - 3/1/2004

What parts of Napoleonic history was de Villepin waxing sentimental over ?

Becoming a self-crowned Emperor of the French with dynastic aspirations was a fairly reactionary program. At other times Bonaparte was ( or presented himself as) a Jacobin, a liberal, a Thermidorean consolidator.

Daniel B. Larison - 3/1/2004

Prof. Fleming's article properly draws our attention to the early policies of the United States towards Haiti, and he is correct to find fault with the embargo of Haiti that served, like so many policies of embargo, not to achieve any laudable purpose but simply as punishment for the political inconvenience of a black republic.
From there, Prof. Fleming seems overly concerned to lay the blame for the problems of modern Haiti at the door of Mr. Jefferson and the old Democracy, which exaggerates the role of external pressures in determining the failures of Haitian political development and surprisingly ignores the twentieth century culprit for whom Prof. Fleming usually reserves such tremendous criticism, namely Woodrow Wilson. If we are to seek the roots of modern Haiti's problems, they lie much closer to our own time in the repeated insistence on the part of American presidents to desire to dictate the development of Haiti. Much of the blame for overall failure must, at some point, rest with Haitian political leaders and Haitians themselves, as there are a number of nations that can cite grinding poverty and mistreatment at the hands of the United States or some other great power that have nonetheless struggled to create some measure of a working political and social order.
While his respect for Mr. Pickering is interesting, the idea that a Federalist is a "forerunner of the Republican Party" because of an assumed general anti-racism in both is just a little too rich. Only in the sense that Republicans came to replace Whigs as Whigs filled the vacuum of vanished Federalism as the chief opponents of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democracy can anyone really claim that any Federalist politician represented something similar to Republican politics. Republicans eventually represented many of the same constituencies as Federalists, which tells us as much about the political changes of those constituencies as it does anything else. One could just as well claim that Edmund Burke anticipated Lloyd George because both were not Tories. Federalists represented, for good or ill, a very different conception of social order and constitutional government than the consolidationist and quasi-egalitarian Republicans. Federalist support for secession, whether in 1803-04 or 1812, was rooted in fears similar to those that motivated the Southern Confederacy's actions: the fear that the opposing section was gaining unjust and excessive advantage within the Union through unconstitutional actions or feared usurpations. It was not simply general hatred for Jeffersonianism as such, but what were perceived to be the irregular and unconstitutional actions of Jefferson while in office. It is noteworthy that Federalists disliked the Democracy so much precisely because of its popular and egalitarian features (elements that Republicans copied and expanded upon), and plainly because its agrarian and slaveholding interests were contrary to those of New England both in policies concerning land acquisition and war.
As someone with family connections to the leader of the opposition to President Jefferson over the Louisiana Purchase, William Plumer of New Hampshire, I am keenly aware that New England Federalists rebelled against the Purchase precisely because they believed Jefferson was undermining the constitutional principles that he himself professed, but failed to adhere to, and with which he had criticized President Adams while out of power. It is the height of irony that the scourge of the "monocracy" negotitated a secret treaty and committed the United States to payments for the acquisition of lands without consent of Congress--the very sort of secrecy that he had found so contemptible when Mr. Jay had reached an agreement with Britain a few years before, and the very sort of broad interpretation of the explicit powers laid out in the Constitution for which he took Mr. Hamilton to task. Disgust with Jeffersonianism had much to do with its practical failure to live up to its own standards.
As for the odd, splenetic attack on Mr. de Villepin at the end of the article, it is regrettable that Prof. Fleming feels obliged to pile on to the bizarre Francophobic hysteria of the last year. Perhaps that would explain Prof. Fleming's great affection for the Federalist Mr. Pickering, since the Federalists were so well-trained in hatred of the French. An historian of his caliber ought to be able to make his argument without recourse to calling Mr. de Villepin a "reactionary," which is pejorative nonsense, much less "American hating," which is simply dreadful falsehood. Mr. de Villepin was such an extraordinary improvement over his Socialist predecessor in terms of his reasonableness and willingness to engage the United States that the vilification he has since received is a very poor mark on our government and media indeed. Prof. Fleming here has fallen into a very unfortunate habit of Americans today to assume that disagreement and even opposition to an American policy must imply despicable motives and contempt for our country. His sentimental attachments to Napoleon and whatever he may believe Napoleon represents about 'the true French spirit' may make him odd to our eyes, but they make him no more reactionary than Napoleon was himself (which is to say, not very).
A "reactionary" would not belong to a government that pushes internationalism and multiculturalism in France as much as that of Mr. Raffarin does, the debate over headscarves notwithstanding. Whatever Gen. de Gaulle may have represented of the old guard of the French right, modern Gaullists have as much in common with him as contemporary Tories have in common with Lord Salisbury or William Pitt (which is to say, not much at all), so there is little danger that Mr. de Villepin's partisan affiliations would make him into a "reactionary," either.
In practical terms, Mr. de Villepin is so very much unlike a Bonapartist that it is extraordinary that he should have written a book about Napoleon at all. Where Bonaparte conquered supposedly for the aims of the Revolution (a notion that Mr. de Villepin implicitly accepts), Mr. de Villepin has practically repudiated such dangerous nonsense in the strong line that he and President Chirac took over the recent war. For someone whose practice is diplomacy and whose background is aristocratic, he has much more in common with Metternich in his temperament, even if not, let me repeat, in his politics.

David C Battle - 2/29/2004


Ken Melvin - 2/29/2004

Both wrong; need to look it up. Clinton inherited Haiti and Aristide from Bush I. So North Korea, Somalia, Kosovo. Thus the redux. Aristide was elected, a kook, but elected none the less. Bush was not elected. The US has just pulled off a coup a la Iran, Chile, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, .... Again, using paid thugs. This president's smallness and meaness has won the day. Many will die.

Grant W Jones - 2/29/2004

It was Clinton that inflicted the Commie ex-priest on Haiti. As if the country didn't have enough problems.

Rick Freedman - 2/29/2004

For a detailed analysis of the Haitian crisis and its implications to US presidential politics, please look at the essay "Haiti: malign neglect" on my blog:


Allan David Branchau - 2/27/2004

France has been one of our staunchest allies over the years. The fact is that sometimes our feelings get hurt when a good friend deals with our petulance in an adult manner. this is how I see the French they are our friends and though they don't simply agree with us for the purpose of maintaining harmony , they still regard us as a beacon of freedom and justice. It is sad that some people (even in our government) can't see the logic in regarding anothers opinions as simply another way of looking at a problem that may be different from ours.

David C Battle - 2/27/2004

Bush the First? You must be young and not remember-- Haiti was Clinton's baby. Not that I'm blaming him for the current situation. I think the Haitians have themselves only to blame. Get your own house in order.

Ken Melvin - 2/27/2004

Strange indeed how all the problems of Bush the First, one by one, now recur. No accident, this. Each battle to be revisited, fought again. Else some one so incapable in charge, should we even be hearing of Haiti? Strange indeed too, never the word terrorists with Haiti heard. How long before again riots in the streets here? Oh Lizard on high, I pray, let this be Bush the Last.

mark safranski - 2/27/2004

Mr. Leckie,

Some might have cause for resentment. In the case of de Villepin, his mentality might best be described as thinking that when America stumbles, France will then walk taller.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/27/2004

It seems to me that part of the American character is to expect eternal gratitude from other countries.

As a result, another part of our character is a perpetual, if not pouting, disappointment.

William Livingston - 2/27/2004

The French are welcome to resist our power the next time they again come begging us to bail them out of trouble, as we did in World Wars I & II. What truly has French politicians upset is that France has long been in the shadow of the U.S., France has become a second (third?)rate power and French is a declining language whilst English/American and Spanish are increasingly dominant due to their number of speakers.

Regardless Air France is my favorite airline, French cooking, women and wine are superior French dreams of national grandeur belong in the dustbin of history and no-where else.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 2/27/2004

Perhaps, Mr. Safranski, some have good reason to resist US power?

mark safranski - 2/26/2004

Oh, I don't know, it seemed pretty much on the mark to me. He's as determined an opponent of U.S. power as one can be while serving as a minister of an allied state.


Dianne Maire - 2/26/2004

Living in France I see much of Monsieur de Villepin on televison. He is part of the french 'upper crust' and not loved by all. But, to call him an "American hating reactionary" is a bit over the top. It was a bad ending for a good article.