Haiti's Prized Presidential Legacies

By Destin, Yven | Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Haiti's Prized Presidential Legacies


Destin, Yven, Journal of Haitian Studies


Throughout Haitian history, the country's presidents have not been viewed as effective heads of state. When they are acknowledged at all, they are not recognized for the progress made in Haiti. As of today over fifty heads of state have acceded to the Haitian leadership position, and all have been accused of corruption in one way or another, as any random reading of Haitian history will reveal.1 Such a conclusion, if true, would be quite a disheartening aberration. Is it believable that over fifty successive Haitian presidents, in over two hundred years of independence, were nothing more than corrupt people? Aside from the canonized founder and second chief of state King Henry Christophe from 1807 to 1820, were there no celebrated post-founders, say a Franklin D. Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy of Haiti? Foreign accounts of Haitian history seem to suggest a resounding NO!2 Haitian accounts of their history certainly make such mention, but one would be hard pressed to find a consensus surrounding one or more presidents among a group of Haitians in the homeland or migrants living abroad.

This essay briefly reviews some of the achievements of lasting significance of seven such chief of states: Christophe-the reigning "King of Hayti" (as it was spelled until 1890)3; Boyer-the "Great Unifier of Hayti"; Geffrard-the "Redeemer of the Republic"; Salomon-"Leader of the Black National Party"; Hyppolite-the "Panama Hat"- and "Iron Pants"-wearing horseman; the 1946 "Revolution" of Estimé; and Magloire-the military man who led the way to Haiti's "Golden Age." These men represented seven instances of a functioning Haitian state, yet the positive impacts of their leadership have been minor footnotes in historiographies of Haiti. I will focus on these seven chiefs of state since they have some notoriety among Haitians in the country and abroad.

Henry Christophe, "King of Hayti," 1807 to 1820

Probably the best known of these seven leaders is Henry Christophe, a self-proclaimed monarch. Christophe's major accomplishments include establishing a monarchy in northern Haiti as well as amicable relations with the British and the Germans.4 He also created a trading partnership between Haiti and Jamaica, constructed the Citadelle fortress and SansSouci palace, and recruited teachers for the nation's schools. The lasting significance of Henry Christophe's rule is immortalized in the Citadelle and Sans-Souci, which now symbolize Haitian nationality.

Christophe was the "King of Hayti" from 1807 to 1820. His legacy was forged during the slave abolition movement emerging in Great Britain. Having secured their independence in 1804, Haitians emerged as crusaders for Black people under bondage, but this fact angered slaveholding nations, which feared slave revolts, and Haitians as well, who feared imperial retaliation. More than Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines before him, Christophe became concerned about securing Haitian independence and protecting the country from another assault, which seemed ever more vulnerable (as the French seemed ever more determined) to a reinvasion after the failed French invasion of 1802.

Christophe seems to have felt that Great Britain was a nation that advanced the abolition of slavery-far more than imperial France, which had offered earlier plea deals of slave emancipation during the Haitian Revolution, and the United States and Spain, which as slaveholding nations lagged behind the antislavery movement. Moreover, Christophe believed that if a kingdom such as Britain could do more to abolish slavery than France and the United States, Haitians might be better off within a kingdom.5

Christophe thus modeled northern Haiti after a monarchy. This move was as much as to venerate Black independence as it was to incense slaveholding powers in the international realm. As the first-ever Negro King of a liberated colony, however, Christophe sought the respect of the international community, sending several letters requesting national leaders to address him as such. …

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