A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic

By Rohrs, Richard C. | Journal of the Early Republic, December 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic


Rohrs, Richard C., Journal of the Early Republic


A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic. By Tim Matthewson. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Pp. xii, 159. Cloth, $64.95.)

Tim Matthewson's A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic investigates the development and implementation of United States policy toward Saint Domingue (Haiti) during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Between 1791 and 1804, the slave population of the French colony of Samt Domingue revolted against the white minority and successfully resisted subsequent attempts by France and England to restore white control. For a variety of reasons, involving both foreign policy initiatives and domestic politics, these developments in the Caribbean were of considerable importance to the United States. The Treaty of Alliance of 1778 signed by France and the United States required that the United States protect French colonies in the New World. American merchants also hoped to exploit the loss of French control over the colony and extend the commercial interests of the United States into the West Indian market based on the principles of free trade. The wars of the French Revolution, the Quasi War, and anxiety about the future of the Louisiana Territory and, hence, the Mississippi River and its port of deposit at New Orleans, also affected American policy decisions. Ultimately, of course, the most important factor was race. How would the United States react to a successful slave revolt so near its shores? Could the United States allow Haiti to become "a symbol of independence and autonomy for blacks in a world dominated by whites and slavery" (vii-viii)?

Matthewson's study focuses on the administrations of the first three United States presidents: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Despite American support-in principle-for independence movements, the formation of other new republics, and emancipation, there was little enthusiasm for the efforts of Saint Domingue's slaves to end their enslavement and establish the New World's second republican government. All three presidents had to weigh prevailing racial attitudes with "economic and trade imperatives" (vii) and other foreign policy interests.

How each of the three men reacted was predictable. Racism influenced the government's policy during the Washington and Jefferson administrations, but had less of an effect on Adams's policy than his hatred of the French and the opportunity for commercial expansion. Reflecting the determination of northern Federalists to end slavery in their own states, Adams was willing "to encourage the independence of Saint Domingue" (62). The situation confronted by the Jefferson administration was far more complex. …

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