“The Slave-Holding Republic”

Against the Current, No. 186, January/February 2017

Jennifer Jopp

Confronting Black Jacobins:
The United States, the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic
By Gerald Horne
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015, 424 pages, $29 paper.

READERS OF AGAINST the Current will no doubt have long suspected that the traditional history of the United States in no way accounts for its complexities. And for someone whose original copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States long ago fell apart, new revelations of duplicity and rapacity are no longer shocking.

The Haitian Revolution, by far the most radical of the late 18th and early 19th century revolutions that transfixed and transformed the Atlantic world, is less frequently the subject of academic study than its immediate precursors. Likewise, there is a dearth of cultural knowledge about Haiti and its history.

The mention of Haiti conjures in the minds of Americans an impoverished, desperate country. Most have little knowledge of how it arrived in its current condition. Horne’s history seeks to correct that lack of knowledge.

Horne’s work extends and expands the trajectory of The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a 1938 classic by C.L.R. James, an Afro-Trinidadian historian and revolutionary. As did James, Horne traces the world-shattering impact of the Haitian Revolution. Horne carries the narrative into the 19th century, excavating the transformative impact of the Haitian revolt on Europe and, most particularly, the United States.

While James saw in Toussaint L’Ouverture and his allegiance to the French Revolution both the conditions that made him as well as the source of his demise, Horne’s study illuminates the existential challenge that the rise of the Black Jacobins posed to the slaveholding U.S. republic.

We are immediately made aware of Horne’s perspective in the opening lines of the book. “A specter was haunting the slave-holding republic,” Horne boldly declares. He now has the reader in a grasp from which we cannot get free. Placing the revolutionary state squarely on the side of history, with our much-vaunted republic taking the role of the force of repression, casts new light on the entire history of the United States in the 19th century.

Slavery and the World Economy

New studies of both the Atlantic world and the history of slavery have added to our understanding of the vast wealth and complex webs of interconnection that bound those in the North and South within the United States, and the forces of revolution and counterrevolution all over the globe.

We have long known that slavery was immensely profitable and that the wealth in slaves outstripped all other sources of wealth in the United States. Yet here one finds this story understood in a new way, like an image just out of the line of vision that we do not want to look at, but once seen transfixes us.

Horne forces us to look at the history of this country squarely. Slavery and its protection in law, Horne asserts, was not an afterthought, not the result of a reluctant compromise, not the result of unforeseen consequences of 19th century development. Rather, slavery was there all along: Indeed, fear of British abolitionism drove the birth of the new country.

Horne never uses the phrase “the United States,” but rather consistently calls the country the “slave-holding republic.” There were forces underway, Horne shows, in the course of the 19th century that reshaped our republic in ways seen and unseen. He illuminates the vast webs of interconnections and movements of peoples that formed the Atlantic world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

American academic scholarship long mirrored the cultural silences on the history of Haiti. For decades, the work of Haitian scholars was inaccessible to Americans scholars who rarely read French.

James’s magisterial The Black Jacobins inaugurated an entirely new approach — identifying in the early revolution potential lessons for post-colonial societies in the 20th century.

Of course, knowledge of Haiti has long existed. John Brown studied the Haitian Revolution in his preparations for a revolt against the system of slavery. African-American scholars have long noted the revolutionary nature of the challenge Haiti posed. “There was hell in Haiti in the red waning of the eighteenth century, in the days when John Brown was born,” notes W.E.B. Dubois in his brilliant 1909 biography.(1)

Horne opens his work with George Washington’s 1791 response to the “unfortunate insurrection of the Negroes in Hispaniola.” From the beginning, the revolutionary process unleashed in Haiti threatened to topple the system of slavery. This “rare transformative social, political and economic detonation” shattered the wealthiest and most productive colony in the world.

As Laurent Dubois notes, it “was a dramatic challenge to the world as it then was” and, indeed, the place where the “knot of colonialism … was first untied.”(2)

“The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to … defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle,” noted James.(3)

Confronting a Revolutionary Challenge

Contemporary observers did not fail to understand the import of the challenge the slave revolt offered to their world and, thus, began decades — indeed, more than a century — of laments, interventions, projects for annexation, attempts at encirclement, and designs to crush the revolutionary state that emerged from the ashes in 1804.

What came to be called the Haitian Revolution was by far the most radical of the revolutions of the Atlantic world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its revolutionary call for a citizenship for all people of any color offered not only an ideological challenge to its precursors in the United States and France, but a profound political challenge to the entire colonial system.

Contemporary observers well understood that Haiti sounded the death knell for a vast international trade in human beings. The Americans understood these challenges and over the course of the entire 19th century engaged in myriad projects to gain control over and reap profits from the country, or — failing that — to destroy the revolutionary symbolism of the society.

It is hard to do justice to the long, complicated and — aptly — torturous history of the relationship between the United States and the republic of Haiti. The United States at all times had a complex calculus of interests, by turns offering assistance and developing designs to destroy the state.

With lush and fertile land, replete with natural resources and the site of the world’s most productive and lucrative colony, Haiti was a prize sought by the Americans, the French, the English, the Spanish, and later the Prussians. The dual roles of United States policy were to gain access and control, all the while fending off European powers.

These imperial dreams were complicated by the ways in which the struggle over slavery intensified over the course of the century, both within the United States and globally. In Horne’s history, the twin purposes of American policy were to maintain slavery and to discipline its detractors.

The initial revolt against French rule in 1791 came at a moment of heightened conflict with France in the United States and offered an opportunity for the Americans to aid the island planters — and in so doing keep the French, as well as the British, at bay. Such assistance served multiple purposes: it kept the abolitionists out and offered the potential for an opening wedge should the French be defeated. (Horne, Confronting Black Jacobins, 44. Other page references are to this title where not otherwise cited.)

The hand extended to these race and class allies set in motion forces and movements of people that reshaped the United States, cementing its commitment to slavery. Wealthy whites from Haiti, their slaves in tow, added greatly to the proslavery forces just as the abolitionist argument was gaining ground within the country.

Yet, these reinforcements, arriving as they did with their slaves, only increased the perilous position of the slaveholding republic. (45) The proximity of the island to the mainland and the proximity, thereby, of revolt to the growing slave system in the United States was evident. As Horne notes, “perspicacious [slaveholders] knew that a challenge to one part of the system could easily materialize in another” and that it “was necessary to pay attention to the overall project.” (47)

Slaveholders, too, engaged in a project on a large scale. Horne illuminates the vast imperial designs of those interested in maintaining the system and their plans for its expansion. The division of the island in two and the attempted annexation of the portion that became the Dominican Republic is also part of this story, as is the 1846-48 war with Mexico, the annexation of Texas, Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as the 1803 Louisiana “Purchase.”

Conflicted Interests

The world was changing under the feet of the American founders. The further radicalization of the French Revolution and its abolition of slavery and articulation of universal human rights forced the United States to seek to stem abolition throughout the Atlantic world.

It was often caught in the web of its own conflicting interests: the desire to strike a blow against France might mean arming Africans, while the preservation of its own system meant — above all else — eradication of any model of independence and sovereignty on the part of Africans. (56)

Throughout the century, this consideration was in conflict with another goal of the “white” republic: the removal of those who came to be called African Americans from the country.

Blacks themselves saw Haiti as a model. Several thousand left the United States for a new life in the island nation. They were free from oppression by whites and had the opportunity to gain access to land. Indeed, Black émigrés from the United States were an important part of the emerging society. Haiti sent emissaries to New York and Boston to encourage emigration.

For many who sought to leave the increasingly race bound society, Haiti provided a better alternative than Liberia, which had been “called into being” by whites. (245) The success of American Blacks in Haiti increased sharply the dangers posed by the society as a model for the maintenance of slavery on the mainland: it illustrated the potency of revolt, provided an alternative model of how to live, and gave the lie to all that slave owners and their supporters said disparaging Black capacities and capabilities.

The story Horne traces reveals the webs that white Americans often wove around themselves. Thomas Jefferson had early expressed the fear that “all the West India islands [would] …be in the hands of people of color” and yet the American encouragement of white immigration often brought about this effect. (59, 64)

The arrival of thousands of planters with their slaves in the 1790s, especially in cities like New Orleans, raised the possibility of large numbers of slaves with dangerous knowledge in the most vulnerable parts of the country.

Slave revolts and conspiracies throughout the hemisphere illuminate the “linkage[s] in the hemisphere between the continents and the islands.” The global connections among the personages and groups discussed in this work makes one’s head spin. As but just one example, London dispatched the Carolina Corps of Africans (formed of Black soldiers fighting for England) from Martinique to St. Lucia to dislodge “revolted Negroes.” (67)

Revolutionary fervor spread throughout the Caribbean and “it was apparent that the mainland could not be quarantined from hemispheric trends.” Nevertheless, the defenders of slavery felt “compelled to retrench” in a process driven forward by the invention of the cotton gin and the “desire to somehow elude the logic of Black Jacobinism.” (75, 77)

Yet, the ultimate logic of the revolutionary movement was clear, and Americans feared the spread of its power to the mainland. “If this combustion can be introduced among us, under any veil whatever,” noted Jefferson, “we have to fear it.” (83) Yet, internal “combustions” in the form of Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellion and the quasi-war with France drove the Americans to an entente with both London and Haiti.

Rebellion, Abolition, Emigration

A slave revolt in Virginia in 1800 led by Gabriel inspired by “the Negroes of Hayti” sharpened discontent about dealing with Black Jacobins and brought to the fore public discussions — which would recur throughout the 19th century — about the possibility of acquiring land on which “to deposit Negroes” and “persons obnoxious to the laws and dangerous to the peace.” (90, 92)

Thus, as Horne points out, fear of insurrection and the specter of Haiti shaped both “the contours of domestic enslavement and the republic itself.” (101) Indeed, an increasingly exploitative system emerged. The legal code promulgated in Louisiana under American control well illustrates the “intense focus on public safety” and contained newly draconian measures. (116)

Likewise, the growing movement for abolition in the country must be seen as “an outgrowth of the Haitian Revolution, and the growing strength of British Abolitionism” rather than as solely the result of domestic developments. (118)

The 1811 slave revolt in Louisiana, one of the largest on the mainland, heightened fears, as did a rebellion in Cuba the following year. At this “perilous moment for the slave-holding republic” it made the decision to declare war on England.

Horne’s recounting of this era of American history is an excellent example of the ways in which his lens recasts — and makes explicable — events that are hard to understand in isolation from one another. The War of 1812 has always seemed hard to understand, and the traditional version sheds little light. For Horne, the prize is Canada; more tellingly, the prize is the removal of a “sanctuary for capital flight.” (122)

In the aftermath of the war, increasing numbers of Blacks left the United States to live elsewhere, especially Hispaniola. Indeed, approximately 13,000 left the United States for Haiti in the 1820s alone.

Among the complexities of the American view of Haiti were conflicts of interest: northern farmers sought to expand trade to the island, while southerners sought to “galvanize a movement to quarantine the island of freedom.” For, “the idea that a successful Haiti would undermine slavery and the slave trade led to the contrasting idea of the mainland that it was crucial to make Haiti fail for precisely this reason.” (144-145)

Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt again raised the specter “that the Haitian Revolution had descended on the shores of North America.” The uprising caught Americans in their familiar dilemma: they “wanted to increase the number of enslaved Africans…but were fearful that this was only creating the climate for another Haitian Revolution.” (154, 161)

England and the United States increasingly parted ways on the question of abolition, with the former an advocate, while the Americans “adamantly refused to recognize the reality of an abolitionist republic.” (171)

Americans were busy throughout the 1830s expunging peoples from the republic, as they went about encouraging the immigration of others. The “ouster of the indigenous in the southeast and their removal, hundreds of miles distant” was only one of such projects. (168) Various schemes for Black “colonization” outside the United States also attracted Americans of all kinds.(4)

Imperial Designs and Contradictions

The expansion of the U.S. empire brought new enemies and new dangers. War with Mexico was viewed through the prism of its location “across the water from Haiti.” (180)

Conflict with Mexico over the annexation of Texas, “a template for the attempt to annex the Dominican Republic,” and the conflict with Spain over Cuba, as well ongoing difficulties gaining control over Florida, were only some of the difficulties faced by the slaveholding republic. The 1840s illustrated, Horne asserts, that “slavery, and its handmaiden white supremacy, were generating murderous conflict effortlessly.” (181)

France and England formally recognized the Haitian state, and those countries’ growing ties with the island nation spelled trouble for the Americans. The declaration of independence of Santo Domingo from Haiti in 1844 further complicates our story.

American supporters of slavery found Haiti’s attempts to retake the Dominican Republic and the abolition of slavery there a dangerous portent. Indeed, the United States began covert operations funded in secret to aid the Dominicans in repelling the Haitians, with the hope that this “would soon & necessarily lead to the conquest of Hayti.” (185)

Such projects attracted men like John Calhoun, then Secretary of State. Thus began a long attempt by the United States to annex the country. The wealth of the territory, as well as a desire to strike a blow against Haiti, figured in the calculations. Wealthy whites who had fled could return and help gain control of the country.

In a manner scarcely believable, the slaveholding Americans, long engaged in a process of securing their own country for “whites,” now contended that Haiti desired to “prevent the progress of prosperity and the increase of the white population” on the island.

The Dominican independence struggle was portrayed as a “race war” with the fate of Europeans or “whites” in danger. The island, commentators contended, was about to “become like Africa.” Haiti raised, once again, the specter of a “new Algiers…in the center of America.”(5)

U.S. bellicosity yielded dividends, for the rise of the Dominican Republic “was a blow against Haiti.” (199) Yet the long-term price paid for this victory was steep: the apparent success of this venture, contends Horne, fed the growing ferocity of pro-slavery forces in Kansas and elsewhere. (197)

The struggle for dominance in the Dominican Republic and the U.S. desire to gain influence at the expense of the powers of Spain, France and England presaged the later fight over Cuba. The thread underlining all of these efforts was the desire to defeat Haiti. Haiti — symbol of black power, force of emancipation, competitor for resources, aid to the enslaved on the mainland — must be crushed.

Dreams of a vast empire fired the imaginations of American supporters of slavery, who envisioned “a great federation of West India islands” worked and made prosperous by slave labor in which Cuba, St. Domingo, Porto Rico, and Jamaica [were] united under one confederation.” (207)

Such visions were shared by men like Jefferson Davis, who would soon lead a movement for secession. One commentator predicted that, “St. Domingo will be a state within a year, if our Cabinet will authorize white volunteers to make slaves of every negro they can catch when they reach Hayti.” (208)

American abolitionists did not fail to see the dangers of such imperialist schemes. Frederick Douglass himself noted that this “gigantic scheme of conquest and annexation” endangered “Hayti with its millions of its free blacks to be reenslaved.”(6)

The politics of race was never far from the minds of policy makers. The presence of Black American emigrees complicated the portrayal of the Dominican Republic as a “white” victim of the black Haitians. Dominican rulers — tired of Haitian rule — sought assistance from the United States and offered the enticement of a “reverse migration policy, as the Dominican government made it clear that it would ‘forbid blacks’ from the United States while seeking to ‘offer every inducement to whites.’” (213)

American assistance would ensure that “the white race shall be permitted to enjoy [a] share of the island.” More importantly, it would check Haiti’s plans “to establish on this island [a] nation of pure blacks to be the nucleus of a black empire.” (215)

Seeking White Supremacy

Thus, Americans viewed their conflict with Haiti as part of a vast struggle for supremacy, the supremacy of “whites,” in the hemisphere.

Black commentators, including Douglass, understood the nature of the American antipathy to Haiti. “Nothing is more annoying to American pride, “ he noted, “than the existence on our very borders of this noble Republic of colored men.” (219)

Race played a role, too, in the ultimate failure of an accord between Washington and the Dominican Republic, for — as Douglass noted — there was a “discovery that the Dominicans are mostly of African descent.” (231)

Civil War in the United States, brought about in no small measure by the growing divisions over the expansionist plans of proslavery forces, again shifted the context. “It took a while,” notes Horne wryly, “for the United States to realize that a strong Haiti was an antidote to secessionist plots.” Thus, after decades of struggle, the United States was finally compelled to recognize Haiti. (236, 242)

American Blacks — long attracted to Haiti and long among its defenders — continued to move to Haiti. In the war years, the “invocation of the martial capability of island Africans” quieted questions about the ability of American Blacks to fight. (244)

The destruction of slavery on the mainland and a resurgent republic now dusted off plans to annex the territory. In his annual message to Congress in 1868, Andrew Johnson cited the “annexation of the two republics of the island of St. Domingo” as among his goals. (276)

In the decades after the war, new plans for imperial expansion took hold. Emancipation did little to hamper plans for territorial control over Haiti. American Blacks continued their support for Haiti and some continued to leave the United States for the island nation.

One might be forgiven for sometimes mistaking the century: the words spoken and written in the course of the brutal battle for Haiti’s riches presage those of many contemporary anti-colonial conflicts. The Americans, French, Spanish and English all sought at various times to gain control over the people and wealth of Haiti.

As the Napoleonic government of France sought to return the island to slavery, the Frenchman Charles Leclerc advocated a “war of extermination” in the colony, in which it was necessary to “destroy a large part” of the cultivators who lived there in order “to contain the mountains.”(7)

“We have dared to be free,” announced Jean-Jacques Dessalines in a proclamation of 1804.(8) These words echo today. Haiti rose up and threw off the yoke of its oppressors, and fought them again and again.

It fought the depradations of the Spanish and the Americans and the designs of the English; it paid crushing reparations to its oppressor (150 million francs in 1826 alone); it fought off encirclement, and strove to navigate among the various imperial powers.

One might like to believe that our own vaunted republic would enter this story on the side of the oppressed, on the side of those who made a revolution in the name of the ideals of their own revolution, on the side of those who fought to ensure that all might be free. One would be mistaken, as this work so convincingly attests.


  1. W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, ed. David Roediger (New York: Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2001), 40.
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  2. Laurent Dubois, The Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1, 2.
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  3. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), ix.
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  4. Nicholas Guyatt, Bind Us Apart (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 4.
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  5. “The new Algiers” refers to a remark made by Napoleon. Algiers was under Ottoman rule and the center of a challenge to the emerging colonial projects of many European states. Thus Haiti in the hands of Black was seen as a similar challeng to the European colonial project. Horne, 194, 195; Laurent Dubois, op. cit., 256.
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  6. Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 14 April 1854.
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  7. Laurent Dubois, op.cit., 290.
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  8. Marcus Rainsford, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, eds. Paul Youngquist and Grégory Pierrot (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 263.
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January-February 2017, ATC 186