Home Massachusetts John Adams Supports Toussaint Louverture, Horrifies Jefferson

John Adams Supports Toussaint Louverture, Horrifies Jefferson

Founding Fathers differed on the Haitian Revolution


From 1798 to 1801, President John Adams recognized a government led by Toussaint Louverture, a former slave, a self-educated black man and a fellow revolutionary. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner, found Adams’ action alarming.

Toussaint Louverture, as depicted in an 1802 French engraving

The Haitian Revolution, a series of conflicts, began on Aug. 22, 1791 and ended in 1804 with Haitian independence. Slaves burned sugar plantations, killed slave owners and then took over the cities.

In the midst of it in 1797, Toussaint Louverture became military commander of the insurrectionists in what was then known as the French colony of Saint-Domingue.

Two months earlier Adams took office as president of the United States.

Adams’ predecessor, George Washington, had no use for the black leaders of Saint-Domingue. Nor did Adams’ vice president, Thomas Jefferson. He dreaded the prospect of black sailors, supercargoes and missionaries spreading the message of  freedom and revolution into the Southern states. “We have to fear it,” Jefferson wrote Adams.

Adams, who opposed slavery, saw Saint-Domingue as a useful ally. He viewed it as another new country trying to navigate a world dominated by hostile European powers. So Adams established diplomatic and trade relations with Saint-Domingue. From 1798 to 1801, the U.S. government treated leaders of African descent with the same respect accorded Europeans. That wouldn’t happen again until after the Civil War.

Toussaint Louverture

Saint-Domingue was the size of Maryland, but it created as much wealth for France as all 13 colonies did for England.

Its coffee and sugar plantations, worked by 500,000 enslaved workers, made Saint-Domingue the richest colony in the world. One reason France supported the rebel side in the American Revolution. was to protect its Caribbean colony. In 1779, several hundred free Saint-Dominguans of African descent — gens de couleur — joined the French military and took part in the siege of Savannah.

A naval battle in the Quasi War

A naval battle in the Quasi War

Trade also  flourished between the United States and Saint-Domingue. Ships from the continent brought lumber and food, primarily salt cod, to the French colony. Then they came home with molasses for New England refineries to turn into rum.

In February 1790, a Rhode Islander saw 50 American vessels in the harbor at Cap-Francois. More arrived every day. During the year 1797, 600 U.S. ships with 5,000 seamen traded with Saint-Domingue.

Jefferson had reason for alarm. About 15 percent of those sailors were of African descent, newsmongers to African-Americans at home. They carried news of the Haitian Revolution and the emancipation of slaves.

Then starting in 1798 came the Quasi-War between the United States and France. French privateers in the Caribbean were attacking U.S. ships, and Congress responded by passing an embargo against France. Trade with Saint-Domingue stopped abruptly. Soon the colony was in dire need of food.

Secret Dinner

John Adams

John Adams

At 3 pm on Dec. 26, 1798, Joseph Bunel went to a private home in Philadelphia for a secret dinner with Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and a few friends.

Bunel was a white, French-born merchant married to a free-black Creole. He supported the Haitian Revollution and became Louverture’s trade envoy. Over dinner, Bunel told Pickering and his guests that Louverture offered to protect U.S. shipping against privateers. In exchange, he wanted trade and diplomatic support.

Timothy PIckering

Adams then got word of the offer and concluded he had to do something. Within six months, the United States and Saint-Domingue entered into a treaty that reopened trade.

But Adams did more than that. He had intelligence that the Dominguans had enough strength to win independence from France. So Adams supported Toussaint Louverture with economic aid, arms, munitions and the U.S. Navy.

Louverture then faced a mutiny from Andre Rigaud, his mixed-race rival who controlled the southern part of the island. In the spring of 1800, Adams sent five military vessels — the USS Constitution, USS Boston, USS Connecticut, USS General Greene and USS Norfolk — to Louverture’s aid. It was the U.S. Navy’s first military action on behalf of a foreign ally.

American commanders planned joint operations with their multiracial Dominguan counterparts. They guarded the southern coast and bombarded a port town held by Rigaud.

The Navy brass also did something unusual: placed U.S. ships and crews under Dominguan command. White U.S. Naval officers dined with black Dominguan officers, finding themselves in the racial minority.

What Might Have Been

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Adams lost reelection to Thomas Jefferson, who took office in March of 1801. The next year, Napoleon’s forces invaded Saint-Domingue. Louverture was betrayed, arrested and sent to France, where he died in prison in 1803. But then Dominguan forces defeated the French and became an independent nation on Jan. 1, 1804.

After losing Saint-Domingue, Napoleon then sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States. Historian Douglas R. Egerton speculates that if Adams had been reelected, Louisiana might have been acquired as a Free Soil rather than a slave state. American history might then have turned out very, very differently.

This story was updated in 2023.


RICHARD HAMELIN March 30, 2017 - 2:16 pm

There is a Pitcher, possibly made in Medford, Massachusetts, ca. 1840. Earthenware. H. 13″. (Chipstone Foundation; photo, Gavin Ashworth.) This slip cast pitcher is one of four known. Two are impressed on the base with “MEDFORD” suggesting Medford, Massachusetts, as their place of manufacture. Nothing is known about the modeling of the original or the subsequent production of the molds. http://www.chipstone.org/images.php/44/Ceramics-in-America-2002/“The-Very-Man-for-the-Hour”:-The-Toussaint-L’Ouverture-Portrait-Pitcher–

The Sumner League, Connecticut's Forgotten Civil Rights Society - New England Historical Society April 7, 2017 - 7:43 am

[…] A year after the Mitchell tour, in 1898, Peaker appears in a national wire service story about a historic mass meeting at Cooper Union in New York City (Daily Morning Journal and Courier, Nov. 18, 1898, p. 1, col. 4)). He is said to have made brief remarks, sharing the stage with such prominent African-Americans as New York Age editor Thomas T. Fortune and Ebeneezer J. Barrett, the former U.S. minister to Haiti. […]

Timothy Dexter, the Ridiculous Millionaire Who Sold Coals to Newcastle - New England Historical Society April 11, 2017 - 8:17 am

[…] grounds with 40 garishly painted wooden images of such diverse figures as Louis XVI, Adam and Eve, Toussaint Louverture and John Hancock. It attracted many visitors, including pretty young damsels with whom Dexter tried […]

Flashback Photo: Old Ironsides Rescued From the Scrap Heap - New England Historical Society April 13, 2017 - 7:36 am

[…] the Quasi-War with France she had come to the rescue of Haiti's revolutionary government. She besieged Tripoli in the Mediterranean during the Barbary […]

Jean-Louis Cheverus, the Catholic Priest Even the Puritans Liked - New England Historical Society June 11, 2017 - 8:28 am

[…] President John Adams was given a dinner during a visit to Boston, Cheverus sat next to him. "What most astonishes me, on […]

The Tempestuous Life of Tobias Lear, George Washington's In-Law - New England Historical Society October 5, 2018 - 6:59 am

[…] and help Lear, President Jefferson appointed him to be the US envoy to Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti. Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison also appointed him to be the nation’s peace envoy […]

Six Historic Boats, From Schooners to Submarines - New England Historical Society January 5, 2020 - 4:44 pm

[…] the Quasi-War with France she had come to the rescue of Haiti’s revolutionary government. She besieged Tripoli in the Mediterranean during the Barbary […]

May 4, 1776: Rhode Island Independence Day - New England Historical Society May 4, 2020 - 6:07 am

[…] in the triangle trade. They sold rum to Africa in exchange for slaves. Then they sold slaves to West Indian sugar plantations in exchange for molasses, an ingredient in […]

The Mysterious Death of Tobias Lear - New England Historical Society September 16, 2020 - 7:35 pm

[…] him a favor and appointed him to two potentially lucrative posts: American commercial agent in Haiti in 1802 and consul general to North Africa in […]

The Hope and Despair of Acadian Exiles, 1755-1766 - New England Historical Society October 8, 2020 - 7:25 am

[…] Under the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the Acadian exiles had 19 months to leave the British North American colonies for any French colony. They began petitioning to go home to Nova Scotia, to Quebec, to France, or to the French West Indies, specifically Saint-Domingue (Haiti). […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!