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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.