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Frederick Douglass and American Empire in Haiti

At the age of seventy-one, Frederick Douglass was appointed ambassador to the Republic of Haiti by the administration of U.S. president Benjamin Harrison. Douglass had helped stump for Harrison during the 1888 presidential elections and the position was something of a reward for the elderly abolitionist. However, Douglass’s short time in the post—from the end of 1889 to the summer of 1891—was an absolute debacle. It served to tarnish the latter days of Douglass’s venerable career and is widely seen—by both his contemporaries and by later biographers and critics—as having been calamitous.

At the time, the Harrison administration sought to lay the blame for this failure on Douglass. Yet Douglass’s personal account of those years exposes instead the fraught negotiations faced by Black folk who chose to serve the cause of U.S. imperialism. His account also reveals the unbridled paternalism and bullying contempt that has, historically, shaped and governed U.S. “diplomatic relations” with the hemisphere’s first independent Black nation. In it we can also see a precursor to a century of U.S. electoral and financial meddling in Haiti that has led to the gutting of its economy and the undermining of its sovereignty—and, now, to the ongoing crisis of its democracy. An embittered coda to an eminent life, Douglass’s account reveals as much about U.S.–Haitian relations in our present moment as it does about the past.

When Harrison ran as the Republican candidate for the 1888 election, Douglass’s support was integral to securing northern Black votes and defeating a Black congressional candidate opposing Harrison’s man in Virginia. When Harrison won, Douglass hoped to receive the sinecure of recorder of deeds as a reward for his service. Instead, Secretary of State James G. Blaine offered him the position of minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti, afterward adding chargé d’affairs of Santo Domingo (the capital of the Dominican Republic) to Douglass’s portfolio.

“My influence, in the opinion of the President,” Douglass wrote in accepting the commission, “would be the most potent we could send thither, for the peace, welfare, and prosperity of that warring and dissatisfied people.” The State Department had other ideas regarding Douglass’s influence, hoping to use it to undermine Haiti’s independence while strengthening the U.S. expansionist project in the Caribbean.

There was precedent for Douglass’s appointment. It continued a policy of sending Black ambassadors that began when the United States formally—and belatedly—recognized Haiti and Liberia in 1862 (Haiti had been independent since 1804 and Liberia since 1847). Motivated in equal measures by paternalism and cynicism, the United States believed appointing Negro diplomats would grease the commercial and political relations with Negro republics.

Even so, when Douglass’s appointment was announced, it was greeted with criticism. Black folk felt the post too small for a man of Douglass’s stature and argued he should concentrate on Black struggles within the United States. Meanwhile many whites believed Douglass’s race would cause him to side with the Haitians. They reasoned that a white man should occupy the post, as the Haitian people would have little respect for an ambassador of their own color.

Douglass ignored the criticisms on both sides—but from the start, distressing omens surrounded his appointment. Despite his political standing, Douglass’s blackness meant he could not obtain first-class accommodations on his journey from Washington to Haiti. When Douglass refused to travel second class, the federal government ordered naval steamers to take him from Washington to Norfolk and then on to Port-au-Prince. The white captain of one of the steamers, the Ossipee, refused to eat at the same table as Douglass. Officers of the Kearsarge complained that Douglass and his entourage had “driven out” the ship’s commander from his cabin. Adding to Douglass’s discomfit, he was seasick for much of the eleven-day passage.

Douglass arrived in Haiti in September 1899 just as a new president, Louis Modestin Florvil Hyppolite, was inaugurated. Hyppolite’s ascent to the presidency was contested and controversial. A general who had wrested control of the Haitian government from President François Denys Légitime after helping to lead a coup against him, Hyppolite’s authority was blessed by President Harrison and buttressed by a squadron of U.S. naval vessels conspicuously anchored in Haitian waters. Douglass noted the political tension in the country, the conspicuous presence of soldiers on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the persistence of the curfew, and the chronic fear that the anti-Hyppolite faction might move against the government at any time. But Douglass’s letters to Secretary Blaine also contained a hopeful, positive tone concerning the political prospects of the republic. Douglass’s initial audience with Hyppolite was a generous, effusive affair. At it, Hyppolite told him how all of Haiti had followed Douglass’s career and that, for Haitians, Douglass represented “the moral and intellectual development of the men of the African race by personal effort and mental culture.”

Read entire article at Boston Review