Frederick Douglass and the Haiti Commission on USS Tennessee in Key West. Image: Florida Keys Public Libraries
Toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglass served briefly as U.S. ambassador to Haiti. The disastrous episode reveals much about the country’s long struggle for Black sovereignty while always under the threat of U.S. empire.
This article was originally published in Boston Review.
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.”
Douglass’s early days in the U.S. legation were long and tedious, and he often returned to the ambassadorial residence well after dusk. He was consumed with attending to both the petty entreaties of the U.S. community in Haiti and with helping U.S. firms broker concessions and contracts with—and in some instances, press monetary claims against—the Haitian government. William P. Clyde and Company initiated the most significant of these efforts. Clyde and Company was a mercantile business headquartered in New York. Its Clyde Line plied a coastwise service to a number of Atlantic ports while connecting Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The company wanted to secure its foothold in the Caribbean by extending business to Haiti and sought to offer steamship service between New York and seven Haitian ports.
Douglass was not fundamentally opposed to the company’s ambitions. He saw the increased maritime traffic between Haiti and the United States as a potential boon to the commerce of both countries. But he was put off by the terms Clyde and Company demanded: a reduction of port duties and tonnage fees for U.S. vessels, a company monopoly on steamship traffic, and a subsidy of $1 million (a figure later reduced by half) from the Haitian government as an incentive to initiate the service.
Additionally, Douglass was increasingly disgusted by the “dictatorial attitude” of Clyde’s agent, a South Carolina native who did not bother to conceal his contempt for the Haitians—or for Douglass. He demanded Douglass personally intervene with the Haitian government via Joseph Anténor Firmin, the great Haitian intellectual and statesman then serving as Secretary of State for Exterior Relations in the Hyppolite government. Firmin strongly objected to the concession. He saw it as a drain on the Haitian treasury, especially in light of other claims by U.S. citizens on Haiti’s resources and finances. When informed of Firmin’s position, the agent told Douglass to return to Firmin to offer him the assurance that Douglass would not “press upon Haïti the payment claims of many other American citizens” against the Haitian government if Clyde received the concession.
Douglass was aghast. “The proposition shocked me,” he later recalled. “It sounded like the words of Satan on the mountain, and I thought it time to call a halt.”
Douglass slammed the door shut on negotiations and thought the matter settled. Yet the agent persisted. He returned to Douglass with another proposal—one even more shocking and outlandish: it was a demand that the Haitian government pay Clyde and Company for the expenses the company incurred while waiting for the Haitian government to approve its initial proposal. Douglass responded to the agent with a wry but cutting retort: “Then, sir, as they will not allow you to put a hot poker down their backs, you mean to make them pay for heating it!”
Douglass assumed the Haitians would find the proposal ridiculous—and was shocked when they acquiesced to the company’s demand and paid Clyde and Company $5,000 in gold. But even after receiving the payment, the agent continued to press the scheme upon the Haitian government. For Douglass, the agent’s actions exemplified the callow indifference of U.S. capitalism to the needs of the Haitian republic and to the travails of Haitian sovereignty:
To him it was nothing that Haiti was already wasted by repeated revolutions; nothing that she was already staggering under the weight of a heavy national debt; nothing that she herself ought to be the best judge of her ability to pour out a half million of dollars in this new and, to her, doubtful enterprise; nothing that she had heard his arguments in its favor a hundred times over; nothing that in her judgment she had far more pressing needs for her money than the proposed investment in this steamship subsidy, as recommended by him; nothing that she had told him plainly that she was afraid to add to her pecuniary burdens this new and onerous one—and nothing that she had just paid him five thousand dollars in gold to get rid of his importunities.
Douglass’s refusal to press the Clyde concession on the Haitian government—and his visible indignation toward the agent—marked him, as he later put it, as “an unprofitable servant.” For many in the U.S. business community, the incident served notice that Douglass’s “over-affections for the Haitians” compromised his ability to do the bidding of U.S. business in Haiti. “I was, from that time,” Douglass wrote, “more a Haitian than an American.”
The U.S. press (encouraged, Douglass suspected, by Clyde himself) turned on him and clamored to have him removed from the Haiti legation. His masters in Washington began to believe that he could not be trusted. Blaine considered recalling Douglass but hesitated, worried about the potential political fallout among African Americans. He decided to keep Douglass stationed in Haiti. But he severely undercut Douglass’s authority as a representative of the U.S. state, while at the same time thrusting him into a diplomatic imbroglio that for many Americans tarnished the latter days of Douglass’s career and blighted his legacy as a statesman: the attempt by the United States to secure a long-term lease of Haiti’s Môle-Saint-Nicolas.
Located on Haiti’s northwest tip about a hundred miles across the Windward Passage from Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, Môle-Saint-Nicolas had long been coveted by the United States. It stood sentry over the maritime routes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea and from the Caribbean Sea onward to the Isthmus of Panama and the Pacific. For U.S. policy makers, it represented an important way of securing commercial and military domination of the Caribbean, especially in light of plans to create the Panama Canal.
On January 1, 1891, Secretary Blaine wrote to Douglass instructing him to begin negotiations with the government of Haiti to secure a long-term lease of Môle-Saint-Nicolas for use by the United States as a coaling and naval station. At the same time, and much to Douglass’s surprise and chagrin, Blaine informed Douglass that his role in the negotiations would be a subordinate one. Blaine had appointed rear-admiral Bancroft Gherardi, commander of the North Atlantic fleet, as the lead negotiator. Douglass was merely to serve as a Black prop in the negotiations.
From the moment Gherardi arrived with the U.S. fleet in Port-au-Prince at the end of January, Douglass’s demoted role was clear. Gherardi sent an officer to the U.S. legation requesting Douglass’s presence for an audience with Gherardi aboard the Philadelphia. It was a serious breach of diplomatic protocol; the etiquette of hierarchy demanded that Douglass should have received Gherardi at the legation. The summons served to confirm Douglass’s diminished authority in Washington and, by extension, in Haiti—but it also illuminated the deeply racist nature of the U.S. diplomatic infrastructure and Douglass’s fraught and precarious place within it.
Douglass shouldered the humiliation and went to the ship. There, Gherardi announced to Douglass his strategy for the negotiations. Douglass listened, all the while considering whether he should tender his resignation. Only his sense of fealty to the United States and loyalty to the Harrison government stopped him.
For the United States, the negotiations were a disaster. When Douglass and Gherardi met Firmin and Hyppolite at the presidential palace to propose the lease, Gherardi argued that Hyppolite’s government owed a debt to the United States and a lease for the mole would settle it. Gherardi reminded Hyppolite that the United States had been a great friend to his government, providing him with diplomatic and military support during his struggle for the presidency. He also pointed out that Hyppolite’s envoys in Washington had promised to support a U.S. lease on the mole if Hyppolite came to power. Douglass said little during the presentation.
Five days later, the United States made a formal request for a lease. To both Gherardi’s and Douglass’s surprise, Firmin refused to consider the application. Firmin pointed out that the application carried Gherardi’s signature, not Douglass’s, even though Douglass was the authorized representative of the United States in Haiti. He told them that since Gherardi had not presented his credentials from Washington to the Haitian government, the Haitian government would be foolish to consider it and could not conceivably bring it to the Haitian executive.
Gherardi was vexed. While he thought Firmin was stalling for time, there was little he could do to expedite the negotiations. He wired Washington for a letter of diplomatic credentials. It took two months for it to arrive. When it did arrive—on 4 warships carrying 100 cannons and 2,000 men—it worsened negotiations by making it seem that the United States was preparing to take Môle-Saint-Nicolas by force. Furthermore, the letter, which authorized Gherardi and Douglass to negotiate jointly, also proposed different lease terms than those Gherardi had presented to Firmin and Hyppolite. Unlike Gherardi’s proposal, the new lease did not stipulate that Haiti would be prohibited from selling its land or leasing its territory to countries other than the United States. Gherardi and Douglass argued over which version they should present to the Haitian government. Gherardi won the argument.
On April 21, 1891, Douglass and Gherardi presented the new lease proposal to Firmin. The Haitians responded the next day, declining to grant it. Firmin argued that the terms of the lease would inaugurate a profound erosion of Haitian independence, as it would effectively cede the republic’s sovereign right to dispose of its territory according to its own wishes. In the days following, Douglass asked Firmin if he would reconsider the lease if the U.S. fleet was withdrawn from Haitian waters. Firmin was noncommittal. But when the fleet departed, negotiations were over. Months afterward, to the great relief of Harrison and Blaine, Douglass resigned his post.
The U.S. failure to obtain a lease for Môle-Saint-Nicolas fell on Douglass’s shoulders. He was pilloried in the press, which blamed him for the collapse of the deal while casting him as diplomatically incompetent. “Minister Douglass,” wrote the New York Times, “is an ‘antique,’ and of no possible aid to Government which has any diplomatic business in hand.” The paper argued that “by reason of age, inactivity, and limitations of temperament,” Douglass was utterly out of his depth in the negotiations. It also revived the idea, raised when he was first appointed to Haiti, that the Haitians would have little respect for a Black diplomat: “Fred Douglass”—the use of the ridiculing diminutive was the paper’s standard—“was not likely to be more impressive to the ordinary Haitian than any other man with a black skin.”
Douglass knew, however, that the U.S. failure had little to do with his efforts, or lack thereof. The prolonged fiasco of the Clyde negotiations had made the Haitian government wary of the United States. The presence of U.S. battleships in Haitian waters did little to aid negotiations, instead triggering a public anxiety about the threat of military intervention and the relinquishment of Haitian sovereignty. “With the acute sensitivity of a small nation in a predatory world,” historian Benjamin Quarles observed, “Haiti feared that even a toe hold on her territory by a foreign power would mark the beginning of her loss of sovereignty.”
Furthermore, as Quarles notes, the possibility of a lease was “foredoomed no matter who represented the US.” The Haitian constitution forbid the sale or cession of territory to foreign powers, making the proposed deal illegal, and Haitian public sentiment strongly favored this injunction. “Nothing is more repugnant to the thoughts and feelings of the masses of that country,” wrote Douglass, “than the alienation of a single rood of their territory to a foreign power.”
Even so, as with the Clyde concessions, Douglass was not necessarily opposed to a U.S. base on Haitian soil, and he was more than willing to go through the proper diplomatic channels to try to secure a lease. When it came to U.S. foreign policy goals, Douglass thought U.S. imperialism was beneficial and believed in the righteous, exceptional character of U.S. power. Indeed, Douglass was more than sympathetic to U.S. expansion and the “extension of American power and influence” in the Caribbean and elsewhere. He had supported the annexation of Santo Domingo in the 1870s and applauded attempts to secure the Dominican Republic’s Samana Bay by the United States for military purposes. Douglass lashed out at those who saw him as somehow subverting U.S. foreign policy goals, stating that he had understood the importance of U.S. dominance in the Caribbean long before his critics “were in their petticoats.”
But Douglass was also aware of the moral limitations of U.S. exceptionalism and cautioned against its abuse—especially against countries such as Haiti that had neither the economic nor the military resources to easily withstand U.S. pressure. His experiences as ambassador to Haiti served as a lesson to him in this regard. “Is a weakness of a nation a reason for our robbing it?” Douglass asked. “Are we to take advantage, not only of its weakness, but of its fears? Are we to wring from it by dread of our power what we cannot obtain by appeals to its justice and reason?”
Douglass also had an acute understanding of the unique context of Haiti, whose struggle for Black freedom had rocked the white world to its foundation; its mere presence at the table of free powers was an affront to white supremacy. As a result, the white world would never tire of punishing Haiti for the sin of Black sovereignty. “Haiti is black,” Douglass stated, “and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black or forgiven the Almighty for making her black.”
In the introduction to the 1962 edition of The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Pan-African historian Rayford W. Logan noted that the imbroglio of Douglass’s ambassadorship anticipated twentieth-century political debates concerning the appointment of African American ambassadors to postcolonial African nations. Today, of course, the more readily available analogy is to the appointment of Black people to the most prominent positions in the executive branch.
The same debates recur: about the dilemmas of racial loyalties as they cut across national lines; about support for U.S. imperialism and U.S. power against the defense of Black sovereignty and self-determination; and of the moral engagements of two modes of intertwined though often opposed exceptionalisms—U.S. and African American—as they are evoked in relation to struggles for a more equitable and just world. It is a testament to Douglass’s diplomatic agility that he was able to maintain his personal integrity while defending Black sovereignty even as he served as a representative of the United States. It is an indictment of the misaligned allegiances of far too many contemporary Black politicians that they do not.
Haiti, meanwhile, remains bullied, exploited, and unforgiven.
Peter James Hudson, Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at UCLA, is author of Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean.