Thomas Jefferson: The Private War: Ignoring the Revolution Next Door

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Exactly 200 years ago, the western hemisphere's second republic was created. However, there were no congratulatory salutes from the first, the United States of America. The new republic, Haiti, had gained its independence through a bloody 12-year slave uprising--the only time in the history of the world in which bond servants successfully overthrew their masters and formed their own state.

The two young nations had several things in common. Both had been heavily taxed colonies, and both had visionary leaders whose words had the power to inspire men to fight. Compare, for example, Thomas Jefferson's vision of the tree of liberty as one that must be "refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" with that of Haitian General Toussaint Louverture who, as he was captured by the French and was being taken to his death, declared, "In overthrowing me they have only felled the tree of Negro liberty ... It will shoot up again, for it is deeply rooted and its roots are many."

The fact that the U.S. was not more supportive of its smaller, slightly younger neighbor had a great deal to do with Louverture's roots, which were African and which were now planted in America's backyard. For Jefferson, who had drafted the declaration that defined his nation's insurgency and who had witnessed and praised the French Revolution, knew exactly what revolutions meant. Their essence was not in their instantaneous bursts of glory but in their ripple effect across borders and time, their ability to put the impossible within reach and make the downtrodden seem mighty. And he feared that Haiti's revolt would inspire similar actions in the U.S. "If something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children," Jefferson wrote about the potential impact of the Haitian uprising.

Haiti's very existence highlighted the deepest contradictions of the American revolutionary experiment. Though the U.S. Declaration of Independence stated that all men were created equal, Haitian slaves and free men and women of color battled what was then one of the world's most powerful armies to prove it. Yet how could the man who wrote about freedom in such transcendent terms have not seen echoes of his struggle in the Haitians' urgent desire for self-rule? Possibly because as a slave owner and the leader of slaveholders, he could never reconcile dealing with one group of Africans as leaders and another as chattel. So Haiti's independence remained unrecognized by Jefferson, who urged Congress to suspend commerce with the nascent republic, declaring its leaders "cannibals."

Timothy Pickering, a Senator from Massachusetts who had served as John Adams' Secretary of State, wrote Jefferson to protest his refusal to aid the new Haitian republic: "Are these men not merely to be abandoned to their own efforts but to be deprived of those necessary supplies which for a series of years, they have been accustomed to receive from the United States, and without which they cannot subsist?"

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