What America owes to Haiti

Pat Robertson callously brought up the old legend that Haiti owed its independence from the French to a pact with the devil. That story probably originated as an attempt to answer the question how could a group of slaves in revolt defeat the French army that had conquered virtually all of Europe? Americans, whose country owes so much–including maybe its very existence–to that slave revolt, should credit not the devil but the Other Side.

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte, having defeated pretty much every European power except for England, turned his attention to the New World. He sent an army of nearly 50,000 troops to New Orleans to begin an occupation of the French holdings in America west of the Mississippi. His goal was evidently colonization. But some scholars think the reason he sent an army was to attack the British in Canada. While the army might have made its way up the Mississippi and through the wilderness to Canada, an easier way, with a surer supply of provisions, would have been to march through the United States. In fact, if Napoleon wanted to add the new country–which didn’t even have a standing army–to his empire, there was not much to stop him. Americans were on the verge of panic, including President Jefferson, who, though a supporter of the French Revolution, did not know what to do with Napoleon.

On the way to New Orleans, though, Napoleon ordered the fleet to stop first at Haiti to put down the slave revolt. The slaves of that colony, which had earned France much revenue from sugar and coffee, had risen up around the same time as the French Revolution, assuming that “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” applied to them as well. Under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slaves won their freedom and established their own government. Napoleon resolved to crush it and put the slaves back into French service.

The vaunted French army, however, could not defeat the free Haitians! They faded away into the landscape, only to come back at night with their machetes, terrorizing the French soldiers. And then yellow fever struck. Napoleon sent reinforcements, but to no avail. Some 24,000 French soldiers died in Haiti.

With this, Napoleon gave up his American ambitions. Instead, he sold the French possessions in America to the United States, a transaction known as the Louisiana Purchase.

So if you are glad America’s independence was not snuffed out shortly after birth, and if you are glad you are not ruled by the French, and if you live in what used to be the Louisiana Purchase, thank the Haitians. You can do that by helping them in their hour of great need by giving here.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Joe

    That is very interesting. I never made that connection before.

  • Joe

    That is very interesting. I never made that connection before.

  • Joanne

    Nice story. But Napoleon was after control of the very lucrative British and Spanish sugar colonies in the Caribbean to which the mostly undeveloped Louisiana of 1800 was no match. If you turn the lights back on in those Haitian jungles, you’ll see lots of British military/navy support for the Haitians that along with the tropical diseases nipped that Bonapartian folly in the bud. Louisiana was merely a feignt to stir the pot. Now, if Napoleon thought of the British Navy as the Devil; and the Haitians had made a secret agreement with the British against the French (which I think they did); then I believe we are starting to understand the source of the legend.

  • Joanne

    Nice story. But Napoleon was after control of the very lucrative British and Spanish sugar colonies in the Caribbean to which the mostly undeveloped Louisiana of 1800 was no match. If you turn the lights back on in those Haitian jungles, you’ll see lots of British military/navy support for the Haitians that along with the tropical diseases nipped that Bonapartian folly in the bud. Louisiana was merely a feignt to stir the pot. Now, if Napoleon thought of the British Navy as the Devil; and the Haitians had made a secret agreement with the British against the French (which I think they did); then I believe we are starting to understand the source of the legend.

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Mark Henderson

    Thank you, Dr Veith, for posting this. The web of historical links that connect us all together is truly a fascinating subject for study and ultimately drives one to praise God for his providence.
    I was going to blog on this interesting but nearly forgotten historical episode myself, but now I’ll just link to you. Napoleon’s attempt to re-enslave the Haitians is a real blot on his character – one of many, I suppose!

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Mark Henderson

    Thank you, Dr Veith, for posting this. The web of historical links that connect us all together is truly a fascinating subject for study and ultimately drives one to praise God for his providence.
    I was going to blog on this interesting but nearly forgotten historical episode myself, but now I’ll just link to you. Napoleon’s attempt to re-enslave the Haitians is a real blot on his character – one of many, I suppose!

  • http://katiesbeer.piperblogs.org/ Theresa K.

    There was a very informative short lesson on the recent history of Haiti this morning on CBS Sunday Morning. It mentioned that the French were outnumbered by the Haitians 1 to 10, so the success of the revolt was not too surprising. You’d think that someone at CBN would have the nerve to stand up at announce that the proud emperor is wearing no clothes. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/01/17/sunday/main6107857.shtml

  • http://katiesbeer.piperblogs.org/ Theresa K.

    There was a very informative short lesson on the recent history of Haiti this morning on CBS Sunday Morning. It mentioned that the French were outnumbered by the Haitians 1 to 10, so the success of the revolt was not too surprising. You’d think that someone at CBN would have the nerve to stand up at announce that the proud emperor is wearing no clothes. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/01/17/sunday/main6107857.shtml

  • George A. Marquart

    The Moscow Times
    Patriarch Blames Crime and Drugs for Haitian Quake
    19 January 2010
    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/patriarch-blames-crime-and-drugs-for-haitian-quake/397763.html

    Peace and Joy,
    George A. Marquart

  • George A. Marquart

    The Moscow Times
    Patriarch Blames Crime and Drugs for Haitian Quake
    19 January 2010
    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/patriarch-blames-crime-and-drugs-for-haitian-quake/397763.html

    Peace and Joy,
    George A. Marquart


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