On The Fourth of July, Thank the Most Important Founding Father: Haiti’s Jean-Jacques Dessalines
With the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential election, a reactionary nativism has taken hold in America. Resentment towards immigrants and Muslims has found solace in Trump’s promises to “build a wall” between Mexico and the United States, as well as deny further entry to Muslim immigrants. These themes have generated a White nationalistic fervor among Americans who believe they want to “take their country back,” and “make America great again.”
What is both ironic and comical about the pleas of these reactionary American nativists is that they are premised on some ridiculous White settler colonial myth about the founding of America. These ideas assume America was founded on notions of liberty and freedom when in reality those rights were originally only assured to land owning White males. What is more important in deflating this pedestrian narrative about American history’s “debt” to its bourgeois slave owning revolutionary origins, is that the most important person in assuring this settler colonial project called America was not aborted less than 30 years after the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence, was a former Black slave who helped lead an Army fellow former African slaves against three European Empires to free his people: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, founder of the independent nation of Haiti.
After defeating one of the greatest military expeditions in the history of the British Empire under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, his second in command, General Jean Jacques Desssalines was charged with the task of ultimately defeating Napoleon Bonoparte’s massive army from the years of 1802-1803 when Toussaint was captured by Bonaparte’s emissaries and sent back to France to die imprisoned.
What is lost on most Americans is that Napoleon Bonaparte, renowned as one of the greatest military minds in Western history, was not merely intent on conquering the former African slaves in Haiti, but also using the opportunity to plant a military expedition in New Orleans large enough to conquer North America and then president Thomas Jefferson’s United States. Hence making the newly independent United States a subject and colony of the French Empire.
Napoleon had also assembled a second army, and he had given it a second assignment. In 1800, he had concluded a secret treaty that “retroceded” Louisiana to French control after 37 years in Spanish hands. This second army was to go to Louisiana and plant the French flag. And at 20,000 men strong, it was larger than the entire U.S. Army. Napoleon had already conquered one revolutionary republic [France] from within. He was sending a mighty army to take another by brute force [The United States of America].” –“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” Edward E. Baptist
In the eyes of many Americans today deluded with ideas of America’s current military prowess, the notion of Thomas Jefferson and the United States ever being concerned about an impending threat from France may seem ridiculous. What such ahistorical analysis ignores is Thomas Jefferson himself, drafter of America’s Declaration of Independence, was so terrified of the prospect of Napoleon’s army in Louisiana that he publicly stated that Napoleon’s mere presence may force the newly independent United States to run back to cower under the protection of Great Britain’s military, or her national protection completely.
Thomas Jefferson, America’s founding father, was cowering in fear about the prospect of fighting Napoleon’s Army. The same army the Haitian former slaves had been bravely vanquishing and eventually totally defeated under the leadership of Jean Jacques Dessalines. So much for the idea of American exceptionalism.
The Battle of Vertieres
The capture of Toussaint L’Ouverture on June 7, 1802 instead of weakening the Haitian resistance in fact strengthened it. Toussaint was one of the more moderate Haitian Revolutionary leaders, and he was replaced as head of the Black rebellion by the most feared and brutal of his Generals: Jean Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines planned a war of extermination of every Frenchman on the Island using the revolutionary call “Koupe Tete, Boule Kaye” meaning “Cut off their heads, and burn their houses,”–referring to all French soldiers and Frenchmen in sight.
After vanquishing Napoleon’s forces in Port Au Prince and Les Cayes, Napoleon’s remaining army retreated to Au Cap, Haiti to be defeated in the final battle of the Haitian Revolution, The Battle of Vertieres, November 18, 1803. This final defeat of the remains from Napoleons massive expedition was so demoralizing that it not only forced Napoleon to give up his plans of conquering North America and the United States, it forced him to enter an agreement that would change the history and trajectory of the United States forever, literally giving birth to the nation it was to become: Napoleon consummated The Louisiana Purchase. Again, this was only possible because of the Haitian Army lead by Jean Jacques Dessalines.
The Louisiana Purchase
Thomas Jefferson expected to only benefit from the situation by acquiring the city of New Orleans. So important was that port city to the potential development of the United States, he was more than thrilled with the possibility of acquiring merely that city from Napoleon. The extent of Bonaparte’s demoralized defeat at the hands of Jean Jacques Dessalines and the Haitian army was demonstrated by the extent of the deal he consummated with Thomas Jefferson’s representative in Paris:
The efforts of Jean Jacques Dessalines and the Haitian Revolutionary army not only protected the fledgling United States from impending French conquest, the defeat of Napoleon by the brave Haitian former slaves gave America the land mass that would propel it into being one of the most powerful nations in history. None of this would have been possible without the bravery of the Haitian people who wold not be enslaved.
The Haitian Revolution saved Jefferson’s United States from eventual conquest by Napoleon who placed 20,000 soldiers (more than the entire United States Army at the time) in New Orleans to invade North America after he foolishly thought he could defeat the Haitian Revolutionary Army. Those 20,000 soldiers had to be sent to Haiti to quell the rebellion and were subsequently defeated. Napoleon then sold all the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi to Thomas Jefferson for three cents per acre. This is the real story of how America was made great. Next time some Trump supporters wish to pop off about “taking their country back,” just remind them they should thank God and the Haitian people that they even have a country.
L’Union Fait La Force