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The Most Important Founding Father: Haiti's Jean-Jacques Dessalines

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Jean Jacques Dessalines

The United States owes a large portion of its continental size to Haitian freedom fighters that defeated Napoleon's army at the turn of the 19th century. Had the Haitians not succeeded in liberating their island from the French, Napoleon's New Orleans-based forces might have reconquered Britain's former colonies on the eastern seaboard. The Louisiana Territories were, in a sense, purchased with Haitian blood.

On The Fourth of July, Thank the Most Important Founding Father: Haiti's Jean-Jacques Dessalines by Pascal Robert

This article previously appeared in Thought Merchant.

"Napoleon's defeat forced him to give up his plans of conquering North America and the United States."

With the rise of Donald Trump as the 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 ridiculous white settler colonial myths about the founding of America. The mythology assumes 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 of his fellows against three European empires to free his people: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, founder of the independent nation of Haiti.

"But the prejudice of race alone blinded the American people [to] the debt they owed to the desperate courage of 500,000 Haitian Negroes who would not be enslaved." -- Henry Adams, direct decedent of John Adams and America's foremost historian of the 18th and 19th centuries

After defeating one of the greatest military expeditions in the history of the British Empire,

"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."

L'Ouverture's second in command, General Jean Jacques Desssalines, was charged with the task of ultimately defeating Napoleon Bonaparte's massive army from the years of 1802-1803, after 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] set his sights on a new goal: restoring the imperial crown's finest jewel, the lost Saint-Domingue/Haiti. In 1801, he sent the largest invasion fleet that ever crossed the Atlantic, some 50,000 men, to the island under the leadership of his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc. Their mission was to decapitate the ex-slave leadership of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. "No more gilded Africans," Napoleon commanded. Subdue any resistance by deception and force. Return to slavery all the Africans who survived.

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 America's current military prowess, the notion of Thomas Jefferson and the United States ever being concerned about a threat from France may seem ridiculous. What such ahistorical analysis ignores is that Thomas Jefferson himself, drafter of America's Declaration of Independence, was so terrified at 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.

"And yet, as Jefferson now instructed his envoy to Paris, Robert Livingston, 'there is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans.' Jefferson had to open the Mississippi one way or the other. 'Should a French army occupy New Orleans,' wrote Jefferson, 'we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and Nation.'"-- The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism , Edward E. Baptist

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.

"Dessalines planned a war of extermination of every Frenchman on the Island."

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.

"By the middle of 1802, the first wave of French forces had withered away [in Saint Domingue/Haiti]. Napoleon reluctantly diverted the Louisiana Army [20,000 soldiers] to Saint Domingue/Haiti. Then this second expedition was also destroyed. So even as Toussaint L'Ouverture shivered in his cell across the ocean, the army he left behind [under Jean Jacques Dessalines] became the first to deal a decisive defeat to Napoleon's ambitions. Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies," the first of the whites [Napoleon] was heard to grumble into his cup at a state dinner."-- The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist.

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 of Napoleon's 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 compelled 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 treaty would change the trajectory of the United States forever."

Thomas Jefferson expected to only benefit from the situation by acquiring the city of New Orleans. So important was that port 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 dimensions of the deal he consummated with Thomas Jefferson's representative in Paris:

"Napoleon's minion shocked Livingston [Thomas Jefferson's representative] almost out of his knee breeches with an astonishing offer: not just New Orleans, but all of French Louisiana--the whole west bank of the Mississippi and its tributaries. now the United States was offered--for a mere $15 million--828,000 square miles, 530 million acres at three cents per acre. This vast expanse doubled the nations size. Eventually the land form the Louisiana Purchase would become all or part of fifteen states. It still accounts for almost a quarter of the surface area of the United States. By the late twentieth century Jefferson's windfall would be feeding much of the world. One imagines that Livingston found it hard to hold his poker face steady. He immediately agreed to the deal. -- The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," Edward E. Baptist.

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 would not be enslaved.

"To the deadly climate of Saint Domingue/Haiti and the courage and obstinate resistance made by its black inhabitants are we indebted... [The] truth is, Bonaparte found himself absolutely compelled"--and not by Jefferson--"to relinquish his daring plan of colonizing the banks of the Mississippi." -- Alexander Hamilton. Quote from: "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," Edward E. Baptist.

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.

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Lawyer, Blogger, and iconoclast advocating for Haiti and the children of the Haitian Revolution. I love all things politics. SHEER political independent unafraid to slay the most sacred cows of ideological orthodoxy from the Left, or the Right. I (more...)
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