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Duty Has Been the Moving Power in My Life: An Interview Given in Washington, D.C., on July 12, 1891



New York , 13 July 1891. Another text in Miscellany File, reel 34, frames 510-11,
FD Papers, DLC.

On 3 July 1891 , Douglass arrived in New York City aboard the steamer for a sixty-day leave from his diplomatic post in Haiti. Many
newspapers in New York and Washington, D.C., interviewed Douglass soon
after his arrival about the recent failed coup d’état in Port-au-Prince and about
rumors that the State Department had recalled him for mishandling negotia-
tions to acquire the Môle St. Nicolas as a coaling station for the U.S. Navy.


The longest and most comprehensive of these interviews took place on 12 July
1891 when an unidentified black reporter for the New York visited
Douglass’s Cedar Hill residence in Washington. New York , 4, 10 July
1891; New York , 4, 6 July 1891; Washington , 4 July 1891; New
York , 11 July 1891.

WASHINGTON, July 12.—United States Minister Frederick Douglass’s res-
idence in Port au Prince has not improved his health. His conversation is no
longer punctured with that vigor of voice with which all who have heard the
orator are familiar. He recognizes his want of physical stamina and is
impatient to leave Washington for Maine, where he expects to so renew his
health that if, at the expiration of sixty days, when his leave ends, he returns
to his post at Hayti, he will be equal to the performance of all the duties of
his office.1Private correspondence reveals that both Douglass and his wife were in ill health at the time of their return from Haiti. Both Douglasses, however, recovered quickly at their residence at Anacostia in the District of Columbia and no trip to Maine is known to have taken place. Charles Still to Douglass, 4 July 1891, reel 6, frames 144-46, Ebenezer D. Bassett to Douglass, 14 July 1891, reel 6, frames 148-50, General Correspondence File, FD Papers, DLC. It was evident, however, that his intellect has not suffered. It
still scintillated in a way to tax his languid tongue to give expression.

Driving through the spacious grounds of Mr. Douglass and around and
up the hill to its apex, upon which is perched his commodious residence, I
found the Minister and Mrs. Douglass and a party of their friends upon the
lawn playing croquet. Recognizing me as I approached, Mr. Douglass
threw down his mallet and with a smile said: “Here comes one belonging to
the Third Estate and I suppose I must do him reverence. As he comes in the
name of THE WORLD I can say in all sincerity,” holding out his hand to
assist me from the wagon, “you are welcome. I have always found THE
WORLD truthful and uniformly just.”


As I reached the ground and was about to speak, Mr. Douglass placed
his hand upon my shoulder in the most familiar fashion, and stopped me.
“Wait,” he said. “One of the charges made against me is that I am inor-
dinately ambitious, and that I have not been satisfied to rest contented in the
enjoyment of such honors and emoluments as have already been conferred
upon me, and that I should not have accepted the mission to Hayti.

“Look about you,” continued Mr. Douglass, with a sweep of his hand,
pointing out the beauties of the rural scene which lay before us. Is it to have


a home like this that a man of my ripe years and wide experience would
follow phantom ambition in search of fleeting honors? What can the world
give me more than I already possess? I am blessed with a loving wife, who
in every sense of the word is a helpmate, who enters into all my joys and
sorrows. I have children whose every aim is to do me credit. I have friends
loyal and true, whose great delight seems to be to gather close around me.
What more can I want?

“I have earned the reputation of being a sensible man. Then is it likely
that ambition could seduce me away from the enjoyment of these desirable
things? There is something greater, more potent, than ambition that sways
the actions of conscientious men. It is duty.

“Duty has been the moving power that has influenced all my actions
during all the years of my life. In the past it gave me courage to face the
howling mob while contending for the freedom of my people. In the
present it gives me courage to endure the abuse of foes, even as it gives me
charity for the acts and sayings of those of my people who oppose and
assail me. So far as the latter are concerned, I console myself with the
knowledge that all of them should be my friends.

“I believed that duty called me to Hayti. I hoped that I would be able to
serve the United States by securing the concession of Mole St. Nicholas2As early as 1884, the United States expressed an interest in the Môle St. Nicolas as a possible coaling station or naval base. Located on the northwestern tip of Haiti, Môle St. Nicolas, just a short distance from Cuba, was on a narrow strait to the Caribbean Sea. During the Haitian civil war between followers of François-Denis Légitime and Louis M. F. Hyppolite, representatives of both factions discussed the sale or lease of the Môle to the United States in exchange for diplomatic recognition and military assistance. American businessman William Pancoast Clyde, who sought to form a steamship route from New York City to Haitian ports, also conducted a series of informal negotiations for the acquisition of the Môle. Secretary of State James G. Blaine believed that the Haitians were obligated to lease the Môle to the United States as repayment for this country's favoritism toward Hyppolite during the civil war. Blaine did not press this claim through official channels, however, until the Haitians, in the summer of 1890, categorically rejected Clyde's overtures. In January 1891, Blaine dispatched Rear Admiral Bancroft Gherardi as a “special commissioner" to cooperate with Douglass in formally petitioning the Haitian government for exclusive rights to the Môle for one hundred years. After a number of delays, including a controversy regarding Gherardi's powers to negotiate for the United States, the Haitian govemment refused the request. The Haitians calculated correctly that, despite Gherardi's concentration of practically the entire Atlantic fleet at Port-au-Prince, the United States was not prepared to go to war to obtain the Môle. Douglass, , 623-47; Logan, , 321, 420-57; Ludwell Lee Montague, (Durham, N.C., 1940), 148-59; Daniel Brantley, "Black Diplomacy and Frederick Douglass' Caribbean Experiences, 1871 and 1889-91: The Untold Story," , 25: 197-209 (September 1984); Myra Himelhoch, Frederick Douglass and Haiti's Môle St. Nicolas," , 56: 161-80 (July 1971); Louis Martin Sears, “Frederick Douglass and the Mission to Haiti, 1889-1891," , 21: 222-38 (July 1941).


and at the same time I hoped to so improve the opportunity which residence
in Hayti gave as to make it patent to all the civilized nations of the world
that my people are as other peoples—amenable to improvement and en-
dowed with all desirable qualities.

“Now, not another word,” continued Mr. Douglass, interrupting him-
self, “until you have given attention to your horse. Lead him into the shade
and give him some water. Learn to be careful for the comfort of all things
that depend upon you and it will not need much more to make you happy
and contented.”

Having given the horse the care which Mr. Douglass suggested, I
found a seat upon a rustic bench beneath a blossoming tree beside my host.


Mr. Douglass said that he had not read any of the stories which had
been published regarding his conduct of the affairs of the United States
Legation in Hayti, and seemingly was much surprised when I told him what
had been written about his actions during the Haytian emeute of May 28.3A small-scale rebellion against the rule of Louis M. F. Hyppolite occurred on 28 May 1891. Fighting began shortly after noon, while Hyppolite and most of the leading members of his government were attending religious services at the Port-au-Prince cathedral for the Corpus Christi feast day. Estimates of the number of armed rebels ranged from forty to seventy-five. Their leaders were a General Sully-Guerrier and François Garcia, an officer of Hyppolite's own guard. The rebels liberated political hostages held at the city's prison but within an hour troops loyal to Hyppolite defeated and scattered them. Sully-Guerrier and four other rebels fled to the Mexican embassy for sanctuary but Hyppolite’s soldiers dragged all five out into the street and shot them summarily. The execution of Hyppolite's political enemies, whether implicated in the revolt or not, continued for several weeks and the total killed approached three hundred. Most of the press in the United States harshly criticized the bloodiness of Hyppolite's suppression of this revolt. Douglass to James G. Blaine, 30 May 1891, 17, 19 June 1891, U.S. Legation, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dispatches to the State Department, RG 84, Records of Foreign Service Posts, State Department, DNA; New York , 4 July 1891; New York , 14, 15 July 1891; Heinl and Heinl, , 319-20.
His wife was as ignorant of these attacks as Mr. Douglass was, and when
their notice was called to the story of the “Haytian Refugee,” as published
in a New York paper of the 7th inst.,4Douglass’s interviewer alludes to an article that appeared in the New York on 6 not 7 July 1891. This article was an interview with an anonymous “Haitian refugee" and attacked Douglass's performance during the unsuccessful uprising in Port-au-Prince on 28 May 1891. In particular, the refugee charged Douglass with failing to prevent the massacre by Hyppolite’s troops that followed the coup attempt. The article also charged that Ebenezer Bassett, Douglass’s secretary, actually managed the diplomatic afiairs of the United States in Haiti and was to blame for the failure of the negotiations to purchase a coaling station at the Môle St. Nicolas. Douglass and Bassett immediately denied these charges but the Sun published a second interview with its source rebutting the two men. Douglass apparently believed that the anonymous “Haitian refugee" was "Jean," a businessman who had failed to win approval for a contract with the Haitian government and had sailed with Douglass and Bassett aboard the on their recent return voyage from Haiti. Bassett speculated that the article's source was an agent of the Clyde Steamship Company, Captain F. C. Reed, or a collaboration of “Jean” and Reed. The New York of 2 August 1891 carried a report from John C. Klein, its correspondent in Port-au-Prince, dated 16 July 1891, that took the side of Douglass and Bassett and identified the “refugee” as a man who “bears a Scotch name and was here many months as the representative of a New York steamship company which has long been seeking a lease of Môle St. Nicolas," obviously Reed. New York , 6, 8, 12 July 1891; New York , 8 July, 2 August 1891; Ebenezer Bassett to Douglass, 14, 15 July 1891, reel 6, frames 148-50, 150-51, General Correspondence File, FD Papers, DLC. the old man’s rugged face showed


great emotion, expressing in turn surprise, displeasure and amusement.
Mrs. Douglass’s eyes filled with tears, and her countenance indicated that
she felt the deepest indignation.

“Oh!” said she. “Why is it that a so-called reputable newspaper will
give space to such perversion of the truth? My husband’s career has been
without blemish and a pure life is deserving of more tender treatment. But,
Frederick,” said she to Mr. Douglass, “who is this refugee? Have you any

“Yes,” he replied, “I think that he is a person who was given a
concession by Legitime5François-Denis Légitime (1842-1935) was agriculture minister in the cabinet of Haitian President Louis Félicité (Lysius) Salomon. When the latter was overthrown in August 1888, Légitime attempted to succeed him. The supporters of Louis M. F. Hyppolite disputed the legality of Légitime's election on 16 December 1888 as the fourteenth president of Haiti. At the start of the eight-month civil war that followed, Légitime held control of only the capital of Port-au-Prince and a portion of Haiti's south. The loyalty of the nation's navy to Légitime, however, allowed him to declare a blockade of ports commanded by Hyppolite. His regime even won recognition from the major European powers as the legitimate government of the whole country. Thanks in part to the United States' refusal to recognize Légitime's government or its blockade, Hyppolite's strength grew steadily. By the time President Benjamin Harrison finally recognized the authority of Légitime’s rule in June 1889, he controlled only the immediate area around Port-au-Prince. On 22 August 1889, Légitime conceded defeat and sailed into exile. Légitime lived in Paris for a time but returned to Haiti in 1896, remaining there until his death. Heinl and Heinl, , 239-40, 299-301, 303-09; Jacques-Nicolas Léger, (1907; Westport, Conn., 1970), 241-44; Logan, , 397-99, 426-47. to do some engineering, but when Hippolyte took
up the reins of government he was not disposed to assist him to carry on the
work. He was well known in the legation and we did everything to aid him
that was possible, but without success. So, failing and losing money, I
suppose he is dissatisfied and sour and now vents his spleen and cares not
whom his virus poisons. But,” continued Mr. Douglass to his wife, “re-
main here and entertain our friends and we,” speaking to your correspon-
dent, “will go to my study, where I can talk without fear of interruption.
For, when THE WORLD selects a man of my own color and marks him as


being worthy and capable of being its representative I feel that there is
every reason why I should answer its questions with such freedom of
speech as I can.”


Mr. Douglass’s study is a large room, which showed every appearance
of common occupancy. All over one of the walls were arranged tiers and
tiers of books. Prominent were “Plutarch’s Lives,” “The History of Na-
tions,” Macaulay’s works6An undated inventory of the Cedar Hill library in Douglass's own handwriting confirms his possession of books by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), a British Whig parliamentarian, colonial administrator, essayist, and historian. Subject File, reel 11, frames 79-91, FD Papers, DLC; , 12: 410-18. and books of like character, indicating the
studious habits of their owner, and all with covers looking worn and
suggesting frequent use. Upon the wall before the chair upon which Mr.
Douglass sat when at his desk rested a fine life-size engraving of President

“When I was a younger man than now,” said Mr. Douglass, “I thought
it my duty to contradict all the falsehoods told in respect to my conduct; but
I soon found that if I did so I would have little time to do anything else. I
therefore concluded to leave many of them to time and events. Since my
mission to Hayti I have seen much in the papers concerning myself, much
that was falsely colored, but, considering the nature of my office, I did not
feel that l was allowed to correct or denounce the misrepresentations.
Being still Minister Resident to Hayti, I cannot talk freely about Haytian
affairs. A knowledge of my limitations does not allow me to defend myself
against the outrageous attacks made upon me. In the old slave days it did
not require much courage to whip a negro with his hands tied, or to mob an
Abolitionist south of Mason and Dixon’s line. The same is true now of a
man in my circumstances.

“There are certain convenient forms under which a thousand lies may
lurk in safety, such as, ‘It is said,’ ‘It is rumored,’ ‘It is generally believed
to be true,’ ‘It is an open secret,’ ‘It is the common opinion.’ They are all
convenient formulas under which to hide a slander. Then there are head-
lines, sometimes called flaming headlines, admirably calculated to mis-
lead. They have been used very successfully about Hayti. I do not know
how many times I have seen a revolution in American newspapers in that
country, when to my certain knowledge all was peace and quiet there. For
my own part I have been discredited, superseded and recalled I do not know


how many times. Well, I cannot say that these things have caused me a
sleepless hour or in any measure hurt my digestion.

“Now, you want me to talk to you about Hayti when you know that I
am in bonds to keep the peace on that subject. I have, however, always
found it more difficult to be silent than to speak; and if I can find a path
outside of the range of diplomacy, I will say something of recent events in
Hayti. But really I do not see what I can say in addition to the full and
explicit statements made through the columns of THE WORLD by my
Secretary, Mr. Ebenezer Bassett.7Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett (1833-1908) graduated from the Connecticut State Normal School. While principal of a high school in New Haven, Connecticut, Bassett attended classes at Yale University where he became proficient in French. From 1855 to 1869, Bassett was principal of the highly respected Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. When Ulysses S. Grant became president, he appointed Bassett the U.S. minister resident and consul general to Haiti, the nation's first black diplomat. He filled that post for eight years, dealing capably with strains caused by Grant's persistent efforts to annex the adjacent Dominican Republic. Replaced in 1877, Bassett later served as Haiti's consul in New York City (1879-88). Bassett originally sought Douglass's assistance to obtain a diplomatic post of his own under the administration of Benjamin Harrison. When these efforts failed and Douglass received the Haitian assignment, Bassett agreed to serve as his secretary. The two appear to have worked together smoothly in Haiti with Bassett acting as Douglass's interpreter as well as secretary. Bassett warmly defended Douglass's performance as minister from the attacks of the anonymous “Haitian refugee," published in the New York . After Douglass's resignation as minister, Bassett resumed work for the Haitians in the United States and wrote a guidebook for that country. New York , 6, 14 July 1891; New York , 8 July 1891; Ebenezer Bassett to Douglass, 6 March, 15 July, 14 August 1889, 14, 15 July 1891, reel 5, frames 283-84, 455-57, 531-35, reel 6, frames 148-50, 150-51, Douglass to Ebenezer Bassett, 13 July 1889, reel 5, frame 453, General Correspondence File, FD Papers, DLC; Douglass, , 460-61; , 32; , 13: 86; , 1: 190. That statement is a true one supported by

“As Mr. Bassett says, I am ‘a man thoroughly capable of acting for
myself.’8Substituting "myself" for “himself,” Douglass accurately quotes from the interview that his secretary Ebenezer Bassett gave to the New York . New York , 8 July 1891. My whole life proves this fact, otherwise many a vital interest
would have suffered, many a scheme for the amelioration of the condition
of the people would have failed. I am sure that Mr. Bassett had no corre-
spondence with the Department of State about the Mole St. Nicholas
negotiations. His only knowledge concerning it was such as I permitted
him as my secretary.


“The statement that American subjects were expelled from Hayti is a
direct reflection upon the legation, and I say emphatically it is a falsehood.
Americans are never expelled from Haytian soil. On the contrary, they are


not only welcomed, but are given peculiar privileges and opportunities, so
that they will be encouraged to increase their commercial ventures in the

“On the day of the uprising there was not the slightest expectation of it.
It is true that Gen. Guerrier9Douglass alludes to General Sully-Guerrier who died leading the aborted uprising against Louis M. F. Hyppolite. Heinl and Heinl, , 319-20. had been seen in the city, but it was a day of
general rejoicing when the people were indulging in one of the religious
feasts which are so common to both French and Spanish tropical countries.
All the thoroughfares were crowded with people. Men in holiday attire and
women making an appearance not less suggestive of the day. Nor were
children wanting.

“On the morning when the emeute occurred I was in my residence,
having just returned from a visit to the hills. As soon as I became aware that
a disturbance was at hand, serious in character, I started for the office of the
legation to look for my secretary, Mr. Bassett, as I did not know but that an
occasion would arise where his knowledge of French would be of use to me
in giving asylum to some unfortunate. I did not find him, however, until
late in the day, some time after the troubles of the morning had ended.

“When I found Mr. Bassett he was sitting on the veranda of the hotel in
company with a number of gentlemen, and I joined him. I had hardly
reached his side, however, before the trouble broke out anew. I myself did
not appreciate the danger I was in because of my exposed position, but Mr.
Bassett and the other gentlemen who were around, all of whom were
seeking a shelter, advised me, and I sought the safety of my house.


“Yes, I have read the statements concerning Hayti purporting to have
been made by a Haytian refugee, who was a passenger on board the
steamer Prince William III.10Douglass alludes to the same “Haitian refugee" interviewed in the New York articles of 6 and 12 July 1891. There was some truth in his story, enough to
hang the tale of falsehood upon. It is true that after the night of the 28th of
May there was a ‘reign of terror’ in Port au Prince, caused by the vigorous
action of the Government in hunting down the conspirators and rebels. It is
true that some few were shot by accident and, possibly, some perished in
consequence of false and malicious accusations. It is true that Mr. E. D.
Bassett, my private secretary and interpreter, usually attended me when-
ever I held interviews with the Government officials of Hayti. He is a


master of the French language and has had experience as a Minister resi-
dent to Port au Prince. I rather felicitated myself upon my good fortune in
having near me such a man as my private secretary. I hardly see now how I
could have kept myself as well informed as to what was going on had I not
been assisted by this competent man.

All this, and more, is true of Mr. Bassett, but, as I said, I do not think
he should be accused of overriding me. He was my secretary, and spoke
and acted subject to my supervision in all matters discussed in our relations
with the Haytian Government. I can say with emphasis that it is not true
that Mr. Bassett is an object of distrust in the eyes of the honest people of
Port au Prince. On the contrary, I was daily surprised and gratified by the
evidences of esteem in which he was held by the people of Port au Prince.
As to his gambling and living luxuriously. I know nothing of his gains or
losses. As to my moral blame for the assassinations which succeeded the
28th of May, I do not see how any sane man could entertain such an idea.
What power had I, what power had Bassett, what power had any of my
colleagues to control either the revolutionists or the Government of Hayti?
Our province was to protect Americans and leave the Haytians to manage
their own affairs. The strange thing is that any New York paper should
allow its columns to contain such nonsense. I think the insurgents are a
little more indebted to the United States Legation than is the government of
Hippolyte. All my moral feeling was in revolt against cruelty and blood-
shed. It was my privilege to give shelter and protection to a score of men
who, if the Government could have got hold of them, would have been shot
down like dogs. They were, however, at my house, at the legation, with the
American flag over them. Through my intervention they were able to
embark in safety, and, without boasting, I can add that I paid the passage of
a number of them on a small boat to the ship in the harbor.11In an official report to Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Douglass stated that he had granted sanctuary to numerous Haitians who believed their lives were in danger from President Louis M. F. Hyppolite's “reign of terror" following the failed revolt of 28 May 1891. In the next three weeks, Douglass received permission of the Haitian government to embark a total of twenty-one refugees on ships sailing to foreign harbors. Douglass to James G. Blaine, 19 June 1891, U.S. Legation, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dispatches to the State Department, RG 84, Records of Foreign Service Posts, State Department, DNA.

“He said that I was reading flattering notices of myself, written by
Haytian Ministers, and this is about as true as anything else that was said by
this correspondent. One of my alleged deficiencies was that I do not speak
French. In this matter I am not more deficient than many other Ministers
who are sent abroad.



“I think it a little strange that while Gen. Hippolyte, the President of
Hayti, is widely denounced for his rigorous suppression of the rebels in his
capital, almost nothing is said about the provocation. The rebels took him
on a religious fête day, took advantage of him while he was on his knees.

“They shot down the lawful keepers of the prison, who were merely
performing their duty, and turned loose the thieves and thugs, as well as the
political offenders, to prey upon society.

“There is no question that the attack upon the prison had been prear-
ranged, otherwise it would not have occurred just when it did. As I before
told you, it was a fête day, and all the people loyal to the Government were
at the cathedral. The President himself was there. When the riot began all
of the young men were on their knees before the altars of their God, as was
President Hippolyte. The salvo of arms which gave notice of the uprising
took them all unawares, but Hippolyte, with a calmness and presence of
mind remarkable, cautioned them to remain quiet. He then left the building
and went to where the trouble was occurring, exposing himself to many
dangers. The episode of the morning did not take long to happen. The
prison was emptied of all classes, and murderers and thieves accompanied
mistaken patriots to find hiding among the hills.


“The story of the insurgents that they meant solely to release the
political prisoners may or may not be true. It certainly does not pass
unquestioned. Manifestly the release of the prisoners could be of little use
unless the power that released them was strong enough to protect them.
The impression is that had the insurgents found themselves supported by
any considerable number of the people they would have captured the palace
as well as the prison, and would have also inaugurated a revolution. It is
well enough to be merciful to the insurgents, but it is equally well to be
merciful to the country. I owe it to Gen. Hippolyte to state that he is not the
moral monster he is painted. He may have been unwise, and I am sure he
has made some mistakes, but he did not kill for the gratification of his thirst
for blood. To him the case presented was a dreaded disease and one that
required heroic treatment. He had repeatedly warned the conspirators that
if ever their conspiracies reached the point of open rebellion he would
suppress them with a hand of iron. It is well known that the public impres-
sion concerning him was that he had not the nerve to face a rebellion in this


manner, and he felt it necessary to undeceive them. A man to rule success-
fully must either be loved or feared, and since the people of the capital of
Hayti did not love Hippolyte he was determined to make them fear him. It
may well be remarked that the Government of Hayti is hardly old enough to
have developed a character that invited destruction. The country has been
torn and rent by revolutions, and is now staggering under a heavy debt
brought upon it by repeated resorts of violence. What the country wants is
peace and stability.”

“What do you think, Mr. Douglass, will be Hayti’s future?”

“I answer without the least hesitation that I still believe in Hayti and
believe that she will fight her way upward and onward. I feel that their wars
and revolutions will eventually wear themselves out, and out of the chaos
left by these perturbations a sober, happy and prosperous people will yet

“Do you think that the last revolution was due to the fact that some of
the Haytiens still prefer Legitime to Hippolyte and would like to recall

“I do not think that they expect anything of the kind. It is not the
fashion with Haytiens when a man has once been exiled for them to receive
him again into power.”

“It has been said, Mr. Douglass, that Gen. Hippolyte has been kept in
power on account of his purchase of the standing army, and not because the
people loved him or were satisfied with his administration. Is there any
truth in this statement?

“This question I decline to answer,” replied Mr. Douglass. “Hippo-
lyte may or may not be popular with the citizens, but, in my opinion, it will
be a good and most fortunate thing for Hayti if he can maintain himself at
the head of the Haytien Government. Hippolyte is a man of unusual force
of character, and his country needs his controlling hand.”

Mr. Douglass is expecting his friend, Secretary Firmin, to pass through
here on his way from Paris.12The New York carried reports that Joseph-Anténor Firmin, the former Haitian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Finance, had departed Port-au-Prince on 16 July 1891 on a trip to Paris via New York City. Ebenezer D. Bassett wrote to Douglass that he had visited with Firmin during the Haitian's stop in New York City from 22 to 25 July 1891. Firmin told Bassett that he traveled to France for reasons of ill health. Ebenezer Bassett to Douglass, 26 July 1891, reel 6, frames 168-70, General Correspondence File, FD Papers, DLC; New York , 27 July 1891. He says that he is a very intelligent black
man. Mr. Douglass said that it gave him much pleasure to see a black man
succeed in making a name for himself as Mr. Firmin has done.


“Is it true that it is the policy of Gen. Hippolyte to elevate the blacks at
the expense of the mulattoes?”

“On the contrary,” said Mr. Douglass, “Gen. Hippolyte’s policy was
to do away with all distinctions. He is far above anything of that kind.”

I then asked him: “From your experience in Hayti do you think that the
black race is capable of governing itself?

He answered: “I think it may become so. Hayti is a good specimen of
what the negro race can do. As I have often said before, Hayti must not be
measured by other nations. In speaking of the negro one must consider the
depths from which he came. Hayti became free under great difficulties.
She gained her independence under very unfavorable conditions. She was
surrounded by a cordon of slave-holding powers. France was slave-
holding; Great Britain was slave-holding; Denmark was slave-holding;
Portugal was slave—holding—they were all against her—none of these
nations wanted to tolerate such an example as Hayti was giving. It is the
only instance in the world where an enslaved people rose up and declared
their independence. When she asked for recognition among the great
powers of the world France demanded a sum of money, I forget how many
francs, millions I think, as the price of her recognition.13In 1825 Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer negotiated a treaty with France that recognized his country's independence. This treaty granted France preferential trade privileges with Haiti and promised payment of an indemnity of 150 million francs. Failure of the Haitians to pay the indemnity caused this treaty to be suspended. A new set of negotiations reduced the amount of the indemnity to 60 million francs and France finally granted recognition of its former colony's independence in 1838. It took Haiti exactly fifty years to pay off the French indemnity. Heinl and Heinl, , 168- 72, 201; Rotberg, , 66-67, 77, 86. England was slow
to recognize her, and the United States did not recognize her until Abraham
Lincoln became President.

“When the question was brought up in the House of Representatives,
Henry A. Wise, leading the discussion, said that: ‘The Haytiens have been
slaves, and I will never recognize as freemen negroes who gained their
freedom by cutting their masters’ throats.’ ”14Virginia Congressman Henry A. Wise condemned the idea of the United States extending diplomatic recognition to Haiti in a public letter to his constituents in 1841. John Quincy Adams quoted the letter in a speech before the House of Representatives in January 1842. This provoked Wise to make a lengthy reply, attacking Adams, abolition, and Haiti. Craig M. Simpson, (Chapel Hill, 1985), 42-43.

“In the matter of Rigaud, do you think that France will make a demand
for indemnity, and, if so, will the Haytien Government pay it?”

“Very likely it will. She will at first refuse to do so, but in the end will


yield to the demands of France. She is a weak power and will eventually
yield to the stronger.”15Immediately following the failed coup of 28 May 1891. President Louis M. F. Hyppolite executed Ernest Rigaud, a French citizen and Port-au-Prince merchant, for complaining about the destruction of a French flag. France demanded and eventually received an indemnity for the death of its citizen. New York , 11 July 1891; New York , 23 July 1891; Heinl and Heinl, , 320.

“If an attempt should be made to deprive the Haytiens of their indepen-
dence what do you think would be the result?”

“They are not prepared to admit any foreign power to control them.
They would say in the language of Christophe,16Probably bom on the English island of St. Christopher. Henri Christophe (1767-1820) was the servant of a French naval officer who took him to Savannah, Georgia, during the American Revolution. He gained his freedom soon afterward and became a hotel manager in Cap-Haïtien. He joined the revolutionary forces of Toussaint L'Ouverture and rose steadily in rank. After Toussaint's exile and death in France, Christophe became one of the top Haitian leaders and was one of three generals to sign the nation's proclamation of independence. Following the assassination of the nation's first ruler, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Christophe became president of Haiti in 1806. A civil war ensued which divided the country into northern and southwestern regions. Christophe established a state in the north and ruled for thirteen years, eventually crowning himself King of Haiti in 1811 . Two monuments to his reign were the Citadelle, an armed fortress built atop a mountain, and the Royal Palace of Sans Souci at Milot. He also managed to revive many of the old plantations by forcing blacks back to work there. Christophe's autocratic rule alienated practically all popular support. On 8 October 1820., as rebel troops marched towards the Royal Palace, Christophe, unable to organize an armed resistance, shot himself. Hubert Cole, (New York, 1967); Perusse, , 17-18 ; Davis,, 99-113; Heinl and Heinl, , 123-62. ‘My master, Gen. Tous-
saint l’Ouverture, is the Governor here, and if you attempt to enter we will
burn the town and fight you upon its ashes.’17Douglass alludes to an incident during the campaign of Napoleon U to restore French control over Haiti. In command of the garrison of Cap-Haïtien. the old colonial capital. Henri Christophe refused to surrender the city to the French forces commanded by Victor Emmanuel Leclerc in February 1802. After receiving a message from Christophe in language similar to that quoted by Douglass, Leclerc began an attack on Cap-Haïtien. After an initial resistance, Christophe burned the city and retreated with his army into the interior mountains. Cole, , 81-89; Heinl and Heinl, , 102-03. Yes, Hayti is fire; do not
touch her, you will burn your fingers.”

“What influence do you think Admiral Gherardi18Born in Jackson, Louisiana, to an Italian immigrant father and the sister of historian and politician George Bancroft. Bancroft Gherardi (1832-1903) received a commission in the U.S. Navy in 1846 when his uncle was the secretary of the navy. After five years of service, he briefly attended the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated in 1852. Gherardi saw much sea duty during the Civil War on the blockade of Confederate ports. He held numerous assignments in the post-war navy and rose to the rank of rear admiral and commander-in-chief of the North Atlantic Squadron (1889-92). During the Haitian civil war of 1888-89, Gherardi had advised the United States not to recognize the legitimacy of the blockade against ports controlled by Louis M. F. Hyppolite. At this time, Gherardi held many discussions with Hyppolite and his principal advisers and came to believe that,. out of gratitude for the U.S. policy toward the blockade, they would grant important concessions to this country once in power. In January 1891, the Harrison administration appointed Gherardi a special commissioner to cooperate with Douglass in negotiating a treaty for the lease of the Môle St. Nicolas as a naval coaling station. The State Department's failure to provide Gherardi with the proper credentials, however, allowed the Haitians to drag out the negotiations. Gherardi ignored Douglass's advice and ordered most of the U.S. Atlantic fleet to Port-au-Prince in April 1891. Rather than cowing the Haitians, this act stiffened their will: Hyppolite's govemment rejected the proposed lease. His bluff called, the admiral's fleet had to hoist anchor and depart. Douglass and Gherardi later traded angry accusations over who was to blame for the failure of the Môle St. Nicolas negotiations. Douglass, , 624-44; Logan, , 413-14, 420-23, 439-52; Heinl and Heinl, , 309-10, 312-20; , 2: 633-34; , 7: 232. had upon the negotiations


that were pending between the United States and Hayti in regard to
the Mole St. Nicholas?”

“Ask the Admiral. I refuse to answer.”

“Do you imagine that the United States will get this concession at a
later date?”

This question Mr. Douglass did not feel free to answer. He seemed[,]
though, to think that there was a chance of getting the concession.

“Referring to the probability of the United States getting the conces-
sion of Mole St. Nicholas, what influence was it that prevented the Domin-
ican Government from ceding us Samana Bay?”19Diplomatic efforts by the United States to obtain a naval station at Samana Bay in the northeastern portion of the Dominican Republic dated back to before the Civil War. The administrations of Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Johnson had attempted to obtain a lease of this bay. The site also was at the center of the controversial annexation negotiations during Ulysses S. Grant's administration. As recently as 1882, the Haitian govemment had pressured its Dominican neighbor to reject proposals to lease Samana Bay to an American shipping company. Charles Callan Tansill, (1938; Gloucester, Mass, 1967), 133, 177-78, 180-97, 250-56, 362-64, 374-79; Logan, , 245-46, 286, 323, 349-50, 368-69.

“Hayti’s influence. That nation looked upon that proposed cession of
the territory of its neighbor to a white government as a menace and United
States Senator Sumner said: ‘It would be a menace to the life of the Haytien
Government.'20Douglass paraphrases the argument used by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in a speech on 24-25 March 1870 in opposition to the United States annexation of the Dominican Republic. , 41st Cong, 3d sess., 226-31. At this time all negotiation failed, but since then condi-
tions have changed.”

“But,” said I, “do not these same conditions remain in force to affect
all endeavor to secure Haytien property?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Douglass, “and unless the United States adopts differ-
ent methods, so they are likely to remain.”

Here Mr. Douglass pleaded fatigue, but before closing the interview he


said: “I never expected to see a man of my own color and race reporting for
a great paper like THE WORLD.”


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895




Yale University Press 1992



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