The Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave revolt in the history of the modern world, caused large numbers of both Black and white people to flee the Caribbean, with many relocating to the United States. In 1793 Philadelphia received hundreds of these refugees, including white slaveholders and their enslaved Africans. Foreign policy decisions also were made in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital during the 1790s. Therefore, on both the local and national levels the Haitian Revolution played an important role in Philadelphia’s federal period.
Occurring on what was then known as the French colony of St. Domingue, the Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791 to 1804. The army of rebelling slaves, commanded by Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803), wrested control of the colony from its white rulers, and, after a series of brutal power struggles, Haiti eventually became the first Black-led nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Refugees arriving from St. Domingue had a definitive influence on the culture of the city. The Haitian immigrants of African descent added diversity to Philadelphia’s Black community. It became common to find people of color with French names, and the French language could be frequently heard on the street. Also, the congregations of the city’s Catholic churches, particularly St. Joseph’s, became instantaneously biracial. Philadelphia residents, feeling sympathy for the whites who had lost land and possessions, raised nearly $14,000 in relief aid.
The refugees were not exempt from the terms of the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, so there was controversy upon their arrival in Philadelphia. The Act stipulated that enslaved individuals had a right to claim their freedom after six months of residing in the state. As a result, from 1793 to 1796 there were 456 manumissions of West Indian slaves in Philadelphia. Most, however, especially if they were young, became indentured servants for varying periods of time.
Yellow Fever’s Toll
It was and continues to be speculated that the yellow fever was brought to Philadelphia by ships carrying Dominguan refugees. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), the eminent physician and abolitionist, sincerely believed that Black people had immunity to the illness, and, as such, thought they had an obligation to attend to the afflicted. The Free African Society, possibly the first African American benevolent society in the United States, concluded that acting on Rush’s plea for help would strike a blow against racism by showing how Black people could be valuable citizens. Led by former slaves Richard Allen (1760-1831) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818), the Society demonstrated remarkable courage by nursing the sick and burying the dead. Tragically, Rush was wrong in his estimation that Black people were immune to the fever; they died at a rate almost equal to that of whites.
During the decade the federal capital was in Philadelphia, United States policy toward St. Domingue changed substantially. Important policy decisions emanated from the presidential residence, located at Sixth and Market Streets. George Washington (1732-99), president until 1797, was not supportive of the Dominguans in rebellion, but his successor, John Adams (1735-1826), took a different position following a visit by Joseph Bunel, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s diplomatic representative. Bunel arrived in 1798 to meet with U.S. government officials accompanied by his wife, Marie Bunel. Marie, a free Black creole, worked in the city as an independent merchant, choosing to stay even after the revolution concluded.
Bunel reportedly met with Adams in 1798 or 1799, and trade subsequently opened up between St. Domingue and the United States. It is probable that Adams saw this move as an opportunity to lend support to those fighting a common enemy, as the United States was then engaged in a quasi-war with France. It was also a chance to help American merchants by gaining a valuable trading partner in the West Indies. However, the good will did not last for long. Relations between the two republics soured after Adams left office in 1800, and the United States did not officially recognize Haiti until 1862.
Paul Campbell is an M.A. candidate in American History at Temple University. He also works as an interpretive Park Guide at Independence National Historical Park. (Author information current at time of publication.)
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