The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In its early days, the United States provided haven to people fleeing Haiti

Extending that compassion today could reverse past wrongs

A migrant from Haiti prays with a Bible on her head during a Mass at an improvised refugee shelter in Ciudad Acuña on Sept. 21. (Fernando Llano/AP)

The Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian asylum seekers has prompted waves of familiar exhaustion. Commentators noted that the United States seems always to reject Haitians in need, especially when it bears direct responsibility for the disasters that displace them.

Although true, this perspective overlooks a founding episode of American asylum policy. In the 1790s and early 1800s, the United States opened its arms to tens of thousands of people fleeing Saint-Domingue, the French colony that became Haiti. Then, the United States made unprecedented efforts to welcome the White refugees among them, efforts that betray the irony of today’s policies.

When enslaved people, who made up the majority of the island’s population, rose against their enslavers in the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), they transformed the most lucrative colony in the western hemisphere into its first independent Black nation.

As plantations burned, the White world watched in horror. “Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man,” Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson observed on behalf of enslavers everywhere in 1793. “I become daily more and more convinced that all the West India islands will remain in the hands of the people of colour, and a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place.”

The expulsion had already begun. Weeks before, the opulent northern town of Cap Français (now Cap-Haïtien) burned to the ground in a battle between White royalists and Black revolutionaries. Droves of White and mixed-race “mulatto” planters — some dragging Black enslaved people with them — escaped the conflagration on a fleet of royalist ships.

From Charleston to New York, this fleet deposited over 10,000 migrants along the Eastern Seaboard. Charitable societies fed and rehoused them (amid a pandemic, no less). But when state legislatures reached their limits, as Maryland’s soon did, the crisis turned federal. Addressing Congress in the winter of 1794, Rep. Samuel Smith (Md.) claimed “such a scene of distress had never before been seen in America.”

Smith proposed making federal resettlement funds available to assist the new arrivals. Some questioned the bill’s constitutionality. James Madison, representing Virginia, feared the “extremities” to which “this practice might be carried.” Others felt more generous. One was Rep. Elias Boudinot (N.J.), a descendant of French Protestant refugees. Boudinot insisted the “general welfare” provision of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution covered asylum seekers. “When a number of our fellow-creatures had been cast upon our sympathy, in a situation of such unexampled wretchedness,” he implored, “was it possible that gentlemen could make a doubt whether it was our duty to relieve them?”

The bill passed unanimously. President George Washington released $15,000 from the Treasury to Dominguans nationwide.

It was the first of three major resettlements. The second came four years later, in 1798, when Black general Toussaint L’Ouverture ousted British troops from Saint-Domingue. With no hope of regaining their plantations under a British regime, more planters fled for the States.

But by now, the United States had soured on France. The “Quasi War” was brewing between the two nations. When Dominguans (who were still understood as French) docked in Philadelphia, with enslaved people aboard, they found themselves enmeshed in a diplomatic tangle.

President John Adams was hastily briefed on the “obvious danger” of “the landing of any french negroes,” a reference both to Black and mixed-race people. Though the president would prove an ally to Saint-Domingue’s Black revolutionary leader, he wanted no Toussaint L’Ouvertures in his own country. Fearing insurrectionary influence from the French Caribbean, Adams urged Congress to give him the authority to ban all “French passengers,” no matter their race.

The Senate agreed, but the House killed the bill by postponement. To vilify an entire nationality for a threat so “greatly exaggerated” would be too much executive power, decided Rep. Samuel Sewall (Mass.). The refugees disembarked, including both enslavers and enslaved people, and more ships soon received permission to disembark.

The final round of migrants came 10 years later. Haiti had now routed Napoleon’s forces and frightened remaining planters to nearby Cuba. But after Napoleon conquered Spain in 1808, installing his brother as its king, the Spanish citizens of Cuba turned on their guests in political outrage. Anti-French violence forced Dominguans out.

Some 9,000 refugees arrived in Louisiana. America’s newest territory was attractive for its tri-caste system: Whites at the top, then free mixed-race mulattoes, then Black enslaved people at the bottom — similar to how it had been in Saint-Domingue. Mulatto immigrants benefited especially. Unlike in northern states, this hierarchy approximated some of the property rights and social status they had enjoyed in the French colony.

But there was a hitch. A federal embargo on the importation of enslaved people had just passed effective 1808, and over a third of these new migrants were unfree Blacks. Would displaced enslavers be allowed to import their property?

As usual, the Dominguans found their friends. In June 1809, Congress approved a relaxation of the embargo. Although Rep. John Ross (Pa.), an abolitionist, was “sorry to see a bill introduced to unsettle what he conceived to be a valuable provision,” he was in the minority. Most congressmen felt the struggle of the French planters — and the impossibility of their return to war-torn Europe — mitigated the illegality of importing enslaved people.

“These people were forced to leave the island in distress, and take what portion of property they could collect,” Rep. Thomas Newton (Va.) pleaded. “There was no country open to them but America …. Let us say to these unfortunates, as Dido to Æneas, when he was exiled from Troy: ‘I have suffered misfortune myself, and therefore know how to extend the hand of relief to others.’ ”

With the embargo lifted, White and mixed-race Dominguans settled their chattel laborers in the lower delta. Sugar became the region’s main cash crop, just as in Saint-Domingue. Its production soared in Louisiana. So did population. By 1810, New Orleans was the largest city south of Baltimore. By 1812, Louisiana had gained statehood.

Economically, exiles of all racial groups supercharged Louisiana and nearly every other state in the fledgling union. Culturally, Dominguans like John James Audubon (dropped into Manhattan as a yellow fever-ridden teenager) became national treasures. Geographically, they enabled the westward expansion of Jefferson’s dreams by settling the newly purchased Orleans Territory and pushing into the wilds of the Louisiana Territory.

Plus, Dominguans of color augmented free Black communities in cities like Philadelphia (a pressure group on the early federal government), contributed to American literature and almost certainly gave their lives to defend New Orleans from the British in the War of 1812.

But enslaved people paid dearly for their enslavers’ resettlement. Adams’s frenzy over “French negroes” fostered the view that immigrants of color were to be feared and controlled. Sharing the president’s fear, state legislatures throughout the 1790s, north and south, ejected, detained or allowed for the resale of Dominguan refugees of color, whether free or enslaved.

Into the next century, Caribbean rebellion remained a constant justification for tightening brutal restrictions on people of color. “[O]ur negroes are truely [sic] the Jacobins of the country,” a pamphleteer frothed in 1822, invoking the revolutionary French party framed as inspiring Toussaint’s revolution. “They are the anarchists and the domestic enemy; the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.”

The U.S. decision to suspend the Slave Trade Act of 1808, the only instrument of the Constitution drafted in opposition to slavery, rather than demand Dominguans offer manumission as a condition of their resettlement, revealed federal indifference to the horrors of slavery.

The arrivals of Dominguans and debates about them uncovered two attitudes: the liberal belief that refugees must be welcomed when truly desperate, and the demand that they be excluded, or subjugated, on grounds of race. These two were often the same thing — since welcoming Dominguans’ enslaved workers helped enforce America’s existing racial hierarchies and, especially in New Orleans, protect plantation slavery.

President Biden’s advice to today’s Haitian refugees — “Don’t come over” — embodies this record of exclusion with little of the constitutionally-informed compassion. His critics have made the moral argument that the United States owes a debt to Haitians for its destructive policies of the 20th century: military occupation, support for dictators and mistreatment of migrants.

But the refugee crisis of the 18th century offers another argument for Biden’s critics, one based on legislative precedent. The arrivals of people from the island invigorated the first congresses and occasioned passionate founding debates on immigration. Their plight invited early policymakers to articulate a vision of welcome to those fleeing hardship, language that remains at the heart of American self-conception.