Frederick Douglass -- Serving in Haiti
The Republican Party won back the Presidency in 1888. Douglass had campaigned for Benjamin Harrison and now wanted another government job. A cabinet position was something that Douglass could dream about but he was willing to settle for his old job, recorder of deeds. The position, ironically, went to Blanche K. Bruce, former black senator from
and a witness to Douglass’s marriage.
Douglass waited three months for a government appointment, all the while
ignoring the advice of friends not to antagonize the new President by urging Mississippi Harrison to bring back federal protection of the lives of
Negroes in the South and of their right to vote. In June 1889 Douglass was offered the
ministry to . Despite advice from friends, he accepted. Haiti
Two black generals, Francois D. Legitime and Florvil Hyppolite, had directed a revolution in 1888 that had removed
president. With naval and military aid
provided by the American navy, Hyppolite then removed Legitime and his supporters
from the island, and, as the new Haiti president, it was Hyppolite
who received Douglass’s credentials in November of 1889. Haiti
wanted something back for the helpfulness.
They wanted Mole St. Nicholas, an excellent harbor on the extreme
northwestern tip of . The location would then become the primary Haiti United States naval station in the Caribbean.
Always vulnerable, independent
Haiti was now
under the particularly avaricious eyes of white powers seeking bases for their
growing navies-bases that in the Caribbean
would support them in their rivalry to build a canal across the Central
American isthmus. Other Caribbean
islands, among them Spain’s Cuba and the British West
Indies, already belonged to competing European empires. … They [the Haitians] knew that as a black republic their nation
was viewed with much contempt and that it was judged fair prey by those wishing
to annex part or all of it (McFeely 336).
Likely, Douglass had received his assignment to mollify the suspicions of Haitians, who were well familiar with his past history. Douglass, himself, revered
. He believed that its people were a singular
example of what all black people could accomplish, unhindered by white
persecution. Douglass, although in favor
of acquiring the Haitian harbor for the navy’s use, well understood Haitian
cynicism and performed his tasks openly and honestly, despite the arrogant
words and threatening manner of an American admiral, who was assigned to work
with Douglass in their negotiations to obtain a lease of the harbor. Their efforts failed, and the administration
abandoned the project in the late summer of 1891. The expansionists of the administration had
now focused their desire upon Haiti Hawaii, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. President Harrison had never been more than
luke warm about acquiring a Haitian harbor.
Critics in the press inaccurately accused Douglass ob being the main reason for his administration’s failure to obtain the harbor.
newspapers demanded and predicted that he would
be fired. On June 30 Douglass submitted
his resignation, but not because of the criticism. Both his own health and that of Helen had
suffered from the climate. New
Douglass defended himself six months later in the North American Review. “A man must defend himself,” he wrote, “if only to demonstrate his fitness to defend anything else.”
… To be sure, he had had enough of
but his pride had been hurt, and, worse, his loyalty to his country had been
challenged. … He contended … that he had
had no orders to try to secure it [the harbor] during his first year in Haiti and therefore could not be
charged with delay in the months immediately following Hyppolite”s assumption
of power. Discussing the negotiations
that did take place, Douglass was candid in suggesting that Admiral Gherardi
had been condescending and hence insulting to Haiti ’s
secretary of state. [After the
article appeared, Firmin, from exile in Antenor Firmin, Haiti Paris,
wrote Douglass that his resignation was a great loss to both Haiti and the ] McFeely 356-357). United States
This was Douglass’s last government position.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New