The Diplomatic Career of Frederick Douglass

“One of the duties of a minister in a foreign land is to cultivate good social, as well as civil relations, with the people and government to which he is sent.”

– Frederick Douglass

In the mid-1800s, Frederick Douglass was known internationally as an activist, writer, and orator. But did you know he also served as an official diplomat for the United States of America?

During his assignment, Douglass faced the challenge of representing the United States while African Americans experienced systemic oppression under Jim Crow.

Frederick Douglass Haiti
Douglass in the study of the U.S. Minister to Haiti’s residence. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Creating Diplomatic Relations with Black Republics

The establishment of the Republic of Haiti in 1804 was the result of a majority enslaved Black population fighting for their freedom and independence from France. Fearing that Haiti’s success might foster a similar uprising among enslaved Black Americans, White American political leaders–including those professing to be antislavery–promoted an official policy of isolation.

Until 1862, the United States had no diplomatic relations with the first independent Black republic in the world. As Douglass explained it:

“[The] reason for coolness between the countries is that Haiti is Black…and after Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.”

– Frederick Douglass

The outbreak of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, making abolition a central war objective, changed U.S. foreign policy. In December 1862, Lincoln announced his intention to establish diplomatic relations with Haiti and Liberia, the only two independent sovereign Black republics.

Black leaders established Liberia in 1847. Liberia was an example of the “colonization movement,” designed to settle free African Americans voluntarily to colonies in West Africa.

Haiti was also an example of the colonization movement. Lincoln, a supporter of voluntary colonization, issued an order to provide funds to pay for African Americans to settle in Île-à-Vache, a small island off Haiti’s coast.

Abolitionist activists like Frederick Douglass applauded diplomatic recognition of the Black republics. Simultaneously, they condemned the idea that America was not African Americans’ home. “Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose,” he thundered, “and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here–have lived here–have a right to live here, and mean to live here.” Emancipation, he argued, must be accomplished, but the reunification of states must also lead to full constitutional citizenship for all Black Americans.

Île-à-Vache map
Île-à-Vache off Haiti’s mainland coast. Public Domain.

The Era of Reconstruction: Black Americans Represent the U.S. Abroad

After the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, the United States entered into Reconstruction. Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, establishing citizenship rights for formerly enslaved Americans, and granting universal male suffrage.

This brief period in the post-Civil War era marked a time when African American men were elected and appointed to federal government positions. Formerly enslaved persons Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce served as the first Black U.S. Senators. Joseph Rainey, also formerly enslaved, served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

These years also saw the appointment of the first Black chiefs of mission at U.S. diplomatic posts and a renewed focus on international trade.

The United States was eager to establish a presence in the Caribbean. The islands were desirable for their coffee, sugar, fruit, and commercial shipping ports.

Distinguished Colored Men poster
“Distinguished Colored Men” broadside, c. 1883. Henry Highland Garnet served as U.S. Minister to Liberia (1881), and John Mercer Langston served as U.S. Minister to Haiti (1877-1885). In 1886, Langston successfully sued the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in the U.S. Supreme Court for withholding his appropriated pay. Courtesy of Library of Congress

President Grant Sends Frederick Douglass to the Dominican Republic

In 1869, President Ulysses Grant appointed Ebenezer Bassett, the United States’ first Black chief of a diplomatic mission, to be U.S. Minister to Haiti and the Dominican Republic–both on the island of Hispaniola.

Officially, Bassett’s mission was to strengthen diplomatic relations. However, President Grant’s administration also sought to annex the Dominican Republic to the United States. To do so, Grant sought Frederick Douglass’s assistance.

Ebenezer Bassett
Don Carlos Ebenezer Bassett (1833-1908). Bassett served as U.S. Minister to Haiti from 1869-1877. Courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division.

The people of Santo Domingo had successfully fought for independence from Spain and established the Dominican Republic in 1844. The Spanish tried to reclaim its former colony between 1861-1865, but the Domincians’ resistance prevailed.

In 1869, President Grant put forth an annexation scheme. He proposed paying the Dominican Republic $1.5 million (about $25 million today) for the territory. Many in Congress opposed the idea, citing racist fears Dominicans would emigrate to the United States, plus political upheaval in neighboring Haiti.

Grant asked Douglass to travel as an emissary to the Dominican Republic to determine if the population was amenable to becoming part of the United States. Feeling optimistic that the United States’s values of democracy and equality were advancing and believing those ideals would benefit the Dominican people, Douglass agreed.

Despite Douglass’s efforts, the annexation treaty failed to pass in Congress. Further, in 1874 in response to a growing wariness of U.S. imperial ambitions, Haiti and the Dominican Republic signed a pact that neither nation would annex itself to a foreign power. The United States had to switch diplomatic tactics from annexation to alliance.

Frederick Douglass with The Commissioners to Santo Domingo
Frederick Douglass (seated, left) with The Commissioners to Santo Domingo, Brooklyn Navy Yard, January 1871. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program.

President Harrison Appoints Frederick Douglass to be U.S. Minister to Haiti

In the late 1870s, many former Confederate states began passing laws restricting Black voting rights and enforcing public segregation. These “Jim Crow” laws, named after a racist blackface minstrel show character, were not challenged by the federal government. The drive for civil rights waned under cries for reconciliation and unity from White political and community leaders.

As Black voter suppression rose in southern states, White Republican candidates recognized the strategic importance of the Black vote in states with high African American populations.

In 1888, the Republican candidate for president, Benjamin Harrison, sought Frederick Douglass’ endorsement to appeal to Black voters in New York. Douglass agreed. He thought the Republican party best represented the advancement of Black civil rights. Harrison won the election due to the Black northern vote.

A few months into his presidency, Harrison chose Douglass to represent the United States as U.S. Minister to Haiti. Harrison was impressed with Douglass’s persuasive communication skills. He hoped the famed Black American–who had been enslaved–could establish an empathetic relationship with Haiti that no White envoy had accomplished.

Douglass accepted the nomination in July 1889, writing to Secretary of State James Blaine that he was “touched by the confidence expressed in the possible influence [he] may exert,” and understood the importance of the mission to work towards the “peace, welfare, and prosperity” of the Haitian people.

Secretary of State James Blaine
James G. Blaine (1830-1893). Blaine served as U.S. Secretary of State from 1889-1892. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

After the failed Dominican Republic annexation fiasco, the United States moved away from a foreign policy of expanding territories. Instead, they explored agreements to lease ports in the Caribbean for a commercial and naval coaling station.

Haiti was strategically important because it had several ports able to accommodate large ships. Haiti also had a new president, Florvil Hyppolite. The United States hoped he would be favorable to commercial negotiations.

Haitian President Florvil Hyppolite
President of Haiti from (1889-1896) Florvil Hyppolite gave this portrait to Mr. Douglass at the World Columbian Exposition. The French inscription reads: “Sincere regards to F. Douglass from Hyppolite, President of Haiti.” Courtesy of Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Frederick Douglass in Haiti

Douglass departed for Haiti to cultivate good relations with Hyppolite’s government. But, he also immediately encountered racism that would dominate his diplomatic appointment.

He could not travel in first-class accommodations like his White colleagues. Still, he refused to travel in a class below his stature. As a result, the U.S. Navy ordered steamers to take Douglass from Washington, D.C. to Norfolk, VA, then to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. One White captain insulted Douglass, refusing to dine with him at the same table.

Upon arrival in Haiti, Douglass worked quickly to cultivate a friendship with President Hyppolite and his Foreign Minister, Anténor Firmin. He observed the Haitian people and the effectiveness of Hyppolite’s government, sending reports back to Secretary Blaine. Douglass had not yet mentioned the United States’s desire to lease one of Haiti’s ports–a request that would take some diplomatic maneuvering.

Anténor Firmin, Foreign Minister of Haiti
An accomplished anthropologist and writer, and one of the founders of the Pan-Africanism movement, Anténor Firmin (1850-1911), served in the Haitian government from 1889-1897. Public Domain.

But White businessmen were getting impatient. They had invested large sums of money in steamships and aggressively complained to Blaine and Harrison about Douglass. The businessmen wanted his assistance in communicating with the Haitians. Douglass flatly refused, stating he would not advocate for a one-sided deal in favor of the interests of private American business.

In response, and without Douglass’s knowledge, the administration sent a naval ship to inspect Môle-Saint-Nicolas, a northwestern port city. Douglass had to assure an alarmed Hyppolite and Firmin that the vessel was on a reconnaissance mission and meant no harm.

This action put Douglass in a difficult position. The trust he had gained from the Haitian government was at risk. Adding further insult, prominent newspapers, such as the widely read New York Herald, criticized Douglass, arguing that the U.S. envoy to Haiti needed to be a White man. The paper claimed that Haitians recognized “white superiority” and “viewed Douglass as one of their own.”

Secretary Blaine bowed to public pressure to quickly secure a lease for the Môle-Saint-Nicolas. Blaine sent Douglass a note in early 1891 instructing him to begin negotiations. Blaine also caved to the racist calls to demote Douglass. Instead, the U.S. government sent Admiral Bancroft Gherardi to be in charge, even though he had never held a diplomatic post.

Late 18th/early 19th-century nautical map of Haiti’s west coast. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Gherardi’s clumsy attempts at diplomacy failed spectacularly. Arriving at Port-au-Prince with three warships, Gherardi made a terrible first impression. Opposed to Douglass’s careful and measured approach to building a relationship of trust with the Haitians, Gherardi was aggressive. He insisted to Firmin that Haiti had promised the lease years before. He made veiled threats that the port would be taken by force.

Rear Admiral Bancroft Gherardi
Rear Admiral Bancroft Gherardi (1832-1903) had served in the Mexican War and Civil War. As commanders of the U.S. Atlantic fleet, Harrison and Blaine mistakenly believed a person of military rank would intimidate the Haitians. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Appalled, Douglass tried to do damage control. He reminded Gherardi that they needed consent. They could not behave the same way as imperialist European nations.

Gherardi then foolishly delivered a fatal blow to the negotiations, ordering four more warships to Haiti’s capital. This looked like an act of impending war to the Haitians, not diplomacy. Firmin politely and firmly informed Gherardi and Douglass that the Republic of Haiti was not interested in leasing a port to the Americans. Gherardi’s belligerence and miscalculations killed any chance of a deal.

Back in the United States, Douglass was blamed for failing to secure the lease. The press excoriated him. Using racist and ageist language, The New York Times referred to him as an “antique” who had bungled the affair. Douglass, the paper concluded, “was not likely to be more impressive to the ordinary Haitian than any other man with a black skin.” 

Douglass on the Racism of U.S. Domestic and Foreign Policy

President Harrison and Secretary Blaine remained silent as Douglass withstood these attacks. Douglass submitted his resignation in July 1891, returning to his home in Washington, D.C.

“One of the charitable apologies they are pleased to make for my failure is my color, and the implication is that a white man would have succeeded where I failed.”

– Frederick Douglass
panama hat frederick douglass
To shield himself from the warm weather in Haiti, Douglass wore this popular style “Panama hat.” Courtesy of Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
tambourine frederick douglass
Haitian culture, music, and traditions fascinated Douglass. He returned to the United States with this tambourine made of animal skin, wood, shell, and metal. Courtesy of Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

After his resignation from Haiti, Douglass defended himself against the allegations that he had chosen “his race” over his country.

On January 2, 1893, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to a crowd of 1,500 at the opening of the Haiti pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Douglass spoke eloquently and impassionately on behalf of Haiti’s people. He pointed to the racism plaguing U.S. domestic and foreign policy. He argued that the United States should view Haiti as a true example of the just cause of liberty.

“I can speak of her, not only words of admiration, but words of gratitude as well. She has grandly served the cause of universal human liberty. We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today; that the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago. When they struck for freedom, they builded better than they knew. Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone. They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.”

Haiti Pavilion at 1893 Columbian Fair
The Haiti Pavilion at Chicago’s World Columbian Fair was the center for Black American visitors and a site of protest against the exclusion of African Americans and the depiction of people of color as savages in the “colonial exhibits.” Courtesy of the Field Museum.

Douglass died of a massive heart attack in his home on February 20, 1895, after speaking on behalf of women’s rights at the National Council of Women.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the constitutional right of states to practice public segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. This racially discriminatory domestic policy dominated U.S. foreign affairs and the appointments of its envoys well into the 20th century. Despite this, African Americans continued to fight for civil rights at home and abroad, as Douglass had done in the 19th century.

Read more about African Americans and American diplomacy here.  

For further reading

Allison Blakely, Charles Stith, Joshua C. Yesnowitz, and Linda Heywood (eds.), African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy: From the Era of Frederick Douglass to the Age of Obama (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Peter James Hudson, “Frederick Douglass and American Empire in Haiti,” Boston Review (Dec. 2021).

Myra Himelhoch, “Frederick Douglass and Haiti’s Mole St. Nicolas,” The Journal of Negro History (Vol. 56, No. 3, July 1971).

Hon. Frederick Douglass, “Haiti and the United States. Inside History of the Negotiations for the Mole St. Nicolas, I,” North American Review, Vol. 153 No. 418 (Sept., 1893): 337-345.