Between 1869 and 1871 Ulysses S. Grant openly advocated the annexation of the Dominican Republic by the United States. He did not share all of his reasons with the American people. Yes, Grant believed in several traditional reasons for American imperialism, including access to raw materials and the presence of a possible US naval base and coaling station in Samana Bay. However, he kept to private conversation another reason for his interest in acquiring the Caribbean republic: that of offering African Americans economic leverage as they fended off the efforts of white southerners to deny them equal rights. Those efforts included terrorism, but there were other ways in which a good number of white southerners resisted black freedom (this is not to say that there wasn’t racism among northern whites, too, but that matter did not figure into this particular discussion).
Grant’s reasoning went as follows: many southern whites continued to resist black freedom and black equality, but realized that the South’s properity rested upon the utilization of black labor. The failure of confiscation and redistribution to take hold during the Johnson administration (in large part because of Johnson’s active opposition) meant that blacks encountered significant obstacles in finding opportunities to seek land ownership and a significant degree of economic independence. Lacking economic leverage, blacks found it more difficult to counter white resistance to their quest for equal rights and political participation.
By acquiring the Dominican Republic, Grant reasoned, the United States could offer blacks a different sort of economic leverage. They could move to the Dominican Republic while remaining United States citizens (this is a critical distinction between Lincoln’s colonization plans and Grant’s desire for annexation). This way they could escape white repression and violence. Should southern whites understand that their hostile actions against blacks might well deprive the South of a labor force, Grant reasoned, they might change their behavior and make other concessions in an effort to persuade blacks to remain.
As we all know, annexation failed, although the debate over it revealed fissures in Republican ranks; the ensuing intraparty feud helps explain the rise of the Liberal Republican movement and sparked Grant to develop some political skill in mobilizing congressional support for administration initiatives (this was especially evident in the Senate). For the moment, however, let’s set that aside and ask some simple questions. Was this idea feasible? Was it wise? Had annexation happened, how would thinks turned out differently during Reconstruction, if at all? What does the proposal as well as its failure (which had much to do with race and racial attitudes) tell us about Reconstruction America?