Grant and Dominican Annexation

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?

28 thoughts on “Grant and Dominican Annexation

  1. wgdavis April 21, 2013 / 11:11 pm

    Well, it seems to have been a win-win situation all around. Either way it turned out, either the Blacks stay in the south and the southern economy improves and black civil rights improve, or the Blacks move to the DR and escape the persecution of the south. But there are other ifs involved. How would the Dominican people have reacted to the annexation [I know Baez wanted Annexation, but that doesn’t mean the people did], then the mass immigration of freedmen to the new US territory? Finally, how the the immigrant blacks in the DR make their livelihood?

    Politics being what it is, why then did this plan full of advantages fail?

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 21, 2013 / 11:59 pm

      To answer your questions in order:

      Although a plebiscite overwhelming supported annexation, there was probably more opposition to annexation than that, but it’s debatable as to how much there was or what the impact would have been. As the migration issue was not discussed in public, we can only speculate as to what the reaction would have been … and we can only speculate as to what American blacks would have done. I assume that once more the major occupation would have been the cultivation of agricultural goods for market.

      Annexation failed for several reasons. Some people raised reasonable questions about the negotiations, especially given the participation of Orville Babcock in them. Babcock would later be at the center of the Whiskey Ring debacle, but this is when people began wondering about him. Democrats united behind a notion of no expansion if it meant more black people, and that was that (in marked contrast to the “let’s expand to expand slavery” approach of decades before). Republicans divided over the issue, with some enthusiastic endorsers, some lukewarm endorsers who saw it as supporting Grant (and getting something for that support), Charles Sumner (who opposed annexation on principle, and feared for the independence of Haiti), Carl Schurz (who argued that democracy was in trouble in tropical areas and with people with darker skins), and some other Republicans who had various reservations about the whole project. Since Grant never laid out in public the reasoning he sometimes offered in private, the idea was not tested on the merits (or lack thereof) of this particular argument.

      • wgdavis April 22, 2013 / 6:03 pm

        That’s a shame that it never went public.

        Thank you for the answers, They were very informative, as usual.

        Were you, by any chance, the top political reporter in the 1870s in a prior life?

      • 007 October 18, 2014 / 11:01 am

        Brazil annexed cuba

  2. Pat Young April 22, 2013 / 5:44 am

    Given the US history with Latin regions under its control in the 19th and early 20th Centuries like California, New Mexico, Texas, and Puerto Rico it is difficult to see how this would have worked out well for the Dominicans, at least of those alive at the time.

    • jondaly70 April 9, 2016 / 8:54 am

      It is impossible to believe that Dominicans ended up better off on their own. I mean, really.

      The history of Latins in the US confirms that they are ALWAYS better off in the United States than their home countries. Puerto Ricans are poor but much richer than other Caribbean people. Mexicans have been fleeing to places like California, New Mexico, and Texas, en masse, ever since the US gained control of those territories.

      For Dominicans, the failure of annexation can only be described as The Lost Opportunity.

  3. Ned April 22, 2013 / 9:56 am

    I think it was feasible — the US has annexed plenty of territory.
    I also think it was wise, especially if statehood was realistic.
    But the politics and personalities of the time meant it was doomed.

  4. James F. Epperson April 22, 2013 / 10:49 am

    It might have led to a better life for the people on the island, who have suffered under very poor regimes. OTOH, it might have led to a state seen as a “second class state” by many.

  5. James F. Epperson April 22, 2013 / 12:49 pm

    Brooks, a question: Was the annexation idea for the entire island? Were there two nations there at the time, or just one? I’ve never been clear on these points.

  6. James F. Epperson April 22, 2013 / 5:23 pm

    So was the proposal to annex the entire island, or just the Dominican side?

  7. John Randolph April 22, 2013 / 6:19 pm

    What did the Dominicans expect to get out of the deal? Having achieved independence from Haiti in 1844, they suffered periodic attacks and invasions from that country over a period of many years. Thus, I have always assumed that the Dominican leadership saw American annexation as a means to ensure security and stability for themselves and their people. Did they have other objectives that conflicted with American interests? If I am recalling history correctly, wasn’t one of the reasons why Charles Sumner denounced the treaty was his belief that it would obligate the United States to spend treasure and prestige to defend a population that was politically unstable and in doing so would also potentially undermine the independence of Haiti? Notwithstanding the Monroe Doctrine, I also seem to remember that part of Sumner’s opposition to annexation was that it would be a catalyst for American empire building in the Caribbean (although it seems this issue was ultimately determined by the outcome of the Spanish-American War three decades later).

  8. Steve Witmer April 22, 2013 / 9:58 pm

    I’m not sure it would have had a huge impact with regard to better treatment for the black population. It would require first that the broader black population be aware of the possibility of moving to the island, and second that they have the resources to actually make the move (and of course overcome the inertia of just staying put). Some small number would have immigrated, but I don’t know that enough would do so to have a real impact.

  9. rcocean April 22, 2013 / 11:43 pm

    “Given the US history with Latin regions under its control in the 19th and early 20th Centuries like California, New Mexico, Texas, and Puerto Rico”

    None of these place are “Latin” except Puerto Rico. where do you live New Zealand?

    • Al Mackey April 23, 2013 / 8:32 am

      Latin: denoting or pertaining to those peoples, as the Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., using languages derived from Latin, especially the peoples of Central and South America: a meeting of the Latin republics.

      “Latin” can be a synonym for “Hispanic” when referring to people using the Spanish language. Are you saying California, New Mexico, and Texas were not originally Hispanic?

      • rcocean April 23, 2013 / 5:58 pm

        No one considers Brazil, “American” despite being in “South America”. But then when it comes to language most liberals are like humpty-dumpty:

        I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
        Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
        “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
        “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

        • Patrick Young April 23, 2013 / 8:48 pm

          Rc, you might want to speak to an actual Brazilian…

    • Patrick Young April 23, 2013 / 8:36 pm

      I appreciate your abusive tone. At the time they were taken over by Anglos, California, Texas, and New Mexico were part of Mexico. I live in New York where I was taught that in 5th grade. The nuns at St. Brigid’s referred to Mexico as part of Latin America back then, but perhaps you think they were wrong. Never been to New Zealand, but I’d love to meet a Hobbit. I don’t think they are Latin.

  10. rcocean April 22, 2013 / 11:57 pm

    Grant’s pushing this scheme just shows his lack of political/economic common sense. Did he ever visit DR? Did he know much about it? The DR is half the size of Kentucky. Its no more fertile than any other Southern state. Why would blacks move to DR to escape Southern “Repression” when they could move North, West (still being settled), or to Texas or Oklahoma (full of empty land in 1870)? In any case, there’s no reason to believe the DR would have welcomed large number of English speaking blacks to their new “State”. Did Grant think the DR’s were black or lacking in racial prejudice? IRC, Grant also had the wrong-headed impression that DR was full of mineral wealth. Of course, any annexation would involved us in their border dispute with Haiti, and what if Haiti had decided it too wanted to be a US State?

    I don’t see any of this would’ve been good for the average 19th Century American, or anyone else. I’m surprised even 50 percent of the Senate voted for it.

  11. Charles Lovejoy April 23, 2013 / 7:57 am

    I think Grant’s heart was in the right place, I only wished it happened. .The only thing I would be concerned about is, if the newly freed slaves would have received the benefits they should have. Being some what cynical of not only US imperialism but imperialism as a whole, I would have feared that a group of wealthy investors would have taken a self-interest advantage of the annex,and in the end the freed slaves would have came out on the loosing end. In most cases imperialism is of most benefit to the imperialist and the wealthy.

  12. Bob Pollock April 23, 2013 / 8:52 am

    Americans had contemplated annexing Santo Domingo for years. Less than three months before Grant’s inauguration a bill to annex SD had been defeated in the House of Representatives. Several close friends of the new President asked him to consider the issue for various reasons. Two friends, the acting Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Horace Porter, and Admiral Daniel Ammen, wanted a Caribbean naval base. Others wanted annexation for the more unsavory purpose of personal profit. These were speculators who had bought land on the island and believed annexation would drive the value of their holdings upward.

    The annexation of SD became a pet project of President Grant (and according to Frank Scaturro, the only one of Grant’s major policy proposals to be defeated). A memorandum written by Grant explained his reasoning in favor of annexation. Grant believed the island to be of “unequaled fertility,” where 1500 lbs. of coffee could be grown per acre. “Sugar cane requiring re-setting only once in twenty years, and producing, [to the acre] with much less labor nearly double [that]of the best sugar lands of La. to the acre.” Furthermore, Grant realized with great foresight that “Santo Domingo is the gate to the Carib[b]ean Sea, and in direct line to the Isthmus of Darien, destined at no distant day to be the line of transit of half the commerce of the world.” Grant was also concerned with the strategic position of the U.S. in regard to the United Kingdom, which he pointed out, had territorial control over a “cordon of islands” that nearly surrounded the Caribbean. Grant asserted that, “in case of war between England and the United States, New York and New Orleans would be as much severed as would be New York and Calais, France.”

    Grant believed the annexation of SD made sense for everyone concerned. The Dominicans would receive all the benefits of American citizenship, military protection, and commercial and capital assistance. The United States would gain a strategic base in the Caribbean and much cheaper coffee and sugar, two staples of the American diet. Most important, though was the idea of improving the plight of black Americans. Santo Domingo would become their “safety valve” and a solid political base in Congress. If aiding African-Americans was not enough, Grant argued that slavery would be extinguished throughout the world. He claimed that American imports from such places as Cuba and Brazil where slave labor still toiled, could be eliminated, striking a severe blow against “that hated system of enforced labor.”

  13. TFSmith April 23, 2013 / 10:13 pm

    There may have been more to it than that; remember that the Dominican Republic has the distinction of being the only American republic that was actually came back under the control of the former imperial power after the revolutionary era…that’s unique.

    Given the realities of the Spanish military actions against Mexico, the DR, Peru, and Chile in the 1860s, and the relative “success” of the Spanish intervention in the DR, I could see Grant pursuing this from a simple geopolitical point of view.

    • John Randolph April 23, 2013 / 10:43 pm

      Good point. Certainly the interests and imperial ambitions of Spain, France and Britain in the region had to be significant factors for both Grant and the Dominicans.

  14. Nick Guyatt April 25, 2013 / 3:48 am

    Hi everyone — I’m a long-time admirer of Brooks’s work, and was pointed to this blog by a friend of mine who knew I’d written about this topic. If anyone has access to the Journal of American History, I wrote a longish essay about the abortive annexation of the Dominican Republic in the March 2011 issue.

    As Brooks and others have mentioned, the annexation debate was fascinating for all sorts of reasons. I won’t bore you with a summary of my article, but the hook for me was the split in the abolitionist movement between those who believed that annexing Santo Domingo was a terrible idea (Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison) and those who thought that it might be, in the words of Henry Blackwell, “the key to southern Reconstruction.” (Frederick Douglass was among their number; I also talked a lot in the article about Samuel Gridley Howe, the Boston reformer, who was a central figure in the annexation debate.)

    One of the reasons why abolitionists divided on the issue was that a State of Dominica could plausibly be presented both as a ringing commitment to black citizenship, and as a bleak acceptance of the need for racial segregation on a massive scale. Douglass, an inveterate opponent of the many colonization schemes of the previous decades, genuinely believed that an American Dominica would be a triumph for the principle of race-blind citizenship. Grant flirted with this idea, though he simultaneously believed that Santo Domingo could become a kind of lifeboat for black Americans — perhaps even for _all_ black Americans — if Reconstruction failed to guarantee security and prosperity for southern blacks. The odd thing about Grant was that his thoughts kept returning to the Dominican saga even many years after his plan was effectively defeated in 1871, and that his embrace of the “lifeboat” theory became only stronger as time went by.

    Maybe the best way to understand the Dominican annexation episode is to put it in the context of literally dozens of plans for black resettlement and colonization during the 1860s. Some of these plans were nakedly racist in their motivation; most proponents, though, saw no tension between their liberal principles and their schemes for racial segregation. Without applying the morals of our particular moment to the 1860s, or understating the massive political and social challenges of the Reconstruction era, I think that the compatibility of liberal ideas and segregationist thinking is quite jarring.

    There are a ton of other issues raised above – on the Dominican angle, and on the international context — but I’ll leave it there for now. If you haven’t already come across them, I’d also recommend the chapter on the annexation crisis in Allison Sneider’s terrific book _Suffragists in an Imperial Age_; and, although I don’t agree with the thesis, Eric Love’s crisp and concise analysis in his book _Race Over Empire_. For those who are geeky enough to have access to Ph.D. databases, there’s also a recent Stanford Ph.D. by Chris Wilkins that gives a very nicely detailed overview of the controversy.

    • J June 1, 2014 / 12:20 am

      I was able to get a hold of your article through my university library’s online data base. If anyone wants to read it and doesn’t have access to to the Journal of American History, i suggest checking out your university library or local library. It was a good read.

  15. Noma April 26, 2013 / 2:38 pm

    I’m wondering what connection — if any — Grant’s Dominican Republic idea might have had with the failed Île à Vache experiment in Haiti, described in Phillip Magness’s recent Opinionator column in the NYT:

    “It was under these circumstances that the Ocean Ranger set sail, and while its associated policy of black colonization provided a source of controversy and distrust within the African-American community, the arrival of the ship was evidently seen by many freedmen as a means to escape poor conditions and an uncertain future in the United States. Throngs of contrabands reportedly amassed in the streets around the fort and on the wharf of nearby Hampton, Va., in hopes of securing passage. The vessel departed on the morning of April 14 to celebratory cheers, with one witness reporting that “seldom has a happier company left our shores.”

    “The genesis of the Ocean Ranger’s voyage was inextricably linked to the person of Bernard Kock, a cotton exporter who some months prior had secured a lease to the Île à Vache, a small, uninhabited island off the southern coast of Haiti. Bearing papers from the Haitian president, Fabre Geffrard, Kock approached the United States government with a scheme to colonize some 5,000 freed slaves on the island and employ them in agricultural production. ”

    Any comments on that?

  16. Nick Guyatt April 28, 2013 / 6:24 am

    Noma, I’d say that the two examples demonstrate the variety of thinking about black belonging in the 1860s. Historians haven’t paid much attention to Île à Vache, partly because it’s seen as an anachronism. (‘A colonization project launched after the Emancipation Proclamation? Impossible!’) Phil Magness and the Oxford historian Seb Page have written a good deal about other colonization initiatives explored by the Lincoln administration in 1863 and 1864, and I’d point you to their recent book Emancipation After Colonization for more on that topic. But the Santo Domingo tilt in 1869-71 can’t be read simply as a colonization drive, not least because Frederick Douglass and a number of prominent abolitionists promoted annexation from an integrationist standpoint. (Douglass believed passionately that annexation would bring a non-white population into the Union, and was therefore the mirror opposite of a colonization scheme.)

    The fact that Grant was able to see Santo Domingo as a potential refuge for southern blacks — and that this view of SD became more fixed in his thinking as he looked back on the annexation debate in his later years — suggests that emancipation didn’t settle the question of permanent black residency within the United States; at least, not for every white thinker or leader who’d been vehemently opposed to slavery. Perhaps it’s fairest to say that both Lincoln and Grant were drawn at various points in their public lives to the conclusion that racial separation was a more viable option than integration. In fairness to them, I think that this kind of thinking was hard to avoid since so many other liberal whites in the 19th century had concluded that colonization could make blacks and whites ‘separate but equal’.

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