Today in History

Today in History: January 2

Frederick Douglass

Street scene, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, W.I.
Street Scene,
Port-au-Prince, Haiti,
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy to-day… is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons, of Haiti ninety years ago…striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.

"Lecture on Haiti,"
address delivered by Frederick Douglass at the dedication of the Haitian pavilion at the World's Fair [Columbia Exposition],
January 2, 1893.
The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

On January 2, 1893, Frederick Douglass delivered an address at the dedication of the Haitian Pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition located in Jackson Park in Chicago. Douglass, a prominent writer, abolitionist, and publisher of the North Star, spent the years 1889 to 1891 in Haiti serving the Benjamin Harrison Administration as United States minister and general consul.

World's Fair, 1893
World's Fair,
Panoramic Photographs: Taking the Long View, 1851-1991

In his speech, Douglass discussed the character and history of Haiti, its evolution from slave colony to free and independent republic, and its relevance to African Americans. He expressed optimism about the country's future despite its numerous problems. Douglass used the occasion to speak of the commercial potential and historical importance of Haiti and to argue for improved relations between Haiti and the United States. "It is a land strikingly beautiful," Douglass explained, "diversified by mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers and plains, and contains in itself all the elements of great and enduring wealth."

With one out of every three men in Haiti engaged in military service, Douglass observed, the prosperity of the country depended largely upon the women:

They supply the towns and cities of Haiti with provisions, bringing them from distances of fifteen and twenty miles, and they often bear an additional burden in the shape of a baby…Thousands of these country women in their plain blue gowns and many colored turbans, every morning line the roads leading into Port au Prince.

"Lecture on Haiti,"
Frederick Douglass,
January 2, 1893.
The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

Douglass understood the complex history of Haiti and how its French colonial experience had laid the ground work for poverty, inequality, and military rule. "Economic Conditions in Haiti," an 1899 consular report issued by the U.S. Department of State, echoed Douglass's message about the economic potential of Haiti, "There is probably no other country in the world where capital is so greatly needed as in Haiti, or where it ought to yield greater results, all things considered."

From the Halls of Montezuma

Group of sixty to seventy Marines at attention, Nicaragua
Group of Sixty to Seventy Marines at Attention,
between 1927-1929.
Prints and Photographs Online Catalog
(negative of lantern slide)

On January 2, 1933, the 5th Marine Regiment, United States Marines Corps, withdrew from Nicaragua. It trained and left behind a powerful National Guard in a country beset by struggle between liberal and conservative forces centered respectively in the cities of León and Granada.

Founded by the Spanish in the early 1550s, the two cities became competing poles of power. Their militant rivalry often left Nicaragua subject to outside interests even after the country gained independence from Spain in the early 1800s.

British and U.S. interests in Nicaragua grew during the mid-1800s because of its strategic importance as a transit route across the Central American isthmus. With the advent of the California gold rush, Nicaragua proved a popular interoceanic shortcut. Cornelius Vanderbilt's steamship company transported supplies and prospectors from the Atlantic, along Nicaragua's San Juan River, then across Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific.

John M. Letts wrote of his 1849 travels through Nicaragua:

…arrived at Lake Leon. The appearance of this lake as it opened to our view was peculiarly striking. It is shut in by lofty mountains, which tower up in innumerable peaks of volcanic origin…the smoke curls gracefully out, commingling with the clouds…
We passed along down to Mat[e]ares, a small town situated on an eminence overlooking the lake, and inhabited by descendants of the African race. We breakfasted on chickens, frijoles, tortillos[sic], eggs…and after an hour's detention started for Managua. We passed through a delightful region of country, the soil, in many places, highly cultivated, bearing the impress of thrift and industry, I had not before seen in the country. Fruits grow in abundance, cattle had an unlimited range, and were the finest I ever saw; the country was broken, the mountains towering up to the clouds, and some covered with perpetual snow; but at their base were vales watered by mountain rivulets, and shaded by groves of orange and fig, seeming a retreat fit for the angels.

John M. Letts,
California Illustrated; Including a Description of the Panama and Nicaragua Routes,
pages 153-154.
"California As I Saw It": First Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900

John Hill Wheeler United States Minister to Nicaragua
John Hill Wheeler,
United States Minister to Nicaragua,
studio of Mathew Brady, photographer,
between 1844 and 1860.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1862

In 1855, at the invitation of Nicaraguan liberals, a Tennessee filibusterer named William Walker invaded Nicaragua with a small armed force and the hope of extending the southern U.S. slave culture overseas. He enjoyed initial success, however, when he presumed to establish himself as president of Nicaragua, Walker was routed by the joint efforts of Nicaragua's opposing political factions, Vanderbilt's steamship company, the British government, and other Central American republics. Walker narrowly escaped their capture only to surrender himself to the U.S. Navy in 1857.

In 1897, President William McKinley appointed the Nicaragua Canal [first Walker] Commission to reexamine the logistics of a canal route through the Isthmus of Nicaragua. The commission estimated the cost of construction at $118,113,790 not including interest and administration. However, when Nicaragua's President Zelaya invited both Germany and Japan to compete with the United States for construction rights, the U.S. built through Panama instead.

Beginning in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt framed the Big Stick policy to advance U. S. interests and to restrict European influence in the Americas. In 1909 this corollary to the Monroe Doctrine affected Nicaragua. Responding to the execution of two of its citizens, the U.S. landed four-hundred marines on Nicaragua's shore. In a 1912 effort to retain power, conservative forces requested aid and the U.S. landed 2,700 marines. Thereafter, the U.S. maintained a presence in Nicaragua almost continually until 1933.