Franklin Roosevelt: A Candidate of Questionable Constitution

“The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution, myself, and if I do say it, I think it’s a pretty good Constitution.” So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reporters in 1920. As he campaigned for vice president, Roosevelt hoped to promote his talents as a state-builder. His boasting, however, would have repercussions that would threaten Roosevelt’s presidential aspirations more than a decade later and raise enduring questions about the tension between economic populism and racial justice.

Like all Americans in the throes of the Great Depression, African-American voters in 1932 were receptive to economic populism. Desperate for emergency relief and good jobs, voters hoped that the country’s leaders could jumpstart the nation’s stalled economy.

In the context of Jim Crow America, many black voters also sought a president that would support racial equality and black self-determination. Remarkably, a candidate’s position on Haiti emerged as a test of that support.

A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to move into Haiti. Haitians had ousted their seventh president in seven years, and Wilson feared that Haiti’s apparent instability would invite European powers, most notably Germany, to establish a foothold in the Americas and threaten U.S. control of the Panama Canal. Wilson was also a staunch segregationist and vocal critic of Reconstruction who exhibited little faith in black people to govern the affairs of state in the U.S. or abroad. Under the authority of the White House, America’s military brass, civilian staffers, and foreign investors effectively took control of Haiti’s financial, political, and physical infrastructure.

Roosevelt worked as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson. He spent no more than a week in Haiti during the occupation. Still, Roosevelt observed and helped enable the State Department to reinstate corveé, a form of forced labor widely practiced in the French colonies and later employed in the American South following natural disasters in Florida and the Mississippi Delta. Under corveé, Haitian citizens worked on road and other modernization projects, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Oftentimes, overseers bound workers together with rope or chains and meted out brutal physical punishments with the help of the Gendarmerie, a 3000-person Haitian police force that answered to the U.S. Secretary of State.

In 1917, the Wilson administration assigned Roosevelt to write a new Haitian constitution. The document instituted martial law, required U.S. approval of all Haitian legislation, and erased longtime prohibitions against foreign investors buying land in Haiti. Under the authority of what many Haitians called the “Roosevelt Constitution,” white-owned firms, many from the United States, established sugarcane, cacao, banana, cotton, and tobacco plantations. Coupled with the return of corveé, these plantations furthered the notion among many Haitian and American observers that the U.S. government presided over a labor regime that too closely resembled slavery.

All of this had the potential to become a problem for Roosevelt in the 1932 campaign.

Few pressed Roosevelt on his glib reference to writing Haiti’s constitution during the 1920 election cycle. By the early 1930s, however, African-American political power had grown substantially, particularly in cities. In this shifting political landscape, the black vote had the potential to tip close elections.

Recognizing this, GOP loyalists distributed leaflets to remind black voters of what Roosevelt meant for black self-determination.

Entitled “The Story of Roosevelt and Garner as it Affects the Negro,” this primary source from the 1932 presidential election lays out a string of racist policies implemented by the Democratic Party. Republican National Committee members claimed: “Roosevelt pulled the strings during the war period and the U.S. Marines danced like puppets on a stage.” They detailed, further, the transfer of Haitian capital to New York banks and pointed to the thousands killed under corveé. The RNC maintained that, “the Democratic Party…is constitutionally opposed to freedom of any colored people, in Alabama or in Haiti.” The leaflet called the occupation of Haiti “one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of American imperialism.”

In 1932, the majority of African-American voters were Republicans. Few, however, were party loyalists prepared to blindly parrot the GOP party line. Many black observers demanded an explanation from Roosevelt about both Haiti and his stance on black self-determination more broadly. Members of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the press, and a host of other civic groups pushed FDR to clarify his role in the U.S. occupation. The NAACP demanded in a January 1932 letter that Roosevelt explain his position. “It is extremely important to us to feel sure that the next man in the White House will not only not do anything to impede the present program of [U.S.] evacuation [from Haiti] but will hasten it.” “What we desire from you,” the letter continued, “is an unqualified and frank statement of your position [on Haiti] and what may be expected from you should you be elected President of the United States.” 1

Roosevelt never responded to the queries. Those Democratic Party operatives who did argued that electing Roosevelt over Hoover was far more important than FDR’s questionable attitude toward black self-government. Donald Richberg, a manager of FDR’s campaign in Chicago, wrote: “If any voter is going to choose between Hoover and Roosevelt on the basis of their respective views concerning Haiti, such a voter is beyond the reach of any process of reasoning which I understand.”2 As he said even more plainly in subsequent correspondence to NAACP Secretary Walter White, “No intelligent voter would choose between Hoover and Roosevelt because of the views of one or the other concerning Haiti.” 3

It’s hard to know just how well the GOP’s strategy worked in 1932. Hoover’s political missteps and the faltering U.S. economy brought Roosevelt 60 percent of the popular vote and almost 90 percent of electoral votes. Still, less than 25 percent of African-American voters supported Roosevelt. Haiti was not the only reason, to be sure. However, it is clear that the Roosevelt campaign greatly underestimated African Americans’ interest in Haitian affairs. At the time of Roosevelt’s initial remarks in 1920, James Weldon Johnson wrote a four-part piece for The Nation magazine detailing the harsh conditions in the occupied territory (though never criticizing Roosevelt directly). That same year, Eugene O’Neil’s play, The Emperor Jones, later starring Paul Robeson, offered Americans the first notable artistic rendering of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. African-American visual artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas, followed up on these efforts in the late 1920s and early 1930s, offering dramatic renditions of Haitian everyday life and of the heroism shown during the establishment of Haitian independence in 1804. Not unlike racist whites, it seemed, many African Americans interpreted the situation in Haiti as a referendum on black political ability writ large and the value of black life in the eyes of American politicians in particular.

It seems unlikely that today’s GOP would draw attention to anti-black violence to court black votes. As with the Black Lives Matters movement, however, the New Deal era saw pressure from organizers and activists influence policy even when it didn’t determine elections. After receiving dismal black support in 1932, the Roosevelt administration moved to make up ground among black voters, first through the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt and her black allies, and then through appointing a number of black government officials. The Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and National Youth Administration had also provided hundreds of thousands of African Americans with much-needed employment. Such support for African Americans was unprecedented, especially under Jim Crow. In 1934, Roosevelt took yet another step away from his historical associations with Woodrow Wilson, becoming the first U.S. President to visit Haiti. There, on July 6, he signed the agreement that authorized the withdrawal of American marines from the independent republic of Haiti.

Two years later, during Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection bid, targeted canvassing among black voters and the creation of a new “Good Neighbor” approach to Haiti and the wider Americas helped FDR garner over 70 percent of the black vote.

1.Ernest Gruening to President Franklin Roosevelt, Jan, 7, 1932, NAACP on Haiti, folder 001422-010-0830, January 1, 1932-January 31, 1932, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11, Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series B.

2. Donald Richberg (Democratic Party Operative) to Walter White, Oct. 3, 1932, NAACP on Haiti, folder 001422-011-0202, Sept 1, 1932-Oct 31, 1932, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11, Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series B.

3. Donald Richberg (Democratic Party Operative) to Walter White, Oct. 7, 1932, NAACP on Haiti, folder 001422-011-0202, Sept 1, 1932-Oct 31, 1932, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11, Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series B.