The first American diplomat to defy his boss—the secretary of state—to give sanctuary to a dissident, and who endured the siege of his home as thanks for championing human rights, was born to care about freedom intensely: he was America’s first African-American ambassador, too.
Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett had not been a slave. He never fought in the Civil War. He was bookish not macho. But he was tough.
The defining episode of his diplomatic career occurred in 1875 as he represented the United States to Haiti (the term ambassador came into use in 1893). Haiti, the first black republic and the Americas’ second free republic, was in chaos. While assuring Bassett he was a “lover of justice,” the country’s new leader Michel Domingue was hunting down opponents.
Bassett was already enduring a hard spring. During one crackdown, he saw troops murder a boy who had run errands for the neighboring British legation. State Department investigators were grilling him because a former aide he had fired for dereliction of duty was pinning his failures on Bassett. And although not yet 42, Bassett suffered from gallbladder problems and nerve pain misfiring along his spinal cord.
His real troubles began however, with a terrifying 3 a.m. knock on the door. After fighting off government hit squads for 36 hours, General Pierre Boisrond Canal and two young relatives were desperate. “We are fleeing for our lives before merciless pursuers acting outside the law,” Canal declared. “We seek the protection of your flag.”
Embassies have long been independent legal islands within proud nations. Hindu, Greek, and Roman tales denigrate brutes who violated this principle. Genghis Khan took particular offense if foreigners disrespected his emissaries. The Congress of Vienna legalized diplomatic immunity in 1815, consecrating this building block of international order. Since the Palestinian Black September terrorist group raided the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum in 1973 and Iranian Islamists took American diplomats hostage in Tehran six years later, it’s hard to appreciate just how sacred this notion once was.
Bassett had no one to consult, no time to contemplate. His wife and five children were sleeping inside. Troops were circling the building. And Bassett knew his boss, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, considered giving asylum “contrary to all sound policy.”
Still, Ebenezer Bassett didn’t dither and allowed the asylum-seekers in. “It may be that the instinct for humanity got the better of me,” he reported to a steamed Fish. The secretary of state sneered: “It is regretted that you deemed yourself justified by an impulse of humanity to grant such an asylum…” In fact, Bassett had done this before. Usually, he delayed the report. With mail so slow, most situations ended before Fish’s disapproval reached Port-au-Prince.
But this move was different—higher profile, more dangerous. Bassett wavered as the soldiers banged metal drums day and night to rattle everyone’s nerves. “I must confess, that the presence of a thousand armed men around my country residence… with discontent stamped on their faces and Henry rifles in their hands does not quite give the best possible ground to my hope,” he told his unsupportive boss.
But Bassett’s courage should not be surprising—his life had been primed for that moment. Born in Derby, Connecticut, in 1833, he was the grandson of a slave whose service in the American Revolution secured the family’s freedom. In 1853, he became the first black student to attend Connecticut’s Normal School. Despite suffering discrimination, he appreciated his advantages as an educated free black person in the North. “My success in life,” he later recalled, “I owe greatly to that American sense of fairness which was tendered me in old Derby, and which exacts that every man whether white or black, shall have a fair chance to run his race in life and make the most of himself.”
During the Civil War, living in Philadelphia, administering the Institute for Colored Youth, Bassett urged black Americans to seize the moment, fighting honorably, learning rigorously, living freely. “This is our golden moment,” he proclaimed at a rally in 1863 recruiting black troops. “A new era is open for us… let us rather die as freedmen than live to be slaves. What is life without liberty.”
In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant, seeking powerful living symbols, appointed Bassett Minister Resident to Haiti. “Your appointment is a grand achievement for yourself and for our whole people,” his friend Frederick Douglass wrote—putting the pressure on. “As you shall acquit yourself in it—wisely or otherwise, we shall be affected favorably or unfavorably.”
Bassett wrote to Douglass—who was first offered the job, then later envied Bassett’s $7500 annual salary—that his duties were “not so onerous as delicate. Common sense and some little knowledge of law… will carry me through.”
Bassett needed guts too. The Canal controversy was just the most dramatic confrontation in a long and chaotic posting. Violent coups, terrifying hurricanes, and State Department sniping buffeted Bassett for nine years.
Finally, on Oct. 5, 1875, after five months, the Haitian government blinked. General Canal sailed to exile in Jamaica. He—and Bassett—were now popular heroes.
Diplomats live through adventures when abroad and often suffer comedowns when they come home. Bassett later served as Haiti’s consul general in New York for nine years. He returned to Haiti for two years—this time in the frustrating role of Frederick Douglass’ secretary. He continued teaching and lecturing until his death in 1893. Still, he never recaptured the grandeur of his Haitian adventure.
Human-rights superheroes often share one of three different origin stories. Some, like Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan, are born oppressed and Moses-like fight for their own freedom. Others—like Raoul Wallenberg, the aristocratic Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi massacres—defend their fellow humans on principle. And some, like Ebenezer Bassett, learn from their own suffering to help others.
Regardless, all, like Bassett, constantly ask “What is life without liberty?” They understand that human rights, like the universe, must constantly expand. Anytime anyone tries polluting the atmosphere with “human rights for me yet not thee,” the poison of hypocrisy spreads and the cause is diminished.
Bassett didn’t let niceties or hierarchies or fear deter him from defending liberty. And he proved that a good ambassador understands that compromise is only one arrow in the diplomatic quiver. Sometimes American ambassadors must stand for principle to represent the United States faithfully, accurately, and honorably.
For Further Reading
Christopher Teal, Hero of Hispaniola: America’s First Black Diplomat, Ebenezer D. Bassett, 2008.
John H. Jordan, Black Americans 17th Century to 21st Century, 2013.
Elizabeth J. Norman, African American Connecticut Explored, 2016.