Reference Entry

Bassett, Ebenezer D.

David M. Carletta

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Bassett, Ebenezer D.

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Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the son of Tobias Bassett, a mulatto, and Susan Bassett of the Shagticoke branch of the Pequot tribe. He graduated with honors from the Connecticut State Normal School in 1853. Two years later he married Eliza Park, with whom he had three sons and two daughters. While he was the principal of a high school in New Haven, Connecticut, Bassett studied for a short time at Yale College. From 1857 to 1869 he was the principal of the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker school in Philadelphia that prepared students to become educators. He received high praise from the city's mayor for his work at the institute. During the Civil War, Bassett wrote many appeals to young black men to enlist in the Union Army. Basset left the Institute for Colored Youth after the Civil War to become the first African American to officially represent the U.S. government abroad. When the Republican President Ulysses S. Grant took office in 1869, African Americans earnestly sought presidential appointments. Letters urging Bassett's selection came from many prominent black and white citizens, including twelve of his Yale professors. Bassett was appointed by Grant as the first African American minister resident and consul general to Haiti and chargé d'affaires to the Dominican Republic. The position in Haiti was especially significant, because people of African descent throughout the world held a particular admiration for Haiti, where a rebellion begun by Toussaint Louverture had succeeded in throwing off both slavery and colonialism in 1804. After Bassett's appointment was confirmed, Frederick Douglass sent him friendly congratulations. Bassett arrived in Haiti during the presidency of Sylvain Salnave, who was soon overthrown and executed. During Bassett's eight-year diplomatic duty, Haiti had four different presidents and was wracked with political instability. Bassett had to deal frequently with Haitians seeking political asylum in the American minister's house, which had been the summer palace of Faustin-Élie Soulouque, the former emperor of Haiti. As damage to property often accompanied political skirmishes, Bassett also had to manage the recurring property claims by U.S. citizens against the Haitian government. As an American minister to the island of Hispaniola, Bassett resided in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. During this time the Grant administration tried unsuccessfully to annex the neighboring Dominican Republic. In 1871 the U.S. government sent Douglass on his first diplomatic assignment. He served as secretary of the presidential commission dispatched to the Dominican Republic to explore the possibility of annexation, or at least acquisition of a naval base. Opposition in the U.S. Congress thwarted the project. Bassett reported back to his superior, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, that Grant's overtures in the Dominican Republic escalated anti-American sentiment in Haiti. In his Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass, Douglass writes that Fish spoke highly of America's first African American diplomat. Yet Fish thought the Haitians unjustified in their suspicions of the extension of American power and influence in the Caribbean, because the United States was no longer a slaveholding nation. The United States had made African Americans citizens and had even sent the African American Bassett abroad to represent the new postbellum American society. Following custom, Bassett resigned and returned to the United States after a new U.S. president took office. From 1879 to 1888 he worked as the Haitian consul general in New York City. When Douglass was appointed minister resident and consul general to Haiti and chargé d'affaires to the Dominican Republic in 1889, Bassett offered to serve as secretary to his old friend. In a lowly position with a much-reduced salary, Basset returned to Port-au-Prince. His ability to speak both French and Haitian Creole served him well as Douglass's interpreter during the Môle Saint-Nicolas negotiations, whereby the United States sought unsuccessfully to obtain a naval base in Haiti. In 1891 Douglass resigned amid accusations that he was too enamored of the existence of a black republic to negotiate sternly with Haitians who carefully guarded their nation's autonomy. Such claims by U.S. merchants and overseas expansionists were championed in the white American press. Unemployed after Douglass's resignation, Bassett returned to the United States and engaged in literary pursuits. He published A Handbook on Haiti in four languages for the Bureau of American Republics. In the early 1900s he was again briefly employed by Haiti as the consul general in New York City. Bassett spent his final years in Philadelphia, where he died and was buried in 1908. See also Civil War; Civil War, Participation and Recruitment of Black Troops in; Dominican Republic, Annexation of; Douglass, Frederick; Foreign Policy; Grant, Ulysses S.; Haiti; Haitian Revolutions; Marriage, Mixed; Môle Saint-Nicolas (Haiti) Annexation; and Toussaint Louverture.

Reference Entry.  916 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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