Jean-Jacques Dessalines Michel Cincinnatus Leconte was President of Haiti from 15 August 1911 until his death on 8 August 1912. He was a great-grandson of Jean-Jacques Dessalines—a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti—and was an uncle of Joseph Laroche, the only black passenger to perish on theRMS Titanic.
Leconte, a lawyer by trade, had served as minister of the interior under President Pierre Nord Alexis. He was forced into exile in Jamaica after a 1908 revolt deposed Alexis and gave François C. Antoine Simon the presidency.
Returning from exile in 1911, Leconte gathered a large military force. After leading the revolution that ousted President Simon and brought Leconte back to Port-au-Prince in triumph on 7 August 1911, Leconte was unanimously elected president of Haiti by Congress on 14 August with a seven-year term. His salary was set at $24,000 a year.
Upon attaining the presidency he instituted a number of reforms: paving streets, increasing teacher pay, installing telephone lines, and decreasing the size of the army. Collier's Weekly argued in August 1912 that it was "generally admitted" that Leconte's administration was "the ablest and the cleanest government Haiti has had in forty years." Zora Neale Hurston, writing in the 1930s after extensive research in Haiti, pointed out that Leconte was "credited with beginning numerous reforms and generally taking positive steps."
Leconte pursued a discriminatory policy toward what was referred to as the "Syrian" population (most were actually Lebanese Christians), an already persecuted minority group which one historian described as constituting the "opening wedge of the American economic conquest of Haiti in the early 1900s." Prior to ascending to the presidency, he had promised to rid Haiti of its Syrian population. In 1912 Leconte's foreign minister released a statement stating that it was "necessary to protect nationals against the disloyal competition of the Easterner whose nationality is uncertain." A 1903 law (aimed specifically at Syrians) limiting the immigration levels and commercial activities of foreigners was revived, and the harassment of Syrians that had been prevalent in the first few years of the 1900s was resumed. The Leconte administration did, however, continue to process claims made by Syrians who had been persecuted by the government of Nord Alexis. When Leconte died suddenly in 1912, a number of Syrians celebrated his passing and were imprisoned as a result, while others were deported. His Syrian policy would be continued by his successor Tancrède Auguste.
Despite being elected to a seven-year term, Leconte's time in office was short lived. On 8 August 1912, a violent explosion destroyed the National Palace, killing the president and several hundred soldiers. An Associated Press report at the time noted:
So great was the force of the explosion, that a number of small cannon, fragments of iron and shell were thrown long distances in all directions, and many of the palace attendants were killed. Every house in the city was shaken violently and the entire population, greatly alarmed, rushed into the street.
A 1912 account of the explosion in Political Science Quarterly reported that an "accidental ignition of ammunition stores caused the death of General Cincinnatus Leconte," while a 1927 article in the same journal deemed his death an "assassination." Oral histories circulating in Haiti—some of which were chronicled by Hurston in the 1930s in her book Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica—differed significantly from most written accounts. As Hurston explained, "The history books all say Cincinnatus Leconte died in the explosion that destroyed the palace, but the people do not tell it that way. Not one person, high or low, ever told me that Leconte was killed by the explosion. It is generally accepted that the destruction of the palace was to cover up the fact that the President was already dead by violence." According to Hurston there were "many reasons given for the alleged assassination", but the main actors in the supposed plot were men who "were ambitious and stood to gain political power...by the death of President Leconte."
Just several months before Leconte died, his nephew, Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, had been one of over 2,200 passengers and crew on board the RMS Titanic for its maiden voyage. While Laroche's wife and daughters survived the sinking of the ocean liner, Laroche himself, the only man of African descent on board the ship, perished in the disaster.