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Combien c’est Louisiana?

I’m reading from Henry Adams’ “The history of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison.” Zounds! In this he declares that the Spaniard Godoy, by refusing to relinquish the Louisiana Territory upon discovering he had been duped, had as much influence as the revolt in Haiti on Napoleon’s decision to sell the territory. The details in Adam’s book are sketchy but tantalizing.

The question of Louverture and Haiti’s role in US history is key as I move forward with this project. I suspect that my grandfather made a little much of the revolution’s importance on Napoleon’s decision to sell the LA Territory. If events in Haiti can be established as having had a profound impact on that transaction, then the focus of whatever story emerges should rightly focus on that fact. If not, then I’ll be able to keep the story in Haiti and not have to explain French and American history in addition to Haitian.

[Just noticed this from the General Editor’s Preface to Adams: “The books in this series were designed for reading, not research. All documentation has, therefore, been eliminated.” Then, from the book editor’s introduction: “Only a few of the high points of the History could be represented here…” This is an abridged edition. Time to find a new volume of Adams.]

Further reasoning for why Napoleon divested himself of that land appear in “Louisiana Purchase,” by Donald Barr Chidsey. On page 134, he lays out the case. Without either a better navy than Great Britain’s, or some sort of way station between France and Louisiana Napoleon could not hope to hold the land there. “Moreover, he was committed to an invasion of England.” (This is in Adams’ book as well – the French were committed to utterly defeating the English and establishing their own colonies either in America, Africa, or elsewhere.) Bonaparte needed money and he needed to focus his energies. (Note that the above line of reasoning is given from Livingston’s perspective.)

In The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History, Vol III, Ronald Smith suggests that Napoleon might have gained a measure of satisfaction in tweaking the Spanish by selling the territory rather than retro-retroceding it to Spain, as provided for in earlier treaties (p53).

Chidsey also touts the idea that the Haiti invasion was only a stop-over on the way to annexing Louisiana. (p133) However, Korngold suggests Napoleon’s designs at the time were solely on Haiti. Bonaparte needed to get the money flowing again and reinstating slavery and restrictive trade practices would have done it. Of course, had things gone differently Leclerc’s troops might well have gotten orders to head to New Orleans. Yet the secret instructions Napoleon gave to Leclerc when he departed France make no mention of this.

Note that Napoleon inherited the French desire for Western colonialism (Adams). It does not necessarily follow that it was his sole ambition. Perhaps he felt he could return to that idea when his other wars paid off. Through various negotiations, he was certainly trying to buy down as much of France’s debt as possible. I thought the request that America pay France’s reparations from the Quasi War as part of the LA purchase deal was an arrogant master stroke.

Now, in his essay, Smith quotes a letter from Napoleon to his minister of marine in which he pretty clearly states that he intends to take Louisiana in a move disguised as an attack on St. Domingo. (Smith cites E. Wilson Lyon’s Louisiana in French Diplomacy, 1759-1803; I’ll check the source.) Napoleon’s spies had told him that they could easily take and defend Louisiana with only 1500 men! Perhaps the First Consul was planning a multiple strike after all.

Smith makes a good case for Napoleon’s designs on the New World. Napoleon was readying an invasion force in Holland. Plans had been drawn up for the colonization of the land West of the Mississippi. Orders had been given to the head of the force. Yet the success of Napoleon’s plans rested on continuing peace with England, friendship with America, and a successful campaign in Haiti. He was thwarted in all three of these, and was dealt another blow besides: the invasion force was delayed by slow preparations and nasty winter weather in Holland.

It seems that in March of 1803 (far before the outcome in Haiti was conclusive), Napoleon must have realized that his back was against the wall and decided to salvage what he could. If he had been able to launch his expedition sooner, he might have succeeded in taking control of Louisiana with a far smaller army than the one that ended up in Haiti. But without a base in the West Indies and with Britain’s superior Navy, Bonaparte couldn’t count on being able to resupply and communicate with his new colonies. Selling Louisiana to the US gave him money, eliminated some debt, and bought him some time.

For me this puts the revolution in Haiti in some perspective. Napoleon likely could have taken Louisiana without help from their former colony, but with the other delays and political pressures, the failure in Haiti was another nail in the coffin. In other words, there were lots of reasons that Napoleon decided to sell. Haiti’s victory over France did not in and of itself open the door to the Louisiana Territory purchase. I agree with what Bob Corbett has written in that this doesn’t lessen the meaning of what Louverture accomplished. On the contrary, Louverture’s campaign should be evaluated on its own merits and I think there’s more than enough drama in that story to write volumes.

I just read through the next essay in The Louisiana Purchase, Vol III. The essay is Pichon, the United States, and Louisiana, by Albert H. Bowman. Louis-Andre Pichon was charge d’affaires and consul-general to the United States from 1801 to 1805. He sent regular correspondence to Napoleon regarding the feelings of Americans on various topics of French interest, especially including the Louisiana Territories.

The Americans were vehemently opposed to any French colonization west of the Mississippi, and Pichon was of the opinion that they would fight hard to win that territory should the French claim it. In addition, Pichon reported that the American population was growing at an alarming rate. The pressure to expand Westward would be inevitable in time. These reports surely had a great influence on Napoleon’s thinking.

Note the following from page 77:
“Although historians continue to speculate on Bonaparte’s motives for relinquishing Louisiana, it is unlikely that any more conclusive evidence than already exists will appear. There is a certain irony in the persistent suggestion that money was a priime object, since French visitors from Hector St. John de Crevecoeur onward have remarked on the American penchant for money-grubbing. French historians, noting Bonaparte’s lofty unconcern with such mundane matters, are probably closer to the mark in pointing to his imperial ambitions in the east, through Egypt to India.”

Bonaparte’s “lofty unconcern” seems a mischaracterization given the report I read yesterday in Adams (I think it was.) That report was of Napoleon in the bath arguing with his brothers that he desperately needed money to make war.

At any rate, the bottom line seems to be that Napoleon’s decision to sell Louisiana was initiated by what Bowman says is “Tallyrand’s ‘empire of circumstances.’” It wasn’t just one thing, it was a bunch of things.