The Revolution and the Louisiana Purchase

From TLP
Jump to: navigation, search

Combien c'est Louisiana

From an American point of view, the most vital intersection of Haitian and American history is at the point of the Louisiana Purchase (French: Vente de la Louisiane). Napoleon Bonaparte's decision to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States doubled the size of the young country and secured the much sought-after port of New Orleans, expanding trade for states bordering the Mississippi. Some have claimed that the Saint-Domingue rebels' defeat of Napoleon's armies under Leclerc halted what was ultimately to have been France's North American campaign. But was Napoleon's expedition to Saint-Domingue a pit-stop on the way to his real destination in the American South, or was the "Pearl of the Antilles" 1 his true focus all along? In reality, both may be true.

United States coin commemorating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.
Given the modern-day power of the United States and poverty of Haiti, it seems logical to argue that Napoleon was hungry to establish a large French presence in the New World. Originally a French colony, France had won Louisiana back from Spain thanks to the Treaty of Idelfonso in October, 1800. There was a large French presence in the area, and French relations with the Native Americans were quite strong. Moreover, thousands of French Canadians would have been happy to drift South to secure and settle the fertile lands West of the Mississippi.

However, if we remember that the economic engine of Saint-Domingue had been driving boatloads of cash into the French economy only a few years previously, it seems reasonable to presume that Napoleon's primary interest was reestablishing control in the French colony. Pressure from the maritime bourgeoisie and his own need to finance his military campaigns made the easy cash in Saint-Domingue a tempting target. A presence east of the Mississippi would have been a long-term investment, but Saint-Domingue was low-hanging fruit.

In his secret orders to General Leclerc for the invasion of Saint-Domingue, the First Consul lays out a clear plan for retaking the colony, consolidating power in the hands of the whites, and re-instituting slavery. If he had also reestablished the Exclusif, Napoleon would have seen immediate monetary benefits. Of course, had things gone differently for Leclerc, his troops might well have gotten additional orders to head to New Orleans, but Napoleon's secret orders for the invasion make no mention of this.

However, there is good evidence that Napoleon was making additional plans for a North American campaign. In The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History, Vol III, Ronald Smith quotes a letter from Napoleon to his minister of marine in which he clearly states that he intends to take Louisiana in a move disguised as an attack on Saint-Domingue. (Smith cites E. Wilson Lyon’s Louisiana in French Diplomacy, 1759-1803.) Given that Leclerc's expedition to Saint-Domingue was already well underway, Napoleon's intent may have been to disguise the new campaign as reinforcements for the Caribbean front. Napoleon did not need a large force to achieve his aims, as his spies had told him that they could easily take and defend Louisiana with only 1500 men, a fraction of the 60,000 troops that were ultimately committed to Leclerc's failed campaign.

Map of the United States prior to the Louisiana Purchase.
So, in July of 1802, Napoleon sent a naval commander to Holland to ready an invasion force, and plans were drawn up for the colonization of the land West of the Mississippi. 20,000 Native American warriors waited to support the French campaign. Yet the success of Napoleon’s plans rested on continuing peace with England, friendship with America, and a successful campaign in Saint-Domingue. 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.

In addition to these challenges, Napoleon must have started to realize he would have quite a fight on his hands should he make moves on North America. 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. Moreover, Pichon reported that the American population was growing at an alarming rate. The pressure to expand Westward would be inevitable in time. (Bowman) These reports surely had a great influence on Napoleon’s thinking, as did Jefferson's fierce determination to keep the French from blocking off the southern states' coveted port.

Further reasoning for why Napoleon divested himself of that land appear in “Louisiana Purchase,” by Donald Barr Chidsey. On page 134, he applies Ambassador Robert Livingston's reasoning: 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.” (Henry Adams echoes this reasoning - the French were committed to utterly defeating the English and establishing their own colonies either in America, Africa, or elsewhere.) To achieve his larger goals, Bonaparte needed money and he needed to focus his energies.

In March of 1803 (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 Dutch-based expedition sooner, he might have succeeded in taking control of Louisiana with a far smaller army than the one that ended up in Saint-Domingue. But without a base in the West Indies and facing Britain’s superior Navy, the First Consul 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.

(Smith suggests that, as a bonus, 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).)

It seems clear that Napoleon didn't view his expedition in Saint-Domingue as a side trip, but neither was he ignoring the temptations of the Louisiana Territories. Selling the territory to the United States may have been a hedge against greater losses. It's hard to believe that he wanted to invest too much energy in the undeveloped territory of the US when Egypt and India remained to be conquered. Perhaps Napoleon felt he could return to the idea of gaining a foothold in the New World when his wars in the Old World paid off.

Regardless of his true intentions, Napoleon’s decision to sell Louisiana was initiated by what Bowman says is “Tallyrand’s ‘empire of circumstances.’” It seems likely that Napoleon's decision to divest himself of his North American ambitions was not due to one or two factors, but was rather part of a complex calculus. Timing, shifting circumstances, and his own ambitions had as much to do with his decision to sell the Louisiana Territory as did Haiti’s victory over France. However, it is undoubtedly true that rebel army's stubborn resistance combined with Leclerc's losses in men and materiel would force the First Consul's hand, and this fact would forever alter America's destiny.

  • Napoleon was determined to restart Saint-Domingue's economic engine.
  • The First Consul also had designs on the Louisiana Territory.
  • A variety of factors would conspire to keep Napoleon from landing an invasion force on the North American continent.
  • Thwarted by military losses in Haiti and delays elsewhere, Napoleon ultimately sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States.


  • "The role which the great Negro Toussaint, called L'Ouverture, played in the history of the United States has seldom been fully appreciated. Representing the age of revolution in America, he rose to leadership through a bloody terror, which contrived a Negro "problem" for the Western hemisphere, intensified and defined the anti-slavery movement, became one of the causes, and probably the prime one, which led Napoleon to sell Louisiana for a song; and, finally, through the interworking of all these effects, rendered more certain the final prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807" (Du Bois, p. 70).
Map illustrating land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase.(shaded red)

"Let the Land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a Song." General Horatio Gates to President Thomas Jefferson, July 18, 1803

Note 1: Pearl of the Antilles: Saint-Domingue, renamed Haiti after the successful Haitian Revolution.

See also




  • Vincent Ogé - Haitian revolutionary. He purchased weapons and ammunition on a trip to new Orleans, LA before his revolt in 1791.

U.S. Policy





  • Du Bois, W.E.B. (1999). The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America,1638-1870. (paper) Mineola, NY.: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486409104.
  • Kastor, Peter J. (2003). The Great Acquisition: An Introduction to the Louisiana Purchase. Great Falls, MT: Lewis and Clark Interpretive Association. ISBN 1-883844-05-3.
  • Chidsey, Donald Barr. (1972). Louisiana Purchase. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 0517507404.
  • Louisiana Purchase. (2005, December 6). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:08, December 7, 2005 [1].

External links