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The Influence of First Consul Bonaparte’s Supposed Plans for North America on the United States’ Foreign Policy, 1799-1804.

By Matthew Zarzecny, FINS

In 1803, when the United States of America bought the Louisiana Territory from the French Republic, the American negotiators in Paris inquired about the boundaries and extent of their new acquisition.  French Foreign Minister Talleyrand responded to the American inquiry by simply stating, “You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.”[1]  The events leading up to that conversation progressed like a roller coaster’s course in United States’ foreign policy towards France by having many high and low points with much excitement and, as with the above comments of Talleyrand, a lack of clarity on the part of both American and French diplomats, newspaper writers, and politicians tending to characterize what had really transpired historically.

After the alliance between France and the fledgling United States of America crumbled during the French Revolution, tensions brought about by the scheming of various American and French politicians only intensified when France’s pro-American Consular government under Napoléon Bonaparte took over the reigns of power in France and dreamed of restoring the once great influence of France in North America.  Questions concerning how much and in what ways these dreams inspired fear in the American populace, while enticing American politicians to enact significant foreign policies, can be answered by exploring the history of Franco-American relations before the aforementioned conversation occurred in 1803.  Such an investigation will show that during the first quarter century of the United States’ history, not only did the ambitions of adventurous Americans profoundly affect American foreign policy towards France, Great Britain, and Spain, but also, if not more so, the perceived ambitions of First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte had a significant impact on these policies.

A meaningful understanding of the influence of Napoléon Bonaparte’s plans on American foreign policy contributes considerably to both the fields of history and political science.  Sampling the abundance of available sources helps to paint a better picture of a volatile era of adventurous schemes that significantly affected American foreign policy in ways not often considered.  A presentation of this compelling topic provides a unique approach to analyzing the remarkable events relating to the Louisiana Purchase by not repeating what other historians have extensively written about in regards to this period.  These historians have tended to look exclusively at key personalities involved with the Louisiana Purchase or solely at the diplomatic history of the events leading up to that momentous territorial transaction.  Instead, the time has come for a new focus, primarily on the impact of Bonaparte’s unrealized designs on the North American continent as perceived by the American public and government on America’s foreign policy.  Future generations of historians will benefit from a gripping, insightful, and worthy analysis of the influence of Bonaparte’s plans for North America and the crisis that resulted, which contributes considerably to the historical knowledge of this period in nineteenth century American and world history.

The origins of the crisis that emerged after Americans became aware of France’s re-acquisition of Louisiana, also known as the retrocession, in the early years of Bonaparte’s reign in France go back over forty years before these exhilarating events played out.  In November 1762, Louis XV the Well-Beloved ceded the Louisiana Territory, including the port of New Orleans and the Trans-Mississippi portion of Louisiana to Charles III of Spain by the Treaty of Fontainebleau.  At the end of the Seven Years’ War, Britain accepted the Trans-Allegheny portion of French Louisiana in 1763 and occupied the Illinois country in 1765.  In 1766, Spain sent the first Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa, to Louisiana to replace the last French governor, Jean-Jacques Blaise D’Abbadie.  In 1768, during the Louisiana Revolt, French inhabitants, such as Pierre Carresse, who professed loyalty to the French king, contemplated a republic that would also encourage English colonists to revolt against the British monarchy.  Although, in 1769, Spain sent Alejandro O’Reilly to suppress the revolt, few Spaniards settled in Louisiana and so French immigrants continued to arrive in Louisiana before and after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  Exiles from various French regimes, including royalists around 1800, flocked to this vast territory.  In particular, Frenchmen from Saint Domingue arrived in both St. Louis and New Orleans in significant numbers from 1793 to 1804.  In addition to these French immigrants, Americans rushed for Spanish land grants in Upper and Lower Louisiana from 1795 to 1803.[2]

American settlement in former French territory in North American did not begin in Louisiana.  Citizens of the United States inhabited and acquired other ex-French territory before American immigration to Spanish Louisiana in 1795.  The Detroit region and the Mississippi Territory, two formerly French held territories in North America, became part of the United States in the 1790s.[3]  In the ten years before the Louisiana Purchase, the French, who still lived in their former North American colonies, held generally negative opinions of the increasing number of American settlers.  French lieutenant governor Zenon Trudeau of Upper Louisiana under the Spanish regime referred to the Americans as “un peuple sans loix ni discipline.[4]  Correspondingly, Americans, including John Quincy Adams, equally viewed the French in Louisiana with disapproval, because these North American Frenchmen spoke French and practiced Catholicism.[5]  Greater suspicions arose after the French Revolution began in 1789.

Like the first few seconds on a roller coaster, American opinion towards France had climbed throughout the American Revolution, as the two states became allies.  The American victory at Saratoga in their struggle for independence from Great Britain, showed the world that the mother country could be defeated by her thirteen daughter colonies and inspired France and Spain, both still desirous for revenge for the 1763 Treaty of Paris, to aid the rebel army.  French contributions went beyond simply sending over Lafayette and basset hounds, while besieging Gibraltar near Spain.  During the American War of Independence, a French fleet along with a French force helped Americans under General George Washington take Yorktown in 1781 from Lord Cornwallis and seven thousand British soldiers.  The decisive victory at Yorktown practically ended the Revolution and thus secured American independence from Britain.  Ironically, however, while the American Revolution created an alliance between France and America, the French Revolution destroyed this friendship.[6]

The time of chaos known as the French Revolution began with the seizure of the Bastille by Parisian insurgents on July 14, 1789.  As the First Republic replaced the French monarchy in 1792, terror reigned and several coups transpired, including the creation of the National Convention and the infamous Committee of Public Safety.  Most of Europe turned on France, hoping to restore the monarchy, but the French general Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez halted the allied invasion at Valmy on September 20, 1792.  After this battle, France took on an expansionist policy by conquering new territory and creating satellite republics, all in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, ideals reminiscent to those held by the American revolutionaries a decade earlier; however, this revitalized French spirit did not limit its conquering attention to Europe.

After the French Revolution began and before learning of French goals in North America, the American politician and a leading figure of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, initially expressed enthusiasm for the French Revolution.  The French, such as minister Adet, noticed and reciprocated Jefferson’s sentiments by attempting to have Jefferson elected president of the United States.  Moreover, the Directory government in France in the later 1790s, like Republicans Jefferson and Monroe, disapproved of the Federalists like Hamilton, who supported Great Britain.  The French efforts began by replacing the French minister in the United States and, as one might expect, Jefferson did not show disapproval of this support.  Those Federalists astute enough to realize this relationship damned Jefferson as an agent of French atheism and anarchy.  Nonetheless, like the first drop on a roller coaster, even the enthusiasm espoused by Americans like Jefferson drastically declined during the XYZ Affair and spiraled further downward when a Quasi-War between France and the United States threatened to explode into larger hostilities during John Adams’ presidency.[7]

Relations between America and France deteriorated steadily during this troubled time.  Tensions flared from the onset of the naval conflict among the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish fleets operating in the West Indies and disrupting American trade.  During the early stages of the naval aspect of the French Revolutionary Wars, acts by the United States Congress moved the nation towards war.  These included an act imposing duties on tonnage on July 20, 1789 and an act imposing duties on the tonnage of ships on July 2, 1790.  On September 11, 1790, during Louis XVI’s fall from power, the king wrote to American President George Washington, who wanted America to avoid any entanglements in European conflicts, that Louis wanted to renew “these assurances of regard and friendship which we feel for the United States.”  The “assurances” Louis mentioned likely referred to the treaty of 1778, which required the United States to defend France’s possessions in the Caribbean.[8]  Americans, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, wanted peace at this time.  Acknowledging the lack of desire for war, Washington disregarded the treaty by declaring American neutrality, but other factors soon roused American passions in the opposite direction.[9]

With the French monarchy in a shambles, the National Convention, dominated by Georges-Jacques Danton, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien-François-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre, further plunged France into a bloodbath of execution, including the beheading of King Louis XVI, who had made the alliance with America, and a war that spread beyond France’s borders, stretching even across the Atlantic.  This new republican government of the Girondists in France sent Edmund Charles Genêt to the United States in 1793 as its official ambassador.

Genêt’s audacious activities, including plans for attacks on Spain’s possessions in Florida and Louisiana, which Genet mentioned to Thomas Jefferson in 1793, resulted in his recall.  Meanwhile, the manipulative Talleyrand sent Comte Constantin de Volney to Monticello in order to explore the possibility of French colonization on the American continent and soon discovered that Americans would not smile upon a retrocession of Louisiana to France.[10]       




[1] Curtis M. Geer, The Louisiana Purchase and the Westward Movement (Philadelphia: 1904), 212; Jerry W. Knudson, “Newspaper Reaction to the Louisiana Purchase: ‘This New, Immense, Unbounded World’” in Missouri Historical Review (63, 2 [1969]), 184.

[2] Mark Fernandez, “Edward Livingston and the Problem of Law” in The Louisiana Purchase, edited by Peter J. Kastor (Washington: CQ Press, 2002), 95; Jay Gitlin, “Children of Empire or Concitoyens?  Louisiana’s French Inhabitants” in The Louisiana Purchase, edited by Peter J. Kastor (Washington: CQ Press, 2002), 24-25, 30, 32, 34; Kastor, The Louisiana Purchase, 3; “Provision for Claims of Citizens of the United States on the Government of France” on The Avalon Project: The Louisiana Purchase; 1803, (New Haven: Yale Law School, 1997)

[3] Gitlin 27; “Provision for Claims of Citizens of the United States on the Government of France.”

[4] “A people without law or discipline.”  See Gitlin 27. 

[5] Gitlin 28; Alexander Hamilton, “Alexander Hamilton on the French Revolution” in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, edited by Jack R. Censer and Lynn Hunt (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 194-196.

[6]  John Adams, “Fourth Annual Message” on The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791 1800 (New Haven: Yale Law School, 1997); John Adams, “Message to the Senate and House of Representatives, February 5, 1798, Regarding a French Privateer” on The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791-1800 31 December 1969.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, “To Samuel Adams, February 1800” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99), 425; Kaplan 68-70, 73, 86.

[8] French ambitions in the Americas during this period initially concentrated on the Caribbean as best exemplified in 1795, when Spain ceded Hispaniola to France, but soon expanded to include much larger portions of the so-called “New World.”  See Stephen Pope, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (London: Cassell, 1999), 436; “Treaty of San Ildefonso: October 1, 1800” on The Avalon Project: The Louisiana Purchase; 1803 (New Haven: Yale Law School, 1997)

[9]  George Washington, “Message to the Senate of January 17, 1791 Transmitting a Letter from the King of France” on The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791-1800, (31 December 1969); Ariel and Will Durant, The Age of Napoleon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), 3-87.

[10] Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson on the French Revolution” in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, edited by  Jack R. Censer and Lynn Hunt (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 192-193; Kaplan 56, 74, 79.


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