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

Part III: Napoleon's Designs on North America

By Matthew Zarzecny, FINS

Recent articles, such as Thomas Fleming’s “Napoléon’s Invasion of North America: Aedes aegypti takes a holiday, 1802” in What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, remind historians of the rarely referenced, but nonetheless grandiose, designs the then First Consul of France had on North America.[17]  Bonaparte’s extensive plans for North America went beyond anything the previous French regimes ever contemplated, aside from perhaps that of Louis XIV the Great, nearly a century earlier.[18]  Inspired by Josephine Bonaparte, his Creole wife from Martinique, Bonaparte first hoped to create a Caribbean Empire and throughout his time as First Consul, Saint Domingue played a more important strategic role to Bonaparte than Louisiana.  France already controlled various islands in the Caribbean, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Martin, but by 1801, Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803) had cleared the island of Hispaniola of Europeans and had taken full control of a united Haiti.  On December 11, 1801, Bonaparte sent an army of twenty thousand men sailing from Brest under his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, to suppress L’Ouverture’s slave revolt on Haiti.  In February 1802, Leclerc’s forces arrived in Haiti and captured L’Ouverture.

Diplomatic correspondences soon revealed to Jefferson that with France’s largest colony in the Caribbean secured, Bonaparte next hoped to create a new New France out of the large ex-French colony in the New World known as Louisiana, named for Louis XIV the Great.  On October 7, 1800, Bonaparte had reacquired the Louisiana Territory and six ships-of-the-line from Spain by the secret Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, which in return permitted Spanish control of Tuscany.  In March 1801, the Treaty of Aranjuez confirmed the Convention of San Ildefonso.  Rufus King, the American diplomat in London, mailed a copy of this treaty to the American Secretary of State in November 1801, even though Bonaparte did not want to reveal the news of the transfer until French troops held the territory.  Fearing the Americans might preemptively seize the territory, Bonaparte ordered Leclerc’s army’s to occupy Louisiana as early as possible, once they succeeded in suppressing the Haitian uprising, while another of Bonaparte’s armies wasted away in Egypt.  By 1802, it became feasible for Bonaparte to dispatch a forty-thousand-man army to North America.  Livingston warned Madison of Bonaparte sending an armada commanded by General Claude-Victor Perrin from Holland to secure both Louisiana and Saint Domingo in the winter of 1802.  Soon after, additional letters from Europe led Jefferson to realize with increasing certainty that Bonaparte planned to send troops to Louisiana from St. Domingo in 1802.  By 1803, Hamilton openly recognized Bonaparte’s plans to colonize Louisiana if his army succeeded in St. Domingo.  French plans went beyond what did occur with Bonaparte having additional vague plans regarding French-speaking Canada and Pierre Clément Laussat, the French prefect sent to replace the Spanish administrator in New Orleans in 1803, having planned extensive reforms for the colony.[19]

Jefferson interpreted the snippets of information he received concerning these plans as indicative of Bonaparte having ambitions even more grandiose than those evidence suggest that the First Consul actually held.  Jefferson went so far as to envision Bonaparte ultimately conquering all of Europe and then turning his full ambitions on the Americas.  Jefferson expressed these concerns to John Langdon, to whom Jefferson asked, “But will he attack us first, from whom he will get but hard knocks and no money?  Or will he first lay hold of the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru, and the diamonds of Brazil?”[20]

Unfortunately for Bonaparte, the British admiral Nelson had destroyed the French fleet at the Nile in 1798, first making it impossible for the First Consul to supply his troops in Egypt, but France’s lack of sea power also resulted in General Leclerc’s army suffering from logistical difficulties, while in unforgiving Santo Domingo.[21]  Nonetheless, before his armies wasted away in the Caribbean heat, Bonaparte’s plans for North America decisively influenced the United States’ foreign policy.  As previously mentioned, Americans soon interpreted and realized Bonaparte’s plans as vague and unclear reports of the French acquisition of Louisiana and the possibility of a French military force under General Bernadotte sent to occupy the territory appeared in American newspapers and in various letters exchanged between American and European diplomats.  Uncertainty also existed on whether or not the exchange between France and Spain included Florida.[22]  A fear of French invasion unsettled the American public as seen in newspaper articles of misconceptions of what the French intended, while President Jefferson shifted from his positive or hopeful reaction to Bonaparte’s government to profoundly negative feelings for Bonaparte and his ambitions.

Yet, Jefferson still believed that Britain served as America’s chief enemy, although he opposed the prospect of America joining the League of Armed Neutrality, which could have favored France.  In 1801, news officially reached the United States of France’s acquisition of Louisiana, though for some time before, rumors circulated in Washington, the veracity of which, only Frenchmen, such as Pichon, knew.  In March 1801, Federalist Minister to England Rufus King reported the news that France had acquired Louisiana and the Floridas and began making overtures towards peace with Britain.  Until 1803, Jefferson accordingly thought that France had acquired the Floridas, which the American president hoped to obtain.  With this fiction no longer seriously believed, but to Jefferson’s displeasure, on May 4, 1803, Charles Pinckney, American minister to Madrid, wrote to Madison informing him that Spain declined to sell the Floridas.[23] 

Nevertheless, rumors continued to circulate about these various territories as they had throughout the years of the French Revolution, especially in the pages of the roughly two hundred thirty-four newspapers that provided news for Americans living in the United States around 1800.  These newspapers hurried to report any rumors of French activities regarding Louisiana, regardless if any of what the newspapers reported contained verifiable facts.  A major problem for the credibility of these newspapers pertains to how the newspapers reported events weeks or even months after they occurred.  Nonetheless, the lack of total believability in the articles of nineteenth century American newspapers largely resulted from the fact that most newspapers openly supported either the Federalists or the Republicans and correspondingly reported news with political agendas driving the articles.  Federalist Alexander Hamilton supported the New York Evening Post, while Jefferson initially supported the National Intelligencer and later relied on the less moderate Philadelphia Aurora.  The Aurora actually admitted its lack of ability to verify rumors and yet wrote without clear evidence about the British garrisoning forts along the northwestern border of the United States.[24] 

Whether trustworthy or not, these newspapers added to the fear that the French would invalidate American trading rights from the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795 with Spain and even that a French North American Empire could include the United States.  Newspapers covering the Mississippi crisis from 1802 to 1803 especially fomented rumors of Bonaparte evicting the Spanish and sending French troops to Louisiana.[25]  On March 29, the Aurora announced the Spanish transfer of Louisiana to France and on April 3, 1802, the Richmond Recorder reported, “The French are now masters of the Western waters.  Tennessee and Kentucky cannot send a single barrel of flour to the West Indies . . . Buonaparte sends two seventy-four gun ships to the mouth of the Mississippi, and there is an end of your Western trade to the West Indies.”[26]  Adding wood to the fire, The New York Evening Post stated that “Napoleon’s control of Louisiana threatens only the dismemberment of a large portion of the country; more immediately, the safety of all Southern States; and remotely, the independence of the whole Union.”[27]

Additional fears of a darker nature afflicted racist pro-slavery Americans, when news of the transfer spread.  The fear of racial conflict particularly influenced the slave-owning Jefferson’s diplomacy in acquiring Louisiana.  Bonaparte’s plans for part of Louisiana becoming a penal colony for the black rebels from Haiti went against Jefferson’s plans to gradually send North American blacks to the West Indies and Africa.  American policy makers also feared French alliances with Native Americans and Jefferson feared that the Westerners might go to war with France or leave the Union.[28]  Jefferson’s administration, including Madison, feared that Bonaparte would try to gain influence over the west, while the fears of Westerners, such as William T. Barry of Lexington, Kentucky, went so far as to worry about Bonaparte actually attempting to conquer the western states.  Federalists used this Western discontent to embarrass the administration.  Yet, in 1801, Jefferson initially pretended not to know about the territorial transfer from a year earlier and hoped something would happen to negate the treaty, but events in 1802 forced Jefferson to finally announce his knowledge of the agreement between France and Spain and further his repudiation of it.[29]

  

 

 

Notes:

[17] Thomas Fleming, “Napoléon’s Invasion of North America: Aedes aegypti takes a holiday, 1802” in What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: Berkley Books, 2002).

[18] See Figure 1.

[19] South of Montreal, a petition of the villagers of Saint-Constant was addressed to Emperor Napoleon I on March 1, 1805 requesting that Napoleon make it possible for French-Canadians to again bear "the glorious name of Frenchmen," but Napoleon's government never made any open moves towards this.  Yet, the Napoleonic influence on the former French colonies of North America has not died, as both Montréal and Quebec City, on the Grande Allée, feature Restaurant Bonapartes and the Stewart Museum in Montreal recently showcased a Napoleonic exhibit.  See Figure 2.  Bernard Chevallier, Napoleon (Montreal: David M. Stewart Museum, 1999); Dupuy 770-773, 819; Durant 521-525; Rufus King, “To the Secretary of State, November 20, 1801” in American State Papers: Foreign Affairs 2: 511-512; Felix Markham, Napoleon (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1963), 103-119.

[20] Thomas Jefferson, “To John Langdon” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by H. A. Washington (Washington: United States Congress, 1853-54), 512.

[21] Fernandez 96; Hamilton, “Alexander Hamilton on the Louisiana Purchase” in The Louisiana Purchase, 170; Thomas Jefferson, “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, April 18, 1802” in The Louisiana Purchase, edited by Peter J. Kastor (Washington: CQ Press, 2002), 162; Kastor, The Louisiana Purchase: Emergence of an American Nation, 4; Robert R. Livingston, “Letter from Robert R. Livingston to James Madison, November 10, 1802” in The Louisiana Purchase, edited by Peter J. Kastor (Washington: CQ Press, 2002), 164-165; Pope 306, 436; Sofka 58. 

[22] See Figure 1.

[23] Jefferson, “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, April 18, 1802,” 161; Kaplan 94-96; Kastor, The Louisiana Purchase: Emergence of an American Nation, 3; Charles Pinckney, “Letter from Charles Pinckney to James Madison, May 4, 1803” in The Louisiana Purchase, edited by Peter J. Kastor (Washington: CQ Press, 2002), 167.

[24] Winfield 39-42.

[25] Kastor, The Louisiana Purchase, 2-3; Kaplan 100; Winfield 41.

[26] Winfield 41-42.

[27] Winfield 42.

[28] Perhaps equally haunting, a gathering secession movement in New England, which continued during Jefferson’s second term as well over the trade embargo against the nations involved in the Napoleonic Wars, marked Jefferson’s first four-year term of office. 

[29] Robert E. Bonner, “Empire of Liberty, Empire of Slavery: The Louisiana Territories and the Fate of American Bondage” in The Louisiana Purchase, edited by Peter J. Kastor (Washington: CQ Press, 2002), 130-131; Kaplan 97-98, 100; Jefferson, “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, April 18, 1802,” 161-162; James E. Lewis Jr., “The Burr Conspiracy and the Problem of Western Loyalty” in The Louisiana Purchase, edited by Peter J. Kastor (Washington: CQ Press, 2002), 68.

 

 

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