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How Haiti and Napoleon led to Bonjour Paris—Sort Of
Haiti has been much in the news lately, and quite a bit of the coverage has exhibited something of a negative tone. But there is actually a much-overlooked positive link between Haiti and U.S. history that, in a way, also provides a link to Bonjour Paris. So what’s the story? Well, it has to do with Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon I, and a notable Haitian leader named Toussaint L’Overture.
As the great Napoleon Bonaparte prepared for what he hoped would be nearly total French domination of Europe, he was painfully aware that there was one main obstacle in his way—the British. The war between France and Britain had begun shortly after the fall of the Bastille and although he had managed to secure a hiatus in the actual conflict in 1802, Napoleon knew that it was just a matter of time until fighting resumed.
When he reviewed his options, Napoleon considered that if a significant number of French troops could be stationed in the area west of the Mississippi, an undefined territory then held by France, the British in Canada would be vulnerable to attack from the south. Such a possibility would, of course, force them to divide their troops and send more of them to North America to protect their Canadian holdings whenever fighting began again. This might tip the balance slightly in Napoleon’s favor by relieving the strain on French forces in Europe.
Unfortunately, however, there was a fly in Napoleon’s imperialistic ointment—Haiti. The French had gained control of the western half of Hispaniola late in the 17th century, and in 1795 Spain ceded the eastern part of the island to France as well. By the time France gained possession of the whole island, the population had grown to include about 400,000 Black slaves, 28,000 freedmen, and 40,000 white inhabitants.
Of course, by 1795 the French Revolution, with its slogan of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” had been under way for over five years. The Haitians, hoping to obtain independence, had appealed to France for their own liberation after the storming of the Bastille, but the successive governmental regimes in the mother country were all unwilling to entertain the idea of separation from Haiti.
Finally, in the spring of 1794, the now-famous native General Toussaint L’Overture had led the Haitians in a revolt. Because of turmoil in France, nothing much had been done to defeat the rebelling forces until Napoleon came on the scene. He decided that he might need another base of operations against his soon-to-be-fighting-again enemy, the British, and a pacified Haiti might fill the bill.
To this end, Napoleon sent an entire French army to put down the rebellion, but, for the first time, he himself did not accompany his troops. Historians debate whether or not the Napoleonic magic would have worked better if he had been physically present, but it seems unlikely. While the French troops did their best, they were hampered by disease, their own expectations, and the newly-devised strategy of the brilliant Haitian leader L’Overture, who conducted what we would call today a guerilla war.
Because of what they thought of as their obvious superiority in arms and training, the French troops were expecting to easily overwhelm what they regarded as poorly trained and poorly led opponents. They had a surprise coming. This conflict was not conducted in the anticipated European style. Since the rebel troops were familiar with the lay of the land, they could simply fade back and disappear at will. Sometimes the French could not even find them. Then came malaria. The French troops dropped by the hundreds.
Napoleon was appalled by what was happening in Haiti. As bits and pieces of always bad news reached France, he began to re-think his imperialistic strategy. Not accustomed to defeat, Napoleon was now forced to consider that events in Haiti might be duplicated in a North American contest. The loss of so many troops did not allow him the luxury of garrisoning an extensive area so far from Europe.
He also mulled over the fact that President Jefferson seemed to be alarmed by a potentially strong French presence in New Orleans, since such a presence meant the possibility of closing that vital port to U.S. shipping. When American representatives in Paris began to talk as if their government might be willing to purchase just enough territory to ensure that American shipping down the Mississippi River could be secured, Napoleon decided to solve several problems at once by selling the whole thing.
Of course he did not immediately reveal his intentions. He let the American representatives dance on a string while he negotiated over the price. It was only in clandestine, after-midnight negotiations that the French representative revealed to the astonished Robert Livingston the real deal—France would sell the entire area known as Louisiana.
And so, in April 1803, the United States found itself in possession of the Louisiana Territory. No one was quite certain of the exact boundaries, but Jefferson knew that the size of his country had at least doubled overnight. And all for only 80,000,000 francs!
On his part, Napoleon seemed relieved to be rid of at least one potential problem, and he soon moved to get rid of another one as well. Learning that the beleaguered French troops had been forced to surrender, he decided to grant Haiti its independence early in 1804.
So, it is at least partly due to Haiti that Napoleon bailed out and Jefferson was able to stretch the Constitution and complete the Louisiana Purchase. And the Bonjour Paris connection?
Well, if you visit Louisiana today, you will find the French presence alive and kicking. There are no counties in Louisiana—we have parishes. The legal system, based on English Common Law in the rest of the country, exists here primarily as a reflection of the Napoleonic Code. We do have one border on the Mississippi River, but inside the state we have mostly bayous. In New Orleans you can see the original street markers in French (and Spanish). And then, of course, there is the History Doctor, happily immersed in all this Louisiana French-ness while busily writing for Bonjour Paris!
Jean England Freeland is a now-retired professor of history presently living on a real farm raising real fruit and veggies. After struggling to learn French for four years, she has at last reached the point where, whenever she visits Paris and actually speaks the language, the natives no longer flee screaming. She considers this one of the major accomplishments of her life.