How Haiti and Napoleon led to Bonjour Paris—Sort Of

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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.

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