Didn’t Bonaparte see the long-range consequences of his hasty decision? Could the territory, reinforced with French troops, have withstood a British blockade and American invasion? What would the world look like today if Bonaparte had gone to New Orleans himself to establish a New French Republic in the very heart of North America?
After many false starts Bonaparte gave the job of occupying Louisiana to General Claude Victor in June 1802. Victor’s expedition, comprised of some 3000 troops, assembled in the port of Helvoet Sluys near Rotterdam that fall and winter. But logistical and weather concerns delayed Victor’s departure until the following spring. And by then it was too late. Bonaparte had made his decision. Louisiana was sold and the Victor expedition never set sail.
From an alternate history viewpoint, Bonaparte’s best opportunity to occupy Louisiana came about a year and a half earlier during the fall of 1801. The Peace of Amiens ending the war with England had just been signed, eliminating the threat posed by the Royal Navy. The way was open for Bonaparte to rebuild France’s New World Empire, composed largely Saint Domingue (Haiti) and Guadeloupe, two once-lucrative sugar islands, and now Louisiana.
Which to occupy first? Both Saint Domingue and Guadeloupe were under the control of former slaves and there was a powerful Creole lobby in Paris (including Bonaparte’s wife Josephine) clamoring for the return of their “property.” As for Louisiana, Bonaparte had yet to receive legal title to the territory due to an irritating clause in the retrocession treaty that required him to obtain an Italian province for the Duke of Parma, Louisiana’s disposed regent.
As is often the case, greed trumped vision. Setting aside the Louisiana option for the moment, Bonaparte sent an expedition comprised of some 20,000 troops to Saint Domingue in an ultimately futile attempt to return the blacks to slavery. This expedition, headed by General Charles Leclerc, Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, represented the Premier Consul’s best opportunity to occupy Louisiana with a powerful force of crack troops. This possibility, however remote, was a cause of concern in both London and Washington, D.C.
True enough, such a sneaky action would have enraged the Court of Madrid—but so what? Respect for diplomatic niceties was never Bonaparte’s strong suit. And besides, what could Spain have really done about it if a powerful French army had occupied New Orleans just a tad before the legal transfer of Louisiana had been finalized?
An intriguing question arises at this point: What if Bonaparte had somehow known the Leclerc expedition to Saint Domingue was destined to fail? Might he have decided to send Leclerc directly to New Orleans instead?
Enter a once famous French philosopher and politician, Constantin-Francois Volney, author of the controversial book Ruins of Empires, a post-Enlightenment review of human history anonymously translated into English by Thomas Jefferson.
Asked for his opinion before Leclerc set sail, Volney advised Bonaparte that the Saint Domingue expedition was destined to fail for three reasons: the blacks would launch a guerilla war against the French occupation army, yellow fever would decimate Bonaparte’s white-skinned troops and the British crown could, at the drop of a tricorn hat, impose a blockade upon the island due to the Royal Navy’s command of the high seas. For good measure Volney added that French colonists had always failed in all their North American endeavors because “they spend all their time gossiping with each other or chasing Indian girls” while the Anglo-Saxons work in the fields.
Enraged by this insolent analysis, Bonaparte dismissed Volney as a “philosophical dreamer” and ordered the expedition to proceed anyway, a decision which led to Leclerc’s death and the near-total destruction of his army due to guerilla war and yellow fever, just as Volney predicted. On the flip side, if Leclerc had gone directly to Louisiana instead, a war with the Americans would almost certainly have followed. Even so, Leclerc’s 20,000 troops would have had time to prepare defensive positions both above and below New Orleans, a formidable barrier as the British later discovered at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
So what prevented Bonaparte from seeing the opportunity of sending Leclerc directly to New Orleans? The simple truth is Napoleon Bonaparte was never a true “republican” who believed in representative government, free trade and freedom for oppressed peoples including the slaves. From the very beginning Bonaparte planned to reestablish the Old Regime—including its mercantile-based colonial empire—only with his own Corsica-born clan seated at the top of the pyramid.
Hence, for alternate historians, what seems like the most obvious choice for Bonaparte to make—to send Leclerc to Louisiana rather than Saint Domingue—is in fact quite impossible due to Bonaparte’s insatiable personal ambitions. Bonaparte was Bonaparte after all—don’t ask a scorpion to stop acting like a scorpion.
In short, blinded by his own greed, Bonaparte never considered doing what many French alive today wished he had done: sailed to New Orleans to found a New French Republic, thus preventing the construction of today’s world-dominating American Empire.
(End of Part 1. In Part 2, Volney establishes a New French Republic in Louisiana, thus provoking Bonaparte to sail to New Orleans to overthrow Volney’s rebel government.)
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Thomas Christian Williams works in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France. His first novel, English Turn: Napoleon Invades Louisiana, is available on Amazon. He is currently working on a second novel: Kash Kachu (White House): In the desert southwest about a thousand years ago, two half-brothers fight for control of an ancient holy city racked by drought, famine and disbelief. Join him on Twitter @RuinsofEmpires.