In that pre-9/11 era, the United States was the undisputed master of the world, an unrivaled “hyper-puissance” in terms of military, economic and political power: the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall both lay in ruins, capitalism, democracy and free trade were sweeping the planet, and English had replaced French as the world’s number one second language.
The French Republic, by contrast, was in a sour mood.
After a month long general strike in 1995, President Chirac yielded to union pressure and canceled a modest reform the heavily indebted Social Security system. Not surprisingly, all reform ground to a halt for the remainder of Chirac’s 12-year term: unemployment stayed high, the debt got worse and the rest of the world kept on speaking English.
Worst of all, the French social model—once vaunted as a model for the world—was clearly on its last legs. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had lost the “ideological” war to Adam Smith. Socialism was dead. The ruthless traders of Wall Street had won the day.
What was a confirmed Gaullist to do?
France was tottering on the edge of irrelevance largely due to its own hand—the hyper-centralized super state that had ruled the country for centuries was the source of the problem. And what was Chirac’s response? To outlaw English? That’s just more of the same.
Besides, what the hell was the government doing telling the people what words they could use? It was Orwellian in scope and diversionary in practice.
It was against this backdrop that the three word plot-idea struck me—Napoleon Invades Louisiana. To my admittedly Anglo-Saxon mind it was much too late—Jacques—to try and outlaw English. If France really wanted to prevent English from displacing French as the linga franca du monde Napoleon Bonaparte shouldn’t have sold Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson. What he should have done was to send French troops to occupy Louisiana and thus prevent the Americans from building their coast-to-coast English-speaking empire.
That was my original thought.
But for reasons I outlined in Part 1, I finally decided such a scenario was impossible. So how to write an Alternate History novel based on those three simple words?
The answer came from an unexpected source—Constantin-Francois Volney, a once famous French philosopher and politician. A protégé of Benjamin Franklin, Volney was a member of the first National Assembly. He took the Tennis Court Oath and sat on the committee that wrote the first French constitution. Introduced to each other by Franklin in Paris, Volney and Jefferson soon discovered a shared affinity for philosophy.
Years later, in the mid-1790s when Volney was on a visit to the United States, he dropped by Jefferson’s mountaintop residence in Virginia and it was there the two men entered into a conspiracy. Jefferson, then-Vice President under John Adams, proposed that he translate Volney’s controversial political treatise Ruins of Empires (Les Ruines—1791) into English.
Volney’s Ruins is controversial for several reasons. In the first section of the book, Volney proposes a universal principle that explains the rise and fall of nations:
Empires Rise If Government Allows Enlightened Self-Interest to Flourish
This anti-Chiracian principle was written as a direct challenge to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contention that the General Interest—as determined by the Infallible Legislator—is the guiding light of a nation. In the modern day it means that France’s cherished Social Model is destined to fail—and for this exact reason Volney’s work is not taught in French schools.
In the book’s second section, Volney traces the history of the world’s major religions, questions the existence of god, and concludes with an appeal for all nations to adopt the principle of separation of church and state. Quite obviously, this section of the book speaks directly to the religious-based conflicts afflicting our species today.
Jefferson said he wanted to translate Volney’s Ruins of Empires because the American people needed instruction in the Enlightenment principles upon which the United States was founded. But he insisted on complete anonymity due to the book’s controversial religious content. Since he was running for president in 1800, Jefferson knew his opponents would attack him as an atheist if he were linked directly to Volney’s heretical book.
The first edition of the Jefferson translation, completed with the help of Joel Barlow, was published in Paris in 1802. The translation then went through numerous reprints during the 19th century and was read by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and Thomas Cole. Jefferson’s role in the translation project, revealed by French academic Gilbert Chinard in 1923, remains a little-known and little-understood facet of the Jefferson oeuvre, even among modern day specialists.
Since no one else on the planet seemed interested in all this, I decided to use this factual background to create the “turning point” for my Alternate History novel English Turn: Napoleon Invades Louisiana.
In my fictional scenario, Bonaparte’s agents steal Jefferson’s manuscript by mistake, thus threatening Jefferson’s anonymity. When Volney confronts the Premier Consul about the theft Bonaparte ridicules Volney as “an ideologue” and kicks him in the stomach. Fed up with Bonaparte’s petty rages and anti-republican ambitions, Volney enlists the support of a sympathetic general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a Bonaparte rival who had just been offered command of an expedition to Guadeloupe, the French sugar island then under the control of escaped slaves.
Conspiring together, Volney and Bernadotte sail the expedition directly to New Orleans. Once there, they overthrow the Spanish governor and set up a republican government based on the principles in Volney’s book. Volney also sends emissaries to President Jefferson to propose a peace treaty based on the cession of Upper Louisiana to the United States and free trade on the Mississippi River.
Naturally enough, Volney’s treachery triggers Bonaparte’s Corsica-bred desire for revenge.
Leaving a brother in charge of France, Bonaparte sails to New Orleans, sneaks through the British blockade disguised as a slave and overthrows Volney’s rebel government. Volume 1 ends with Bonaparte’s coronation in Saint Louis Cathedral, the church located on what is today called “Jackson Square.”
This might sound like classic Alternate History, but it really isn’t. If anything English Turn is Alternate Future.
Conceived as a response to Jacques Chirac and written in the post-9/11 era, English Turn is a metaphor for what’s happening on this planet right here and now today—clash of civilizations, religious conflict, the rise of capitalism, democracies and free trade, the emergence of the Arab Spring—all these contemporary events are folded into a single mind-warping history-changing epic adventure.
As a bonus, English Turn introduces modern readers to Volney’s Ruins of Empires, a forgotten classic in Western literature which provides a roadmap to help our species establish a peaceful, prosperous and enduring “Empire of Humanity” in the new century.
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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.