Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What If Wednesday: No Louisiana Purchase

In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, nearly doubling the size of the United States. The territory was originally settled by the French but had been a part of Spain since the end of the French and Indian War (Seven Years War). Under Napoleon, France regained the territory in 1800 with the dream of rebuilding their North American empire. Those dreams were dashed by a slave revolt in Haiti and an upcoming war with Britain. So when the Americans came with overtures about purchasing New Orleans, Napoleon threw in the entire territory as part of the deal. The rest, as they say, is history.

But what if Louisiana was never sold? There are several points of divergence to consider. Maybe the slave revolt in Haiti was easily defeated or never happened. Perhaps opposition to the purchase in America was too great for Thomas Jefferson to overcome. Or we could make it so that a United States still under the Articles of the Confederation and is too politically weak to make the purchase in the first place. Either way, Louisiana remains French territory. What happens next?

Perhaps the most plausible scenario is that nothing really changes all that much. The Native Americans, Mexico or British claims to Oregon did not stop American settlers in our history and a French Louisiana would unlikely stop them in this timeline. Louisiana might end up with a history similar to Florida with settlers carving out their own states and the French powerless to stop them. Although its possible some of these states might make a go for it on their own, most likely they would be annexed by the United States. Eventually France realizes they can't prevent the inevitable without a major war, so they sell whats left of Louisiana to the encroaching Americans while there is still something left to be sold.

The above scenario is not much different from our timeline. American westward expansion just takes a different path, but still happens more or less the same. On its face this might not seem very interesting, but you never know how minor changes can have drastic outcomes as history continues its divergence. Still, I rather spend more time on how Louisiana could stay French indefinitely.

I see two possible ways to make this happen and both center on how well the French defend New Orleans from the British. My assumption is that if Napoleon manages to hang onto Louisiana after 1803, the British would likely try to capture it once war begins again. Depending on whether the French defenders succeed or fail could establish the road Louisiana takes.

If New Orleans is captured by the British it would likely be occupied until Napoleon is defeated. The British may annex Louisiana, but since I want the territory to stay French, the British in this timeline will return it to France. Perhaps they wouldn't want to hassle of administering another French territory or else they would prefer it to act as a buffer to American westward expansion (still a possibility for a War of 1812-esque war in this timeline) without causing a renewed war with an America that feels encircled by the British. Britain guarantees Louisiana as French territory while the United States is mollified by at least having naviagation rights to the Mississippi and New Orleans.

If New Orleans is successfully defended, however, the territory would still likely revert back to Bourbon France once Napoleon is defeated. Whether it stays a part of France is another story. Enough soldiers loyal to Napoleon, who remember their valiant defense of New Orleans, might not want to be ruled again by the Bourbons and would revolt. Even if they don't revolt immediately, Louisiana could become a hotbed of dissent spurred on by ex-Grande Armée soldiers who immigrated from the continent. Depending on how French history plays out in this world, they could revolt later on. Britain (wanting to weaken their old rival) and America (wanting to have one less European power on their border) might even lend a hand.

Of course keeping it the the massive territory "French" over the ensuing centuries is nigh impossible, regardless of who is directly in charge. The French never had much success convincing large number of their citizens to leave Europe for the Americas. The French could look for settlers from elsewhere, maybe even from other Franco-Americans who could be directed to Louisiana instead of the places they went to in our timeline. Catholic Europeans might be lured in Louisiana in exchange for land and stories about the discrimination they would face from Protestant America.

Speaking of Protestant Americans, it is still unlikely in this scenario that Americans will just stop at the Mississippi and go not further. The French government could patrol the river and deport any illegal immigrants, but they probably couldn't stop everyone. Certain Native American tribes, however, could be courted and provided with materials and weapons in exchange for allegiance to Louisiana. Tribes pushed across the Mississippi by the Americans may also find potentials allies from the government in New Orleans. The French could thus make life very difficult for any Americans wishing to settle on the Great Plains.

What about Mexico? France intervened in Mexico in our timeline and they would have a power base in this timeline to do so again. If the French/Louisianans are ambitious enough they may try to rebuild their old empire in North America by conquering Latin America. Whether the British or the Americans would allow that is unlikely. Perhaps at the very least French/Louisianan machinations in Mexico would weaken and fracture the country. Some of these new state could be annexed into Louisiana (especially those with Pacific ports) while other might be propped up as buffers to Mexican revanchism. In fact places like Texas may even be used by the French to encourage Americans to settle elsewhere, thus relieving pressure on their eastern border.

What is America doing in this timeline? With the west blocked, the number of slave and free states in the Union will become unbalanced. Politics in Antebellum America involved keeping the peace between the North and the South and one way to do that was to make sure the Senate was equally split between free and slave states (see Compromise of 1820). Without western states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas, things will become unbalanced very quickly even without making Maine its own state. An earlier civil war could be a distinct possibility.

As a solution, Americans might turn their eyes southward and create states out of Cuba, Central America or even Latin America. At the very least they would want a Pacific port and land to maybe one day build a trans-ocean canal. Other compromises might be adopted like a federally recognized free slave colony. The Civil War may even be avoided altogether with slavery being phased out in the late 19th century after economic pressure forces slave holders to give up their slaves. This alternate America may be more interested in not only Latin American affairs, but colonial African affairs as well. America also would have to deal with large Catholic Hispanic populations a lot earlier than it did in our timeline.

There is still so much to talk about. I didn't even touch on what would happen if Napoleon had been victorious and still had Louisiana. What do you think about my scenario? What did I get right and what did I get wrong? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and if want to submit your own scenario email me at ahwupdate at gmail dot com for a chance to be featured on the next What If Wednesday.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. What are your sources?

    1. this is a theory on alternate history based mostly on opinion? what sources are you expecting to be needed to make this anything more than opinion?


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