Unintended Consequences:  Napoleon’s Invasion of Haiti and the Louisiana Purchase

 

1802

 

            The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 is a familiar event in American annals, the “best land deal in history” by which the US succeeded in doubling its territory with $15 million and the stroke of a pen.  The country was barely 26 years out of the cradle, yet it now ranged halfway across the North American continent, and it had availed itself of a region rich in the nourishing black soil that can feed and fortify a nation on the rise.  The acquisition of the Louisiana Territory would enable the pioneering expeditions of Lewis and Clark, those seminal and archetypical frontiersmen who would inspire waves of successors to brave the unknown and untamed lands west of the Mississippi River.  Perhaps even more crucially, the Louisiana Purchase would pave the way for further American westward expansion, to the chilly brine of the Pacific and lands even further beyond. 

            While the Purchase itself is well-recognized, the factors enabling this historically unusual land transfer are often obscure to most students of history.  Why did Napoleonic France, in possession of a seemingly invaluable land mass in North America, divest itself of such a prize with such seeming rapidity?  Thomas Jefferson and the two American agents he dispatched to France—James Monroe and Robert Livingston—were undeniably clever in their negotiations, but the most crucial event in motivating Napoleon to sell such a plum possession was an obscure confrontation in recently independent Haiti a year earlier.  Napoleon had envisioned the Louisiana Territory as a granary, in effect, for a French Caribbean sugar empire centered at Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola.  Despite a vigorous effort to retake the island and subdue the wily forces of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the former slave-cum national founder vanquished the invaders with the aid of a debilitating yellow fever epidemic.  Thwarted in his plans, Napoleon elected to forgo the Caribbean sugar empire, and acquire some extra funds for his European campaigns.  L’Ouverture had unwittingly paved the way for the United States to become a great power.  This essay explores the historically momentous confrontation between Napoleon’s armies and the upstart Haitian leader in greater detail.

 

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