France tries to regain the West. Genet’s intrigues. Attitude of England and Spain. Napoleon’s designs. Talleyrand’s plans for a colonial empire. Louisiana ceded to France. Napoleon’s plans checked by Toussaint’s rebellion in San Domingo.

If Spanish control of the outlet of our western trade was bad, a French rule under the aggressive Napoleon would have been worse, and this began to appear as a possibility. The pride of the French had been hurt by their cession of Louisiana to Spain. So strong was this feeling that various efforts were made by French ministers to regain the lost territory. To the government of the United States Louisiana became in the last decade of the eighteenth century a source of constant anxiety. From the beginning of this decade to the consummation of the purchase in 1803 was the most critical period in the varied history of Louisiana. Within our borders there was the expansion of a race not to be held in check. Without, the efforts of three great powers were concerned at various times with the possession of Louisiana. A mere outline of these efforts will illustrate the perils of the situation.

In 1790, when England and Spain were at variance, the English minister William Pitt contemplated a seizure of the Floridas and Louisiana, which Washington, and Jefferson, then secretary of state, rightly viewed as a menace to the future of Autograph of Genet the United States. Fortunately the danger passed, but only to be succeeded by a new peril.

France, eager to recover Louisiana, sent Genet as her minister to the United States in 1793 with a proposition for an alliance which should aim at the wresting of Canada from England and the seizure of Louisiana and the Floridas from Spain. When this "entangling foreign alliance" was declined, Genet, acting under secret instructions from his government, instigated movements in the Carolinas and Georgia to seize the Floridas, and in Kentucky to descend upon New Orleans. The frontiersmen were ready, but the progress of the French Revolution and the request of our government for Genet’s recall prevented a frontier revolt against Spanish occupation which might have had results of lasting consequence.

The plottings of Genet to wrest Louisiana from Spain were followed by France’s attempt to secure Louisiana through the treaty of Basel, which closed her war with Spain. In 1796, through the French minister to Spain, another effort was made in the series, which resulted in success in 1800. By 1797 there were added complications. The Spanish minister at Washington was expressing apprehensions of an invasion of upper Louisiana by the English. The English minister Liston denied the charge, but admitted that there had been some discussion of an invasion of Louisiana from the south. As a matter of fact, Senator Blount of Tennessee was implicated in this plot and was expelled from the Senate.1

In the following year Talleyrand broached his plan of a great colonial French empire in his formal proposition to Spain to exchange Louisiana for a principality to be made up of the papal legations and the duchy of Parma. This ambitious scheme was coupled with a generally inimical Autograph of Talleyrandattitude on the part of France, which led to open hostilities on the sea between the United States and France in 1798—1799. England, stirred by the growing aggressiveness of France, contemplated cooperation with the United States in the prevention of the transfer of Louisiana to France.

Next, in 1800, came the secret treaty of retrocession by which Louisiana was to be returned to France, and in 1802 we find an English alliance again considered as a possible means of defense against French aggression.2 In addition to these menaces of foreign interference we must bear in mind the pressure exercised at home by frontier settlers, sorely tried by Spanish exactions, and none too patient or law-abiding at the best. This pressure made the outcome inevitable.3 The various parts which the question played in our own politics need not be dwelt upon in detail, but it contained possibilities not only of most serious foreign embroilments but also of dangerous internal dissensions.

Of all these attempts upon Louisiana the most dangerous, and the most important as regards their unlooked-for outcome, were the efforts of France made through Talleyrand, who became minister of foreign affairs for the French Directory in 1797.

In the following year Talleyrand wrote the French minister at Madrid that the Floridas and Louisiana should be returned to France in order that the power of America might be bounded by the limits set by France and Spain. In 1800 Napoleon, then First Consul, endeavored again to secure Louisiana from Spain. When, on October 1, 1800, he signed the convention or agreement between France and the United States which closed the little war between the two countries, Napoleon at the same time drew up a secret treaty with Spain, providing that Louisiana should be given back to France. All knowledge of this was carefully kept from the world. Napoleon intended that nothing should be known of his plan until he was ready to land a force of troops at New Orleans. For this purpose the French portion of the island of San Domingo would be a most important base of operations.

But these plans were checked by a series of events which led even Napoleon to change his purpose. The influence of the Spanish minister Godoy kept King Carlos IV of Spain from signing the treaty with France until the autumn of 1802. In San Domingo there began in 1791 among the colored population an era of bloodshed which included civil war, massacre, and warfare against Spain and France, the powers which claimed control of the island. Out of this time of carnage and revolt rose the historic figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture.4

One of the most curious of the many strange events associated with Louisiana is that Toussaint L’Ouverture, born a slave in the French part of San Domingo, should have done so much to thwart the ambition of Napoleon for a colonial empire. In 1794, after a period of civil war and anarchy in the island, the National Assembly of France abolished Autograph of Toussaint L'Overture slavery, and the negroes, led by Toussaint, drove the Spaniards from the portion of the island which they held. He became the actual ruler, although San Domingo was nominally a colony of France. But he distrusted France and with reason, for Napoleon in spite of friendly promises intended to crush the idea of freedom cherished by Toussaint and his followers.

When in 1798 the United States became involved with France, and commercial relations were suspended, Toussaint declared his independence and assured the United States that he would safeguard trade if it were renewed. His soldiers coöperated with the American fleet at the siege of Jacmel, a port of San Domingo. But our half-war with France came to an end. In Europe the treaty of Amiens closed the war between France and England, and then Napoleon was free to crush Toussaint.

In 1802 Napoleon sent General Leclerc with a great fleet and army to reconquer and occupy the island. Although Toussaint had aided us against France, the United States now made no offer of intervention in his behalf. The negroes fought desperately against the French, but they were overmatched. Toussaint surrendered and was carried to France, where he died in prison. There are grewsome pages in the history of that insurrection, but Toussaint’s war for liberty will always touch the sympathies of American readers.

The victory of the French in San Domingo was dearly bought. Napoleon’s purpose in the summer of 1802 was "to take possession of Louisiana in the shortest time possible." But Toussaint’s rebellion and the ravages of yellow fever among the French troops involved delay and appalling loss. Time brought a change of purpose, and Napoleon’s veterans never landed to occupy Louisiana and face the frontiersmen and soldiers of the United States.

1 The Spanish delay, 1795—1799, in removing troops from Walnut Hills, Chickasaw Bluff, and other river posts according to the treaty, irritated our West and influenced the Blount conspiracy.
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2 From the moment that France takes New Orleans we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."
—Jefferson to Livingston.
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3 " The winning of Louisiana was due to no one man, and least of all to any statesman or set of statesmen. It followed inevitably upon the great westward thrust of the settler folk, — a thrust which was delivered blindly, but which no rival race could parry until it was stopped by the ocean itself."

The fourth volume of Theodore Roosevelt’s "Winning of the West," from which this extract was taken, was published in 1896, when the author could not foresee that the "westward thrust" of Americans was not to be stopped even by the ocean.
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4 "The story of Toussaint L’Ouverture has been told almost as often as that of Napoleon, but not in connection with the history of the United States, although Toussaint exercised on their history an influence as decisive as that of any European ruler. His fate placed him at a point where Bonaparte needed absolute control. San Domingo was the only center from which the measures needed for rebuilding the French colonial systems could radiate. Before Bonaparte could reach Louisiana he was obliged to crush the power of Toussaint."—" History of the United States," by Henry Adams, Vol. I, p. 378.
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Chapter 6

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman