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Napoleon, Haiti, and Manifest Destiny

In 1800-1801, Spain secretly returned the lands granted to it in the Treaty of Paris—the 1763 treaty which ended the Seven Year’s War—to French custody. These lands were Louisiana Territory, and Napoleon planned to turn these lands into the North American, overseas arm of his empire.

The United States government learned of this in 1802. The knowledge caused no small amount of panic because the government which controlled that territory controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and whomever controlled the mouth of the Mississippi had an effective stranglehold on the economy of the United States. And indeed, the Unites States’ government’s fears came to pass when Napoleon closed the New Orleans port.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase; courtesy of A People and a Nation: Volume I Ninth Edition by Mary Beth Norton

But something was happening in the background of all of this which would permanently destroy Napoleon’s plans and alter the future of the United States, for better or for worse. The slave revolt of St. Domingue began in 1791, and concluded with the complete overthrow of French colonial rule in 1804. This is known today as the Haitian Revolution.

Napoleon had planned to use St. Domingue as his settled holding in the Caribbean from which to launch his new empire. The enslaved labor force and the revenue he gained from the work done by this labor force would form the backbone of the infrastructure for this new arm of his empire.

Having lost that holding, that labor force, and all the money that came with it, and having been in preparation for war with Britain, Napoleon decided that his plans for the Louisiana Territory were no longer financially tenable and made the choice to sell it to the United States instead. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for $15 million, or about $233 million in today’s dollars. And thus began, in earnest, American expansionism and the mentality of Manifest Destiny.

Now, I said that the impact of the Haitian Revolution on French empire building would alter the future of the United States for better or for worse. I said this because, if you were an impoverished (white) immigrant, or a white farmer in search of land, it was for better. If you bought into early nineteenth century conceptions of the American Dream—which nearly all people of European descent did—it was for better. If you believed that it was the destiny of the still New Nation to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it was for better.

However, if you were a First Nations person, it was for worse; if you were a non-white person living under Spanish/French racial constructions, it was for worse; if you were a free person of African descent, it was for worse; if you were a white person who was very much not socialized in an Anglo-centric manner, it was for worse. And for descendants of some of those groups, it is still for worse.

Here I would like to input a map depicting the territories inhabited by First Nations peoples as this piece of land was being handed off between white, European powers. However, the best map of this nature is too large to be included in this post. Thus you may find it here; be sure to use the zoom feature, and I do apologize for the inappropriate file name; I have no control over that as it is too large to upload.

And just an interesting note about the Haitian Revolution: the use of the philosophies which incited “American” revolt against British rule by a black, enslaved population terrified people like Thomas Jefferson so much that they could barely speak of it; they had no idea how to make sense of it within their precisely constructed idea of race. In the words of one of my grad school peers, “The Haitian Revolution was kind of like Voldemort in the eyes of the Founding Fathers.”

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    Nothing more to add but more Harry Potter analogies
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