Napoleon - An Intimate Portrait

Napoléon's Impact on the Americas

Most people are aware of Napoléon’s impact on Europe, but his influence was felt as far away as the Americas. Napoléon impacted the Americas in two important ways:
• he invaded Haiti — or St. Domingue, as it was then known; and
• he sold the Louisiana territory to the United States.

Addressing Slavery in Haiti
During the 18th century, the French possessed a colonial empire rivaling that of Great Britain. In fact, the French reexported more colonial goods to other European countries than the British. The jewel of the French colonial empire was St. Domingue. It exported more sugar than any other French colony. The sugar was produced, however, at a great cost by African slaves. Conditions for the slaves were so harsh that they lived only an estimated seven years after being enslaved.

When the French Revolution broke out, slavery soon became an issue. How could the revolutionaries talk about liberty, equality, and fraternity while many of their colonies had slaves? A revolutionary group named The Friends of the Blacks campaigned for the abolition of slavery in France. In 1794 the government voted to end slavery in its colonies. The decision came too late, though, to stop a rebellion of black slaves that had already broken out in St. Domingue. After years of bloodshed, Toussaint l’Ouverture emerged as the leader of the rebellion, and he succeeded in restoring some order to the island.

When Napoléon came to power, he was faced with the problem of how to handle Toussaint and what to do with St. Domingue. Most advisors urged him to restore French authority over the island along with slavery. Only one person, a French officer named Colonel Vincent, counseled Napoléon to negotiate with Toussaint. Unfortunately, Napoléon listened to the ex-slave owners and invaded the island with an army of 20,000 men led by his brother-in-law, General Leclerc.

The French landed under the guise of protecting the island from the British. But Leclerc had secret orders to capture and send Toussaint to France and reinstitute slavery. The Haitians led by Toussaint rose in rebellion. Despite harsh repression and the capture of Toussaint, Haitian troops defeated the French. It was the first successful slave revolt in the Americas. By November 1803, the remnants of the French army left the island. Their exit destroyed any hope that Napoléon had of restoring the French colonial empire. Napoléon later said that his handling of St. Domingue had been “a great folly” and that he should have negotiated with Toussaint.

Controlling New Orleans
Napoléon’s failure in St. Domingue had a direct impact on the United States. Evidence suggests that Napoléon wanted to use Haiti as a springboard for a larger French empire in America, one centered in New Orleans. The American government under President Thomas Jefferson was greatly worried about the possibility of French troops in North America. Jefferson especially wanted New Orleans because it controlled trade on the Mississippi River. All American trade west of the Appalachian Mountains went down the Mississippi, making control of New Orleans vital.

In 1801, Jefferson sent Robert Livingston to Paris to acquire New Orleans from France. Napoléon refused. Livingston remained for the next two years, unable to make any headway in negotiations. Then in April 1803, Napoléon suddenly changed his mind. He offered to sell not only New Orleans, but also the entire French territory to the United States.

Historians have argued over Napoléon’s motives for selling Louisiana, but two reasons certainly were influential: his failure in St. Domingue and the renewal of war between France and Great Britain. With the British Navy once again patrolling the seas against France, Napoléon realized that his dream of a colonial empire was ended. The result was the Louisiana Purchase. For about $15 million the United States added approximately 827,000 square miles, roughly doubling the nation’s size.

Napoléon’s influence on the Americas was important, for both good and ill. His failure in St. Domingue led to the creation of Haiti, the first successful black-led nation in the Americas. His sale of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States set us on the path to becoming a great world power.

Dr. Kyle Eidahl
Department of History, Florida A&M University

The French in Florida

  • 1562 French Huguenot leader Jean Ribault lands at the mouth of the St. Johns River in northeast Florida.

  • 1564 René Goulaine de Laudonnière of France builds a fort on the St. Johns River. He names it Fort de la Caroline after the monarch.

  • 1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés of Spain captures the French-held Fort de la Caroline, renaming it San Mateo.

  • 1565 French Admiral Jean Ribault and approximately 200 of his men are put to death by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés at Matanazas River near St. Augustine.

  • 1568 Dominique de Gorgues of France captures San Mateo and kills the Spanish defenders. He returns to France without leaving any troops at the fort.

  • 1719 The French capture Pensacola from the Spanish. After changing hands several times, the settlement is finally returned to the Spanish three years later.

  • 1781 The British garrison surrender Fort George in Pensacola to a large, combined force of Spanish and French troops.

  • 1824 Congress gives a township of land near Tallahassee to the Marquis de Lafayette for his service during the Revolutionary War.

  • 1831 Although Lafayette never comes to Florida, he encourages the settlement of French families in his township near Tallahassee. They eventually settle an area

    in northwest Tallahassee now known as Frenchtown.

  • 1856 Lafayette County, the 33rd county in the state, is named in honor of Lafayette.

Ellis, Mary Louise, and William Warren Rogers. Tallahassee and Leon County: A History and Bibliography.

Tallahassee: Historic Tallahassee Preservation Board, Florida Department of State, 1986.

Florida Historical Society,

Allen, Morris, comp. The Florida Handbook 2003–2004. Tallahassee: The Peninsular Publishing Company, 2003.

Images © Chalençon
A Traveling Exhibition from Russell Etling Company (c) 2011