Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 51 Dreams of Empire

THUS far, except for the solitary incident of the Barbary Powers, the attention of the United States had been devoted almost exclusively to domestic problems. The undeclared war with France and the repercussions of the XYZ affair that had kept the last years of Adams's administration in a turmoil had been satisfactorily settled. Napoleon, after his seizure of power through the coup d'état of the 18th Brumaire ( November 9, 1799), and faced with the combined might of Europe, had determined to settle affairs with this strange new republic across the sea. A treaty was negotiated whereby, in return for an extinguishment of American claims for damages over confiscated cargoes and ships, or so the French were to claim, the embarrassing guarantee of the United States to protect French possessions in the western hemisphere was similarly withdrawn. Jefferson submitted the treaty to the Senate, and it was duly ratified on December 19, 1801. Seemingly, there were no further points of contact between the two nations at which friction could develop.

But on July 22, 1800, shortly after his overwhelming victory over the Austrians at Marengo, Napoleon felt himself once more in a position to cast a speculative eye on America. The dreams of a vast American empire, made familiar by earlier unsuccessful moves of Talleyrand, stirred again. The great trans-Mississippian West, granted to Spain as a douceur for losses elsewhere, loomed in Napoleon's mind both as an extension of his own world power and as a containment for the youthful, but aggressive United States. Spain, weak and dying, could not be depended on to hold the line. Therefore, Spain must return what she could not hold.

Napoleon sent a courier in secrecy and haste to the French Minister at Madrid. Obtain a treaty, he ordered, whereby Spain would return, or retrocede, Louisiana to France at a fixed future date; and, to sweeten the pill, offer her the Duchy of Parma in Italy.

Since Spain lay in the shadow of the great First Consul's power, she could not help but obey. A preliminary projet was quickly drawn on August 28, 1800, in which Spain pledged herself "to retrocede to the French Republic the colony of Louisiana, with the same extent it actually had in the hands of Spain, and such as it should be according to the treaties subsequently passed between Spain and other States." But more was obtained than had even at first been intended. "Spain," continued the projet, "shall further join to this cession that of the two Floridas, eastern and

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