Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Haitian Revolution and the Sale of Louisiana

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Haitian Revolution and the Sale of Louisiana

Article excerpt

From the perspective of the history of France and its Atlantic Empire, what in the United States is known as the "Louisiana Purchase" is remembered as the "Sale of Louisiana." And it has traditionally been interpreted as primarily, if not exclusively, the result of European "balance-of-power" politics, specifically the complicated diplomatic and political tensions between France and Britain during the brief period of peace that lasted from late 1801 until 1803. But, as Robert Paquette has emphasized, seeing Bonaparte's decision to sell Louisiana in purely European terms is "rather parochial," for it is impossible to separate the "balance-of-power" between Britain and France at this point from events in one of the central theaters of imperial conflict: the Caribbean, and particularly Saint-Domingue. The events in this colony, he notes, were certainly shaped by European imperial rivalries, but they shaped these rivalries as well, "in some cases decisively."1

The transfer of Louisiana was one such case. The most important causal force in shaping France's sale of Louisiana was not the diplomatic maneuverings and choices of European governments, but the actions of a revolutionary movement in a colony on the verge of becoming the independent nation of Haiti. By refusing Bonaparte's plan to re-enslave them, the people who made up this movement - most of them former slaves - "drastically limited Napoleon's capacity to fulfill his western design and to project power in the Americas."2 They therefore rendered French designs on Louisiana irrelevant and thus paved the way for its cession to the United States.

The connection between the Louisiana Purchase and the Haitian Revolution is rich with irony: it was the courage of men and women fighting to preserve their liberty, and the leadership of the one-time slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines, that made possible one of Thomas Jefferson's signal political achievements, one of whose major results was the expansion of slavery in the United States. But remembering the centrality of Haiti in the transfer of Louisiana also calls for us to think differently about the broader place and significance of this event: what is often remembered as a remarkably "peaceful" transfer of land was in fact predicated on events of enormous violence that took place in the Caribbean. The war for liberty and independence that created Haiti was an extremely brutal one in which upwards of 50,000 French troops, and probably twice as many men and women from Saint-Domingue lost their lives.

The victory in Haiti was the result of the commitment and sacrifice of its revolutionaries. But the French defeat on the battlefield was the result of another kind of defeat that preceded it, and which I explore in detail in this paper: the failure of imagination that made it impossible for Bonaparte and his government to accept the remarkable and promising reconfiguration of empire being offered up to them by the Caribbean of the late 1790s. What ultimately doomed Bonaparte's plans for the region was a fatal combination of ambition and blindness. The goal of his "Western design" was to reconstruct and expand a French empire in the Americas in order to secure and sustain a powerful sea-borne empire that could successfully challenge England. But in imagining the scope of this empire he did not take into consideration the dramatic transformations that had taken place in the Caribbean during the previous decade. A lack of political imagination - one tied both to racism and to a misunderstanding of the situation on the ground in the Caribbean - prevented decision-makers in Paris from seeing that France's best hope of channeling emancipation into a reconstitution of export-oriented plantation economy in fact lay in collaboration with Louverture's regime. Instead of enabling the realization of Bonaparte's new imperial dreams, the attempt to assert direct metropolitan control over Saint-Domingue incited a war in the colony, reversing the economic progress of the previous years and opening the way for a group of generals to declare the full independence of the colony. …

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