Napoleon and Haiti – Letter to the Editor NY Times

To the Editor:

Not mentioned in Andro Linklater’s explanation of the Louisiana Purchase as a real estate deal (”565 Million Acres, Riv Vu,” Op-Ed, April 28) is the crucial role played by the Haitian revolution.

Napoleon wanted an empire in the West, but first he had to suppress the slave revolt in Hispaniola, where Toussaint L’Ouverture had led the Haitians to victory. The French lost thousands of soldiers in trying to do so and returned to France defeated. That prevented the French from going to Louisiana. Without Haiti, one of France’s richest colonies, Napoleon gave up on his dreams of a Western empire and made the deal to sell Louisiana.

This history is often overlooked. One hopes that will not occur with regard to next year’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Haitian revolution.


New York, April 28, 2003


Text of Opinion

565 Million Acres, Riv Vu


APRIL 28, 2003

Seen from the lofty perspective of its two instigators, the Louisiana Purchase was a matter either of nation building (Thomas Jefferson’s view) or of molding destiny (Napoleon Bonaparte’s version). The sheer scale of the enterprise — more than doubling the size of the United States and paying for much of Napoleon’s effort to conquer Europe — makes either viewpoint almost irresistible. But each misses what is most remarkable about the transaction: the speed with which it was accomplished and the ease with which the huge territory became American.

With this week’s bicentennial of the treaty’s signing in Paris, it is useful to see it through the eyes of the actual negotiators. To them it was a real estate deal — vast in extent, but fundamentally a commercial matter of fixing the price of a property. Exactly half the credit for the businesslike approach of the two sides should go to the compelling attractions of a French society hostess named Adélaïde de Flahaut.

Her role began in 1785 when the New York diplomat and businessman Gouverneur Morris went to France to negotiate tobacco deals for an (unrelated) associate, Robert Morris. Flahaut, whose pet name was Adèle, took Morris as her lover, a pleasure he shared with the bishop of Autun, otherwise known as Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Paris gossip speculated salaciously on the curious coincidence of Talleyrand’s having a clubfoot while Morris stumped around on a wooden leg. But none of the three cared. ”My friend’s countenance,” Morris wrote of Adèle, ”glows with satisfaction in looking at [Talleyrand] and myself as we sit together agreeing in sentiment & supporting the opinions of each other.”

A decade later the Jacobin Terror forced Talleyrand to flee France, and as a refugee in the United States he naturally sought out Gouverneur Morris, who found him employment with Robert Morris’s real estate company. In the years since independence, a frenzy of land speculation had overtaken the young republic; governments, state and federal, sold huge swaths of territory to finance their operations.

Breathtaking deals were struck. In the infamous Yazoo land fraud, 40 million acres were sold by a bribed Georgia legislature to a consortium that included a United States Supreme Court justice, several members of Congress and the governor of the Tennessee Territory. Speculators like Robert Morris (who, naturally, also had a stake in the Yazoo deal) could buy and sell millions of acres a year.

Talleyrand, dispatched to Maine by Robert Morris to spy out new lands for purchase, surveyed the grandeur of the landscape with thoughts that were unmistakably those of a speculator. ”There were forests as old as the world itself,” he wrote, ”large natural meadows, strange and delicate flowers in the face of these immense solitudes we gave vent to our imagination. Our minds built cities, villages and hamlets.”

When fortune carried him back to France and elevated him to the post of foreign secretary under Napoleon, this commercial experience became sharply relevant. By 1803 Napoleon wanted to raise money for war with Britain, and Jefferson was prepared to pay for control of France’s territory around the mouth of the Mississippi in order to guarantee free use of the river.

The American minister in Paris, Robert Livingston, had already approached the French about such a limited purchase. (Livingston, who owned some 130,000 acres in upstate New York, was himself very familiar with the American real estate market.) But a critical shift occurred on April 11, 1803, when he went to meet Talleyrand in his offices in the Rue du Bac.

Writing James Madison that evening, Livingston reported that Talleyrand had suddenly asked whether ”we wished to have the whole of Louisiana.” Surprised and playing for time, Livingston at first denied any interest, but Talleyrand persisted, ”What would you give for the whole?” Livingston came back with an opening bid of about $3.75 million, which Talleyrand dismissed as too low. But both men knew the game being played.

Talleyrand told Livingston to consider the proposition and return with a better price, and as the maneuvering continued over the days ahead, Livingston recorded Talleyrand’s promise to ”give me a certificate that I was the most importunate [negotiator] he had yet met with.”

With the participation of James Monroe, who arrived in Paris the next day as the American ”envoy extraordinary,” and the French treasury minister, François Barbé-Marbois, agreement was reached just 18 days later for the sale of France’s possessions in North America — some 565 million acres — for about $15 million, or less than 3 cents an acre.

In fact, without their knowledge of the booming land market, the American negotiators would have found it hard to accept the French price. It exceeded Congress’s appropriation by $13 million. But Monroe and Livingston were aware that federal land was selling for $2 an acre. Although no one knew the exact size of Louisiana — ”I can give you no guidance, but you have made an excellent deal for yourselves,” Talleyrand said airily — both men could work out that not only would American strategic interests be served by the purchase, there would easily be profit to cover what was paid. On April 30, the treaty terms were formally accepted by both sides.

Looking at the Louisiana Purchase as a property transaction rather than a work of diplomacy helps to explain another anomaly. Many Americans feared the new land would make the nation too big to govern and, given the prevailing view that government was authority exercised from above over an unruly populace, they had good reason for their fears. But Louisiana was to witness the development of a new kind of society.

Under Spain and France, the province had been a near-feudal domain, ruled by appointees from Europe, with the land sold only to those approved by the governor. In the United States, however, land could be owned by whoever could afford it. Since 1785, all federal land west of the Appalachians had, at Jefferson’s urging, been measured out in one-mile-square sections for sale as real estate, and this grid of squares now extended into the Louisiana Purchase.

For the first time in history, land, the primary source of wealth production, could be owned by anyone: speculators, settlers, even squatters. ”Power,” said John Adams, with ice-cold accuracy, ”always follows property.” In the Old World property was distributed in a hierarchical manner with the powerful few owning most; but as America spread westward, more than one billion acres of public land, including most of the Louisiana Purchase, would pass into private hands. Power still followed property, but now it was spread democratically, and the nation it created possessed innate stability, because each property-owning citizen had a vested interest in a law-abiding society.

Adélaïde de Flahaut’s contribution to history might be worth only a footnote, but it’s worth acknowledging, as a reminder of the real value of the Louisiana Purchase.