History is filled with melancholy tales of the financially distressed forced to part with some precious belonging to tide them over til things get better – estates, jewels, race horses, fine cars and of course, land.
But it’s hard to feel sorry for Napoleon just because he was out of pocket after a failed military effort in Santo Domingo and had to gear up to fight England. In any case, he had extorted the item in question from Spain three years earlier – he made them sign a treaty ‘retroceding’ the property.
The item in question was Louisiana and Thomas Jefferson really wanted it. Without the port of New Orleans, the settlers flooding the midwest would have no outlet for their agricultural products. He sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston to France and authorized them to spend $10 million to buy New Orleans and west Florida. But Napoleon wanted to sell the entire Louisiana territory for $15 million and Monroe and Livingston had to do some serious thinking. No phone, no telegraph, no email. Time is of the essence. What is an emissary to do…
They took, as the British say, a decision. They decided to trust their own judgment and they agreed to Bonaparte’s terms.
The Louisiana Purchase was ratified by congress on this date in 1803.
Napoleon, btw, really misread the Santo Domingo situation. He thought putting down a slave revolt on an obscure island in the Caribbean would be cake. He sent a general to the island – now called Haiti – kidnapped Toussaint L’Ouverture and put him in prison and figured c’est ca. But 25,000 French soldiers weren’t enough to suppress a half a million slaves fighting for their freedom. Before he gave up on Haiti, Napoleon lost 50,000 soldiers and eight generals, some to malaria and yellow fever.
Eventually the French recognized Haitian independence, but forced Haiti to pay indemnity for freedom – about $12 billion to compensate for profits lost in the slave trade. It’s very hard to believe that everyone at the time thought this was reasonable. Haiti made payments to France until 1947.