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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
The Shadow of the First Consul
by Johnson, Allen

Bainbridge in forlorn captivity at Tripoli, Preble and Barron keeping anxious watch off the stormy coast of Africa, Eaton marching through the windswept desert, are picturesque figures that arrest the attention of the historian; but they seemed like shadowy actors in a remote drama to the American at home, absorbed in the humdrum activities of trade and commerce. Through all these dreary years of intermittent war, other matters engrossed the President and Congress and caught the attention of the public. Not the rapacious Pasha of Tripoli but the First Consul of France held the center of the stage. At the same time that news arrived of the encounter of the Enterprise with the Corsairs came also the confirmation of rumors current all winter in Europe. Bonaparte had secured from Spain the retrocession of the province of Louisiana. From every point of view, as the President remarked, the transfer of this vast province to a new master was "an inauspicious circumstance." The shadow of the Corsican, already a menace to the peace of Europe, fell across the seas.

A strange chain of circumstances linked Bonaparte with the New World. When he became master of France by the coup d'etat of the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799), he fell heir to many policies which the republic had inherited from the old regime. Frenchmen had never ceased to lament the loss of colonial possessions in North America. From time to time the hope of reviving the colonial empire sprang up in the hearts of the rulers of France. It was this hope that had inspired Genet's mission to the United States and more than one intrigue among the pioneers of the Mississippi Valley, during Washington's second Administration. The connecting link between the old regime and the new was the statesman Talleyrand. He had gone into exile in America when the French Revolution entered upon its last frantic phase and had brought back to France the plan and purpose which gave consistency to his diplomacy in the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs, first under the Directory, then under the First Consul. Had Talleyrand alone nursed this plan, it would have had little significance in history; but it was eagerly taken up by a group of Frenchmen who believed that France, having set her house in order and secured peace in Europe, should now strive for orderly commercial development. The road to prosperity, they believed, lay through the acquisition of colonial possessions. The recovery of the province of Louisiana was an integral part of their programme.

While the Directory was still in power and Bonaparte was pursuing his ill-fated expedition in Egypt, Talleyrand had tried to persuade the Spanish Court to cede Louisiana and the Floridas. The only way for Spain to put a limit to the ambitions of the Americans, he had argued speciously, was to shut them up within their natural limits. Only so could Spain preserve the rest of her immense domain. But since Spain was confessedly unequal to the task, why not let France shoulder the responsibility? "The French Republic, mistress of these two provinces, will be a wall of brass forever impenetrable to the combined efforts of England and America," he assured the Spaniards. But the time was not ripe.

Such, then, was the policy which Bonaparte inherited when he became First Consul and master of the destinies of his adopted country. A dazzling future opened before him. Within a year he had pacified Europe, crushing the armies of Austria by a succession of brilliant victories, and laying prostrate the petty states of the Italian peninsula. Peace with England was also in sight. Six weeks after his victory at Marengo, Bonaparte sent a special courier to Spain to demand--the word is hardly too strong--the retrocession of Louisiana.

It was an odd whim of Fate that left the destiny of half the American continent to Don Carlos IV, whom Henry Adams calls "a kind of Spanish George III "--virtuous, to be sure, but heavy, obtuse, inconsequential, and incompetent. With incredible fatuousness the King gave his consent to a bargain by which he was to yield Louisiana in return for Tuscany or other Italian provinces which Bonaparte had just overrun with his armies. "Congratulate me," cried Don Carlos to his Prime Minister, his eyes sparkling, "on this brilliant beginning of Bonaparte's relations with Spain. The Prince-presumptive of Parma, my son-in-law and nephew, a Bourbon, is invited by France to reign, on the delightful banks of the Arno, over a people who once spread their commerce through the known world, and who were the controlling power of Italy,--a people mild, civilized, full of humanity; the classical land of science and art." A few war-ridden Italian provinces for an imperial domain that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior and that extended westward no one knew how far!

The bargain was closed by a preliminary treaty signed at San Ildefonso on October 1, 1800. Just one year later to a day, the preliminaries of the Peace of Amiens were signed, removing the menace of England on the seas. The First Consul was now free to pursue his colonial policy, and the destiny of the Mississippi Valley hung in the balance. Between the First Consul and his goal, however, loomed up the gigantic figure of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a full-blooded negro, who had made himself master of Santo Domingo and had thus planted himself squarely in the searoad to Louisiana. The story of this "gilded African," as Bonaparte contemptuously dubbed him, cannot be told in these pages, because it involves no less a theme than the history of the French Revolution in this island, once the most thriving among the colonial possessions of France in the West Indies. The great plantations of French Santo Domingo (the western part of the island) had supplied half of Europe with sugar, coffee, and cotton; three-fourths of the imports from French-American colonies were shipped from Santo Domingo. As the result of class struggles between whites and mulattoes for political power, the most terrific slave insurrection in the Western Hemisphere had deluged the island in blood. Political convulsions followed which wrecked the prosperity of the island. Out of this chaos emerged the one man who seemed able to restore a semblance of order--the Napoleon of Santo Domingo, whose character, thinks Henry Adams, had a curious resemblance to that of the Corsican. The negro was, however, a ferocious brute without the redeeming qualities of the Corsican, though, as a leader of his race, his intelligence cannot be denied. Though professing allegiance to the French Republic, Toussaint was driven by circumstances toward independence. While his Corsican counterpart was executing his coup d'etat and pacifying Europe, he threw off the mask, imprisoned the agent of the French Directory, seized the Spanish part of the island, and proclaimed a new constitution for Santo Domingo, assuming all power for himself for life and the right of naming his successor. The negro defied the Corsican.

The First Consul was now prepared to accept the challenge. Santo Domingo must be recovered and restored to its former prosperity--even if slavery had to be reestablished--before Louisiana could be made the center of colonial empire in the West. He summoned Leclerc, a general of excellent reputation and husband of his beautiful sister Pauline, and gave to him the command of an immense expedition which was already preparing at Brest. In the latter part of November, Leclerc set sail with a large fleet bearing an army of ten thousand men and on January 29, 1802, arrived off the eastern cape of Santo Domingo. A legend says that Toussaint looking down on the huge armada exclaimed, "We must perish. All France is coming to Santo Domingo. It has been deceived; it comes to take vengeance and enslave the blacks." The negro leader made a formidable resistance, nevertheless, annihilating one French army and seriously endangering the expedition. But he was betrayed by his generals, lured within the French lines, made prisoner, and finally sent to France. He was incarcerated in a French fortress in the Jura Mountains and there perished miserably in 1803.

The significance of these events in the French West Indies was not lost upon President Jefferson. The conquest of Santo Domingo was the prelude to the occupation of Louisiana. It would be only a change of European proprietors, of absentee landlords, to be sure; but there was a world of difference between France, bent upon acquiring a colonial empire and quiescent Spain, resting on her past achievements. The difference was personified by Bonaparte and Don Carlos. The sovereignty of the lower Mississippi country could never be a matter of indifference to those settlers of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio who in the year 1799 sent down the Mississippi in barges, keel-boats, and flatboats one hundred and twenty thousand pounds of tobacco, ten thousand barrels of flour, twenty-two thousand pounds of hemp, five hundred barrels of cider, and as many more of whiskey, for transshipment and export. The right of navigation of the Mississippi was a diplomatic problem bequeathed by the Confederation. The treaty with Spain in 1795 had not solved the question, though it had established a modus vivendi. Spain had conceded to Americans the so-called right of deposit for three years--that is, the right to deposit goods at New Orleans free of duty and to transship them to ocean-going vessels; and the concession, though never definitely renewed, was tacitly continued. No; the people of the trans-Alleghany country could not remain silent and unprotesting witnesses to the retrocession of Louisiana.

Nor was Jefferson's interest in the Mississippi problem of recent origin. Ten years earlier as Secretary of State, while England and Spain seemed about to come to blows over the Nootka Sound affair, he had approached both France and Spain to see whether the United States might not acquire the island of New Orleans or at least a port near the mouth of the river "with a circum-adjacent territory, sufficient for its support, well-defined, and extraterritorial to Spain." In case of war, England would in all probability conquer Spanish Louisiana. How much better for Spain to cede territory on the eastern side of the Mississippi to a safe neighbor like the United States and thereby make sure of her possessions on the western waters of that river. It was "not our interest," wrote Mr. Jefferson, "to cross the Mississippi for ages!"

It was, then, a revival of an earlier idea when President Jefferson, officially through Robert R. Livingston, Minister to France, and unofficially through a French gentleman, Dupont de Nemours, sought to impress upon the First Consul the unwisdom of his taking possession of Louisiana, without ceding to the United States at least New Orleans and the Floridas as a "palliation." Even so, France would become an object of suspicion, a neighbor with whom Americans were bound to quarrel.

Undeterred by this naive threat, doubtless considering its source, the First Consul pressed Don Carlos for the delivery of Louisiana. The King procrastinated but at length gave his promise on condition that France should pledge herself not to alienate the province. Of course, replied the obliging Talleyrand. The King's wishes were identical with the intentions of the French government. France would never alienate Louisiana. The First Consul pledged his word. On October 15, 1802, Don Carlos signed the order that delivered Louisiana to France.

While the President was anxiously awaiting the results of his diplomacy, news came from Santo Domingo that Leclerc and his army had triumphed over Toussaint and his faithless generals, only to succumb to a far more insidious foe. Yellow fever had appeared in the summer of 1802 and had swept away the second army dispatched by Bonaparte to take the place of the first which had been consumed in the conquest of the island. Twenty-four thousand men had been sacrificed at the very threshold of colonial empire, and the skies of Europe were not so clear as they had been. And then came the news of Leclerc's death (November 2, 1802). Exhausted by incessant worry, he too had succumbed to the pestilence; and with him, as events proved, passed Bonaparte's dream of colonial empire in the New World.

Almost at the same time with these tidings a report reached the settlers of Kentucky and Tennessee that the Spanish intendant at New Orleans had suspended the right of deposit. The Mississippi was therefore closed to western commerce. Here was the hand of the Corsican.[*] Now they knew what they had to expect from France. Why not seize the opportunity and strike before the French legions occupied the country? The Spanish garrisons were weak; a few hundred resolute frontiersmen would speedily overpower them.

[* It is now clear enough that Bonaparte was not directly responsible for this act of the Spanish intendant. See Channing, "History of the United States," vol. IV, p. 312, and Note, 326-327.]

Convinced that he must resort to stiffer measures if he would not be hurried into hostilities, President Jefferson appointed James Monroe as Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to France and Spain. He was to act with Robert Livingston at Paris and with Charles Pinckney, Minister to Spain, "in enlarging and more effectually securing our rights and interests in the river Mississippi and in the territories eastward thereof"--whatever these vague terms might mean. The President evidently read much into them, for he assured Monroe that on the event of his mission depended the future destinies of the Republic.

Two months passed before Monroe sailed with his instructions. He had ample time to study them, for he was thirty days in reaching the coast of France. The first aim of the envoys was to procure New Orleans and the Floridas, bidding as high as ten million dollars if necessary. Failing in this object, they were then to secure the right of deposit and such other desirable concessions as they could. To secure New Orleans, they might even offer to guarantee the integrity of Spanish possessions on the west bank of the Mississippi. Throughout the instructions ran the assumption that the Floridas had either passed with Louisiana into the hands of France or had since been acquired.

While the packet bearing Monroe was buffeting stormy seas, the policy of Bonaparte underwent a transformation--an abrupt transformation it seemed to Livingston. On the 12th of March the American Minister witnessed an extraordinary scene in Madame Bonaparte's drawing-room. Bonaparte and Lord Whitworth, the British Ambassador, were in conversation, when the First Consul remarked, "I find, my Lord, your nation want war again." "No, Sir," replied the Ambassador, "we are very desirous of peace." "I must either have Malta or war," snapped Bonaparte. The amazed onlookers soon spread the rumor that Europe was again to be plunged into war; but, viewed in the light of subsequent events, this incident had even greater significance; it marked the end of Bonaparte's colonial scheme. Though the motives for this change of front will always be a matter of conjecture, they are somewhat clarified by the failure of the Santo Domingo expedition. Leclerc was dead; the negroes were again in control; the industries of the island were ruined; Rochambeau, Leclerc's successor, was clamoring for thirty-five thousand more men to reconquer the island; the expense was alarming--and how meager the returns for this colonial venture! Without Santo Domingo, Louisiana would be of little use; and to restore prosperity to the West India island--even granting that its immediate conquest were possible--would demand many years and large disbursements. The path to glory did not lie in this direction. In Europe, as Henry Adams observes, "war could be made to support war; in Santo Domingo peace alone could but slowly repair some part of this frightful waste."

There may well have been other reasons for Bonaparte's change of front. If he read between the lines of a memoir which Pontalba, a wealthy and well-informed resident of Louisiana, sent to him, he must have realized that this province, too, while it might become an inexhaustible source of wealth for France, might not be easy to hold. There was here, it is true, no Toussaint L'Ouverture to lead the blacks in insurrection; but there was a white menace from the north which was far more serious. These Kentuckians, said Pontalba trenchantly, must be watched, cajoled, and brought constantly under French influence through agents. There were men among them who thought of Louisiana "as the highroad to the conquest of Mexico." Twenty or thirty thousand of these westerners on flatboats could come down the river and sweep everything before them. To be sure, they were an undisciplined horde with slender Military equipment--a striking contrast to the French legions; but, added the Frenchman, "a great deal of skill in shooting, the habit of being in the woods and of enduring fatigue--this is what makes up for every deficiency."

And if Bonaparte had ever read a remarkable report of the Spanish Governor Carondelet, he must have divined that there was something elemental and irresistible in this down-the-river-pressure of the people of the West. "A carbine and a little maize in a sack are enough for an American to wander about in the forests alone for a whole month. With his carbine, he kills the wild cattle and deer for food and defends himself from the savages. The maize dampened serves him in lieu of bread . . . . The cold does not affright him. When a family tires of one location, it moves to another, and there it settles with the same ease. Thus in about eight years the settlement of Cumberland has been formed, which is now about to be created into a state."

On Easter Sunday, 1803, Bonaparte revealed his purpose, which had doubtless been slowly maturing, to two of his ministers, one of whom, Barbs Marbois, was attached to the United States through residence, his devotion to republican principles, and marriage to an American wife. The First Consul proposed to cede Louisiana to the United States: he considered the colony as entirely lost. What did they think of the proposal? Marbois, with an eye to the needs of the Treasury of which he was the head, favored the sale of the province; and next day he was directed to interview Livingston at once. Before he could do so, Talleyrand, perhaps surmising in his crafty way the drift of the First Consul's thoughts, startled Livingston by asking what the United States would give for the whole of Louisiana. Livingston, who was in truth hard of hearing, could not believe his ears. For months he had talked, written, and argued in vain for a bit of territory near the mouth of the Mississippi, and here was an imperial domain tossed into his lap, as it were. Livingston recovered from his surprise sufficiently to name a trifling sum which Talleyrand declared too low. Would Mr. Livingston think it over? He, Talleyrand, really did not speak from authority. The idea had struck him, that was all.

Some days later in a chance conversation with Marbois, Livingston spoke of his extraordinary interview with Talleyrand. Marbois intimated that he was not ignorant of the affair and invited Livingston to a further conversation. Although Monroe had already arrived in Paris and was now apprised of this sudden turn of affairs, Livingston went alone to the Treasury Office and there in conversation, which was prolonged until midnight, he fenced with Marbois over a fair price for Louisiana. The First Consul, said Marbois, demanded one hundred million francs. Livingston demurred at this huge sum. The United States did not want Louisiana but was willing to give ten million dollars for New Orleans and the Floridas. What would the United States give then? asked Marbois. Livingston replied that he would have to confer with Monroe. Finally Marbois suggested that if they would name sixty million francs, (less than $12,000,000) and assume claims which Americans had against the French Treasury for twenty million more, he would take the offer under advisement. Livingston would not commit himself, again insisting that he must consult Monroe.

So important did this interview seem to Livingston that he returned to his apartment and wrote a long report to Madison without waiting to confer with Monroe. It was three o'clock in the morning when he was done. "We shall do all we can to cheapen the purchase," he wrote, "but my present sentiment is that we shall buy."

History does not record what Monroe said when his colleague revealed these midnight secrets. But in the prolonged negotiations which followed Monroe, though ill, took his part, and in the end, on April 30, 1803, set his hand to the treaty which ceded Louisiana to the United States on the terms set by Marbois. In two conventions bearing the same date, the commissioners bound the United States to pay directly to France the sum of sixty million francs ($11,250,000) and to assume debts owed by France to American citizens, estimated at not more than twenty million francs ($3,750,000). Tradition says that after Marbois, Monroe, and Livingston had signed their names, Livingston remarked: "We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our lives . . . . From this day the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank."


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