Empire of Liberty: The Louisiana Bargain

Excerpt from Christopher Littleton’s “Bonaparte”, Random House Publishing, 2012. 

The surrender of Field Marshal Michael von Melas’ army and negotiated end of the siege of Mantua secured northern Italy for France from the exhausted Austrians. On June 28, the siege formally ended and the Austrians limped back east. Napoléon met Léonard Mathurin Duphot on July 1, they had not seen each other since Napoléon had left for Egypt nearly three years prior. On July 8, the Consul was back in Milan enjoying the company of Signora Giuseppina Grassini. Peace feelers went out to the Emperor and Napoléon pored over reports and correspondence sent from Spain.

Wishing to ride the political capital of his victories (and finally conclude peace with Austria), he arrived in Paris before the end of the month. On his expedition northward, Napoléon sent dispatches preparing forces and supplies for another quick expedition to Spain. Wanting to ensure his reign was shored up by his victories, and believing his success in Italy had surely earned the peace, he was clearly preparing to head towards Madrid and steal the spotlight from General Louis Lazare Hoche.

Events conspired against this.

First, Napoléon needed to spend time in the capital to stabilize his still nascent rule, even with the political capital earned from his victory. Secondly, it became clear that Austria was not ready to negotiate just yet. Frustrated, Napoléon found himself forced to send a decent portion of his waiting forces back towards Lombardy to cement France’s position in the region. Napoléon gave an exhausted André Masséna command of this force and ordered him to keep watch on the road from Vienna. Initially lamenting his inability to return to France, Masséna ultimately found a quiet front and a long period of diligent relaxation in the comforts of Milan. This also meant that Napoléon needed to remain in France in the event he needed to hurry east into the Germanies and assist (or overtake) Jean Victor Marie Moreau. Napoléon desired to capture Madrid but no matter what happened on that front at this point there was no way the Spanish could mount an invasion of France. If Moreau encountered disaster, an army of Germans could be in Strasbourg or Charleoi in a matter of weeks. Lastly, France needed Napoléon to put down the sword and take up the gavel as there was still much work left to do in “finishing the revolution”.

Even if Napoléon had pushed south towards Spain, he would not have made it out of France before the war came to an effective end. After three days of intense maneuvering, the twin French armies under Hoche and Pierre Augerau managed to link up and wheel directly into General José de Urrutia y de las Casas’ army outside of Madrid. Spain nearly took the decisive Battle of Coslada on August 3 but a key cavalry charge broke Spanish lines at the last minute. King Charles IV, observing the battle, found his position quickly and unexpectedly overrun by French cavalry who took him hostage. Madrid fell that night with Spanish Chief Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, the 1st Count Floridablanca, surrendering the city to Hoche while the two other members of the reformist triumvirate, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos and the Crown Prince Ferdinand, fled south. Eventually they would reach Málaga, discretely secure passage to the Spanish North African port of Ceuta and then crossed the Atlantic to Cuba from there.

Three breakaway republics flanked the northern border between Spain and France, Madrid stood in French hands, a sense of lawlessness ruled the countryside and the Bourbon rulers were scattered. Spain stood in chaos that fall while the French and Spanish (and the Aragonese, Catalan and Basque puppet republics) worked out a permanent reordering of Iberia. Naturally, Napoléon  took a great interest in events there but wanted to ensure whatever new order came to the Peninsula would 1) last, 2) benefit France, and 3) maintain the coming peace, especially that with Britain. Napoléon was correct to fear British response to the sudden collapse of Spain, James Graham, the Marquess of Graham, the Portland Government’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs wrote that fall:

“Few argue the desire for at least a brief moment of peace between ourselves and the French but many had hoped that brief might mean five years, not five months.”

Portland made more than a few references to the integrity of Portugal, citing the ancient 1386 Anglo-Portuguese alliance that both parties historically honored [1]. While the events in Spain largely occurred apart from Napoléon’s rule, he did provide a shrewd peace and found a way to make Britain happy and lower the potential pressure on Portugal. In a vaguely worded letter to King John VI of Portugal, Napoléon essentially told him “accept this gift, or else” and offered the Portuguese favorable border corrections on their long eastern border with Spain, all of Spanish Galicia, the Canary Islands and the right bank of the Rio de la Plata and Uruguay River. With such an offer on the table, and no real way to successfully defend from a French invasion, John VI accepted the deal.

Hard fought negotiations ensued resulting in the Treaty of Zaragoza, formally adopted in March of 1801. The treaty essentially codified the Partition of Spain and outlined the division of the empire. The treaty wiped away Spain and replaced it with a renewed Kingdom of Castile, a new Republic of Aragon and Catalonia, a new Basque Republic, and a new Duchy of Galicia. The new duchy would be in personal union with the Portuguese monarchy, Aragon and Catalonia would be consolidated as they often historically had been, and Charles IV would retain his throne, albeit as the King of Castile with a constitution that essentially made him a figurehead. In fact, Charles IV would never return to Madrid, the queen and the vindictive Manuel Godoy would essentially keep him imprisoned in Zaragoza. France gifted Portugal various territorial slices of Spain to remain quiet and keep the British from interfering.

As for the empire, the great inheritance that had sparked the War of the Spanish Succession a century before, Napoléon divided it down the middle. Spanish holdings in North America and the Caribbean would go to Castile while Spanish South America went to Aragon-Catalonia. Spain’s African possessions (save for Ceuta and Melilla which remained with Castile) went to Portugal while Spain’s Asian possessions went to France. To add insult to injury, Castile “sold” the former Louisiana Territory back to France and agreed to enforce the cessation of Santo Domingo to Paris as well (a holdover issue from the peace made after the War of the First Coalition).

With a few strokes of the pen, the glorious Spanish Empire died with a whimper.

Amazingly, the impact throughout Europe was underwhelming. The assassination of Tsar Paul I in March and succession of Alexander in Russia ensured they would not intervene. With General Moreau’s December 3, 1800 victory at Hohenlinden, the Hapsburgs found themselves thoroughly beaten and were in no position to raise a problem. Prussia and Sweden protested but lacking substantial naval or land forces to contest the issue their complaints fell on deaf ears. France effectively bribed Portugal and the Dutch were in no position to oppose Paris. This left lonely Britain with a pacifist government. Portland actually put out feelers for a renewed coalition but found no takers amongst the powers and his own government was lacking in enthusiasm. Spread thin navally by the Treaty of London as the British established their presence in the Caribbean, the Cape, the East Indies and further into India; the Admiralty opposed French expansion but found itself out of position for a renewed world war. There is also the issue of patience for some correspondence indicates that the Portlandites assumed Britain and France would go back to war at some point, they just figured it would occur in a few years once Britain had sorted out its finances, colonies and navy.

Yet, the most interesting response came not from Europe but from America.


Excerpt from Michelle Orrego’s “Jeffersonian Democracy”, Chile State University Publishing, 2018.

The Presidential Election of 1801 was a referendum on many issues lingering from the War of the Second Coalition. On one hand, John Adams was tremendously popular due to the success of the overall American war effort. As commander-in-chief, he took the credit (along with Commodore Thomas Truxton) for the victories and the expansion in territory. He also received credit for successfully handling the executive transition at the head of the unity ticket. Domestically, Adams took considerable flack for the Alien and Sedition Acts and politically lost the slave states when he and the Federalist congress agreed to, and pushed through, the annexation of Haiti.

The loss of the slave states eliminated the Federalists as a viable party in the Electoral College. Refusing to rally around Adams and the Federalists, a party that Virgin Islands’ Congressman Charles Walton referred to as “a mob of scheming merchants, abolitionists and bankers” the slave states flocked to the Democratic-Republican banner and their presidential candidate: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson appeared destined for a landslide victory until word arrived that summer that France had just taken Louisiana and Santo Domingo. Suddenly the old pre-war factions of Federalist/British and Republican/French returned and threw the election into chaos.

Seeing an opportunity, pro-Federalist newspapers and pamphlets reminded voters about Jefferson’s francophilia. Republican newspapers painted Adams as a tyrant who had poked the French tiger and brought doom upon the frontier. They rebutted Federalist propaganda by indicating that Jefferson was pro-republican, not pro-Napoléon. The impact of these late efforts was mixed. Personally, the French expansion deeply disturbed both Adams and Jefferson. Most of the founding fathers harbored hopes of exporting the American Revolution to distant shores, but all believed that America’s future lie in the bountiful west. For many, Spanish possession of western lands acted less as a threat and more as a convenient placeholder for eventual, assumed, American acquisition. While Spain was a declining old power that could act as a glorified trustee to American ambition, Napoléonic France was exactly the opposite.

Napoléon’s initial reaction to the renewed overseas empire is scattered to say the least. To demonstrate, let us examine two letters sent on the same day: May 19, 1801. In a letter to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Napoléon’s foreign minister:

“With these three territories we shall combine the best of the empires of Spain, the Bourbons and the English. Oriental goods will sail across the Pacific to Louisiana where trade will occur in silver and spices. That wealth will flow east on our own fleet of treasure ships. Louisiana will provide food and supplies to Santo Domingo where sugar will be grown and sent to Europe. Our African outposts will provide the labor and our ports will grow rich again. Soon we will rival the English and Americans in world trade.”

Obviously, this was a farfetched plan built on assumptions about resources that did not actually exist. None of Napoléon’s newly acquired Louisiana possessions contained silver, or a Pacific port for that matter (we assume he is referring to Castilian California as a French possession or he intended to conquer one or eventually force a sale).  The same day in a letter to Lucien:

“I renounce Louisiana. I renounce Santo Domingo. It is not only New Orleans or the island that I cede; it is the whole continent, without reserve; But only we shall know this. I know the price of what I abandon…I renounce it with the greatest regret: but perhaps our possession, however brief, can serve a purpose. With these territories I will forge an alliance with the United States. Then England shall have a maritime rival that sooner or later will humble her pride. [2]”

That letter to Lucien demonstrates that, no matter how scattered Napoléon’s thoughts on empire could be, he had already begun to theorize what would become the Louisiana Bargain.

The United States put out immediate feelers regarding a purchase, even if it could only obtain New Orleans, but these late Adams Administration efforts had little luck while Napoléon weighed his imperial options throughout 1801. Perhaps Napoléon simply did not want to sell to the president who had bested France only two years before. These failed efforts played slightly into Jefferson’s hand during the election and by October, even after votes had already been cast in some locations; Jefferson’s supporters began postulating that only a pro-French republican government could bargain with actual French republicans.

Ultimately, Jefferson won the election largely thanks to solid support by slave states as backlash over the Haitian Question expelled the Federalists from most elected positions south of the Mason-Dixon Line [3]. Jefferson was able to assemble a more robust negotiating team on the issue including Robert Livingston, James Monroe and Jean Pierre Rochambeau. In France, Napoléon and François Barbé-Marbois handled the negotiations. Marbois had formerly lived in America and knew Jefferson personally so his enrollment into the proceedings was more natural than Talleyrand who had already soured his goodwill with America during the XYZ Affair. Lucien and Joseph Bonaparte opposed a sale wholeheartedly, though Napoléon refused to listen to them.

Negotiations lasted from December 1801 to May 1802 (Livingston’s role was technically illegal as Adams would be president until March 1802 and he was negotiating on behalf of Jefferson) and were complex to say the least. At one point, Livingston inquired as to how far north the territory’s boundaries lie. The reply was vague and equated to “we aren’t sure and we suppose it could be whatever we think it should be”. The final deal, brokered by Rochambeau and Monroe resulted in the Louisiana Bargain, one of the most controversial decisions in American history.

In the Bargain, the United States would pay $18 million for both Louisiana and Santo Domingo over five years. France would immediately cede New Orleans. At the end of three years of good faith payments, Santo Domingo would transfer to the United States while the rest of Louisiana Territory would transfer at the end of five years. A secret provision of the treaty, and easily the most controversial known to only a handful, would be that the sales were contingent on an alliance treaty between the United States and France.

——— Author’s Notes ———-

[1]: In our timeline the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance is generally regarded as the oldest continually active alliance that is still in force today.

[2]: This quote is fake but I want to note that it is stitched together and modified from two actual Napoleonic quotes.

[3]: The Mason-Dixon Line stems from a 1760’s survey line of the Pennsylvania-Maryland-Virginia-Delaware border by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. The term “Mason-Dixon Line” has a 19th century vibe due to its important delineation as the boundary between the slave-holding south and the free north (save for Delaware which was a slave state until the end of the Civil War) but the term itself dates before the revolution.

Source Materials

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: the art of power. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

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