[Documents menu] Documents menu

The Haitian Revolution

Part IV: Napoleon's West Indian policy
and the Haitian gift to the United States

An introductory note

This essay really began in a remote village in the Bellefontaine region of southwest Haiti. I had walked into this village from Kenskoff, one of the hardest things I've ever done in my experiences in Haiti. I was exhausted from a nearly 12 hour walk and quite frightened that I simply couldn't make the walk back out. I simply don't do mountains well and we had gone up and down and over three mountains to get there.

But, over dinner a discussion came up in which the Haitians present were teasing me about how Haiti saved the United States. I was fascinated.

I didn't know this story. It certainly was not taught in my history courses in school.

When I did finally get back to the states, I started reading about this saving story. The glory of the tale is rooted in a late 20th century view of the world. From that perspective little bitty Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, by resisting Napoleon's invaders, had saved the U.S. since Napoleon was really on his way to attack the huge and glorious U.S.

But, the real story, as set in the very beginning of the 19th century was much more glorious than the Haitians knew. Haiti was the economic giant, the plum of Napoleon's empire, and the jewel around which he would build his empire. The then small and less interesting U.S. would simply be a feeding ground for the slaves he intended to reinstate in San Domingue.

Even after I researched and wrote this paper, and told the tale to many Haitians, they tend to still prefer the other story, which is not nearly so glorious to Haiti as the true story. Odd. But that's the way it is!

Bob Corbett


It is general folk knowledge in Haiti that Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolutionaries saved the United States from being invaded by Napoleonic forces in 1803. This popular lore surfaces often in discussions with Haitians, particularly when the speakers are complaining about later U.S. policy and treatment of Haiti. The general suggestion is that the United States was indeed saved almost single handedly by the Haitians, and that the U.S. is extremely ungrateful for the service rendered it. Further, I've often heard this point raised to underline the ignorance that Americans typically have of the relative importance each nation held on the stage of world politics in 1802-03.

Certainly the French colony, San Domingue, and the early Republic of Haiti, played a much more important role in Caribbean and world politics than does present day Haiti. The major powers of the region, France, Britain, Spain and the United States, were slave owning, slave trading nations. They faced serious threats from a non-slave nation, particularly one whose citizens were former slaves who had risen up and defeated the major powers in a revolutionary struggle.

The French, of course, regretted the loss of an enormously rich colony. The British feared the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Jamaica and her other slave colonies. The U.S. worried about the impact of the servile revolution on the south of its own nation. Spain had lost her colony of Santo Domingo, next door to San Domingue, and feared the spread of her influence to Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Yet the major powers had their own problems with one another. While San Domingue/Haiti loomed far larger in international significance that present day Haiti, nonetheless, there was no uniform resistance among the four major powers. They each had various problems with one another, often in relationship to Haiti, and thus could not come to exert a unitary resistance. The Haitian Revolution became a tool to be manipulated by the major powers in their own struggles with one another, while, at the same time, each tried to gain its own advantages vis-a-vis the new republic.

In it's strongest form the popular Haitian version of this story is that Napoleon Bonaparte had a secret plot to take the United States.

On this view General Laclerc and his troops would first stop off briefly at San Domingue to put down Toussaint Louverture and his upstart revolutionaries, then move on to French Louisiana, which would serve as a base from which to harry the southern parts of the United States. Thus the successful Haitian resistance is seen as having saved the United States. I will refer to this theory as the linear plot, since it moves right along in a line from France, to San Domingue, to New Orleans to Washington.

A seemingly weaker version of this plot theory is that Napoleon wished to establish a strong hold in the West Indies for France and that recovering control over San Domingue, its richest colonial holding, was crucial for this program. Then near-by French Louisiana could be a source of food supply for the more productive and economically more attractive San Domingue, ensuring a strong contribution to France from its West Indian holdings. I will call this view the San Domingue-center view, since the colony of San Domingue is the core of the policy and New Orleans is merely a supply outpost.

My own view leans toward a version of the San Domingue-center theory. I believe that Napoleon wanted to re-establish control over San Domingue and believed that French Louisiana was essential to that plan. Further, the United States was certainly a beneficiary of the successful Haitian Revolution. Since San Domingue, and not Louisiana nor the United States was the center piece of Napoleon's West Indian strategy, once San Domingue was lost to France, Louisiana became an uninteresting and untenable piece of real estate. On this view the United States is indirectly indebted to Haiti for one of the best real estate buys in history--the Louisiana Purchase, but the U.S. was not really saved from Napoleonic domination or invasion by the Haitians' successful revolution.


If one follows the documents available, and accepts at face value the various statements of the principals, especially Napoleon himself, then there is no case at all to make for the linear plot theory. The puzzle is that the linear plot theory survives today as the dominate belief in Haitian folk history, and has even persuaded some important historians of its truth.

One might account for its longevity by the tendency of any people to glorify its own history and to accept attractive historical myths as truths. Americans, for example, cling to the romantic George Washington stories of the cherry tree and of his sailing a silver dollar across the Potomac.

On the other hand it may be that the story just needs to be clarified and investigated to remind us what was going on in 1802-03. This is the primary aim of my paper.


The Haitian Revolution began in 1791. Influenced by the French Revolution's recognition of the Rights of Man, driven by the excessive cruelty of French slavery, the slaves rose up in August of 1791. Toussaint Louverture, over 40 when the revolution broke out, rose in power and by 1793 was a leading general of the revolution, along with Jean-Francois and Biassou. The three had sided with the Spanish against the French and were sheltered in the Spanish part of the island (the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo). The Spanish also supplied weapons and other material support to the rebels.

However, Toussaint returned to the French side when he became convinced that there was a better chance for emancipation with them. French Commissioner Sonthonax had emancipated the slaves and the Directory in Paris recognized this emancipation in Feb. 1794. By April of that year, shortly after word arrived back from France of the Directory's emancipation, Toussaint switched sides and began to war against both the Spanish and British, and to war for France.

By July of 1801 Toussaint had emerged as the leading figure in San Domingue, and seemed headed toward declaring an independent republic. He had defeated the Spanish and British, maneuvered the French Commissioners out of the colony, defeated Andre Rigaud in a Civil War, taken possession of the eastern portion of the island which had recently been ceded to France by Spain, eradicated slavery on the entire island and promulgated a constitution in which he was declared governor general for life. Both Britain and the United States treated with Toussaint as though he were the head of an independent state, though Toussaint's constitution and public demeanor was to claim that he was a loyal French citizen who had saved the colony for France.

Virtually no one believed Toussaint's claims of loyalty to France. Britain and the United States wanted to deal with Toussaint to ensure an end of French privateering from San Dominguan waters. Both nations hoped to contain the slave rebellion to San Domingue alone. Both nations strove to out do one another in establishing trade relations with Toussaint's government, in defiance of France's regulations for the colony. Thus Napoleon might well be excused if he took with a healthy dose of salt Toussaint's claims of being a loyal son and protector of French rights in San Domingue.


Nonetheless, the general policy which Napoleon followed was not created by him, but by the Directory before Napoleon became First Consul. Napoleon's own coup d'etat in France took place on Nov. 9, 1799. But the essence of what would soon become Napoleon's West Indian policy was already in place.

In 1795 the Directory acquired Santo Domingo, though they never sought to take possession. Also they began to seek retrocession of Louisiana. They recognized that San Domingue was the golden goose of their West Indian possessions, but that it could not be reliably supplied from France because the British fleet controlled the Caribbean. New Orleans was recognized as the necessary supply center from which needed food stuffs could be more easily shipped to San Domingue than from France. The Directory, as Napoleon later on, perceived Toussaint to be a threat to the continued colonial status of San Domingue. Just as the Directory tried to rid itself of Napoleon himself by sending him off to Egypt, so it sought to rid itself of Toussaint by involving him in disastrous foreign adventures. On May 23, 1799 Edward Stevens, Consul General of the U.S. to San Domingue, wrote to General Maitland, formerly the head of the British forces: The Agency of San-Domingo had received positive orders from the Executive Directory to invade both the Southern States of America and the island of Jamaica. Gen. Toussaint Louverture was consulted on the best mode of making the attack.

Stevens, writing to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, saw that this was a double edged order--if it succeeded, France would win a great prize in Jamaica, but, if it didn't it would be rid of Toussaint:

Success would forever separate from Great Britain one of her most valuable colonies and diminish her resources. Should they [Toussaint and his army] fail, they will fall victims to their rashness and presumption or like Bonaparte and his army cease to be objects of dread and jealousy to the Government of France. The old system might then be restored in St. Domingo and slavery reestablished.

Toussaint wisely refused this order. However, it has always seemed to me that this direct plot, insincere as it may have been on the Directory's part, is not an unlikely source of the beginnings of the linear plot theory which I described above. The mistake of this interpretation would be putting the plot into Napoleon's mouth, and believing it a sincere plot to invade the United States, rather than an attempt to rid France of Toussaint.


Napoleon may have inherited the essence of his West Indian policy, but he immediately turned up the heat. Having taken over in November British navy in the Caribbean. Just six days after their treaty was signed Napoleon began the plans for an invasion force to be sent to San Domingue. The British and American attitudes toward San Domingue had been mixed. The British invaded San Domingue s to tellit never actually took control from the Spanish.

At the same time Napoleon was working to put his West Indian policy into effect. On September 30, 1800, the day before the retrocession treaty with Spain, the French and Americans signed a treaty ending their two year old quasi-war. This left the British, with whom France was at war, as the major stumbling block to Napoleon's plans. It was another whole year before Napoleon managed a peace treaty with Britain, freeing him from the dangers of the British navy in the Caribbean. Just six days after their treaty was signed Napoleon began the plans for an invasion force to be sent to San Domingue.

The British and American attitudes toward San Domingue had been mixed. The British invaded San Domingue s to tell Laclerc how Napoleon wants Toussaint subdued, slowly, with flattery to lower his guard, and then with ruthlessness. This is exactly what Laclerc seems to have achieved. Napoleon's primary mistake was to think that the elimination of Toussaint was the immediate end of the revolution.

But, more to the point of this story is that the secret instructions make clear that Napoleon was out to re-establish San Domingue in all her prior glory. This he recognized required the reintroduction of slavery and the complete return of the old regime.

He tells Laclerc:

The Spaniards, the British and the Americans are equally worried to see a Black Republic. The admiral and the major general will write memorandums to the neighboring establishments in order to let them know the goal of the government, the common advantage for the Europeans to destroy the Black Rebellion and the hope to be seconded.

Later on he is more specific: Commerce must, during the 1st, 2nd and 3rd periods be accessible to Americans, but after the 3rd period, Frenchmen only will be admitted and the ancient rules from before the Revolution will be put back into force.

In order for France to recapture the grandeur that was San Domingue, Napoleon needed to put down the black rebellion, reestablish slavery, and equally importantly, refuse all trade with Britain and the United States. When San Domingue was producing her fabulous wealth for France it was because the exclusif was in effect, that is, San Domingue was required to trade exclusively with France, both for her imports and exports. Certainly Louisiana played an important role in Napoleon's policy. As Henry Adams says:

St. Domingo, like all the West Indies, suffered as a colony under a serious disadvantage, being dependent for its supplies on the United States--a dangerous neighbor both by its political example and its commercial and maritime rivalry with the mother country. The First Consul hoped to correct this evil by substituting Louisiana for the United States as a source of supplies for St. Domingo.

Napoleon's vision is a San Domingue-centered vision. She was to be the great producer of wealth, reverting to her slave status. Louisiana was important to the plan, but Louisiana was relegated to the role of an agricultural supplier for the hungry slaves of San Domingue, and as a front-line protector from allowing the United States a trade foot in the door. Nonetheless, Napoleon's West Indian policy looks first and foremost to San Domingue.

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments against the linear plot and for the San Domingue-center plot is the Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon was soundly defeated in San Domingue and Haiti was born of the ashes of that battle. But, if Louisiana had been the actual target, then Napoleon could have extricated himself earlier and by-passed San Domingue to continue on toward his main target. He would have reasoned that it was not Toussaint who defeated him, but yellow fever, which was a favorite explanations of many white racists. He would have given up on San Domingue as unfit for Frenchmen, and moved on to Louisiana. What he did in fact, however, was to sell Louisiana as soon as it became clear that he was not going to retake San Domingue. What's the point in an excellent supply depot if there's nothing to supply.

Henry Adams gives evidence that Napoleon was considering selling Louisiana as early as April, 1803, seven months before the French finally surrendered in Haiti. Adams sums up the situation succinctly:

Without that island the system had hands, feet, and even a head, but no body. Of what use was Louisiana, when France had clearly lost the main colony which Louisiana was meant to feed and fortify?... Not only had the island of St. Domingo been ruined by the war, its plantations destroyed, its labor paralyzed, and its population reduced to barbarism...but...the army dreaded service in St. Domingo, where certain death awaited every soldier; the expense was frightful; a year of war had consumed fifty thousand men and money in vast amounts, with no other result than to prove that at least as many men and as much money would be still needed before any return could be expected for so lavish an expenditure. In Europe war could be made to support war; in St. Domingo peace alone could but slowly repair some part of this frightful waste.

The deal to sell the Louisiana Territory was well underway in the last days of the Laclerc expedition, and was actually concluded before the French left San Domingue, though the official sale, like the official birth of Haiti, is in 1804.


The interesting and ironic part of this story is that what at first seems to be the weaker and less glorious of the plots is actually the stronger and more glorious position for Haiti. On the linear plot theory, Napoleon was headed for the United States through Louisiana with a quick stop over in San Domingue. Then, Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian masses stopped the French dead in their tracks. The French, beaten and discouraged, spared the United States and returned home.

But notice that what makes this story interesting is the assumption that the most important entity is the United States and not Haiti. What is glorious is that the tiny, insignificant nation of Haiti saved the important great giant with its unlikely victory over the French forces. However, on the San Domingue-center theory, Haiti is the key and center of Napoleon's whole West Indian strategy. Louisiana, which recall is not the United States, but a French colony, is an important supply depot, but secondary to the whole plot. The United States is a competitive nation, trying to cut into France's trade relations with its richest colony.

Certainly the United States feared France's presence in Louisiana, especially with the imperialist Napoleon Bonaparte on the throne. But it was the lost trade with San Domingue that most frightened the U.S. Jefferson recognized this. He was himself a Republican and not a Federalist, and was president during Napoleon's attack on San Domingue. He seems not to have feared that Napoleon had designs the United States. Nonetheless he had a clear idea of the interrelation between Louisiana, San Domingue, France and the U.S. On April 18, 1802 he wrote Edward Livingstone, American Minister in Paris, that New Orleans ...is the one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy...The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark...From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.

Jefferson was confident that the French would not succeed in San Domingue, and supplied Toussaint with arms, munitions and food, regarding him, as the Federalist linear plot did too, as the first line of defense against Napoleonic aggression. But the aggression Jefferson feared was not a direct threat to United States territorial integrity, but an undesired and untenable French presence in Louisiana. He believed that Toussaint would put up considerable resistance, and he counted on pressing affairs in Europe to turn Napoleon from his West Indian policy.

Thus on the San Domingue-center theory Haiti becomes much more important than it would otherwise. It is recognized by Napoleon, and the French Directorate before him, as the most important factor of its West Indian's policy, and more important than Louisiana. At the same time, the heroic fighting of the Haitians presents Louisiana to the United States on a silver platter. Consequently, the part of the story which the Haitians so love to acknowledge—their contribution to the well being of the United States—is well preserved.

Finally, this view emphasizes that in the relative importance of nations, there was a time when Haiti was not important for what she did or didn't do for the big brother across the gulf stream, but extremely important in her own right, sought after by Napoleon himself. The seemingly lesser view becomes the more significant when viewed from this perspective.

I believe I have a copy of Napoleon's Secret Instructions to Laclerc and will post them as soon as I can.