Among the world historical blunders that Napoleon made, the most monumental one was his 1803 decision to sell Louisiana to the Americans. With the sale of Louisiana (named after the French King Louis XIV), France lost its foothold in the Atlantic. Immediately after the sale, Napoleon dragged France into a series of devastating European wars which led to further territorial losses for the country. France was no longer in a position to compete against Britain and America.
When Napoleon seized power in 1799, he wanted to create an empire that would rival Britain’s empire. He dreamed of using Louisiana as a base for supplying the French colonies in Saint-Domingue and other Caribbean islands. At that time, Louisiana was much bigger—it sprawled west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and included the Great Plains and parts of Montana. Napoleon would have kept Louisiana if a slave rebellion had not broken out in Haiti.
After the French Revolution, France had changed—in the sense that the French government, at least in principle, was against colonialism and slavery. In 1794, France passed a law banning slavery in the colonies. The anti-slavery law was poorly implemented and the slaves in Haiti were not freed. But the French Revolution’s slogan of “liberty, equality, fraternity” had already reached Haiti, inspiring the African population to rebel. They demanded the same rights that the French citizens had. It was difficult for the French government to crush the rebellion because a large section of France’s population believed that slavery was antithetical to their values.
At first, Napoleon thought that he could run the colonies with the labor of the French and the free Africans. But those who were in the business of running the colonial plantations told him that without slave labor, the colonies would not be viable. So Napoleon decided to sell Louisiana to the Americans who at that time were aggressive practitioners of slavery.
In 1800, Jefferson was convinced that Napoleon had major plans for Louisiana. He predicted that America and France would come to blows over Louisiana. He feared that the French would convince the Americans in the West to form another nation, and that the French were certain to inspire the African slave population in his country with the French Revolution slogan of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” and this might result in the breakout of hard to put down Haiti-type slave rebellions.
With the aim of keeping the French out of North America, Jefferson decided to make a deal with Napoleon. In 1803, he told the American representative in France, Robert Livingston, to offer $10 million to France for the New Orleans and the Florida area. At that time, Jefferson feared that the French would refuse the offer. When he heard from Livingston that Napoleon wanted to sell all of Louisiana for $15 million, not just the New Orleans and the Florida area, Jefferson could not believe his luck. He asked his representatives to close the deal.
In one stroke, Livingston and James Monroe added more than 828,000 square miles to their new nation. Once the deal was signed, the Americans started pouring into Louisiana. In a series of conflicts, over a period of five decades, the Americans killed or evicted much of the Native Indian population, they destroyed the bison population which was the mainstay of the Native Indian way of life (in 1800 there were 50 million bison living in the Great Plains areas; in 1895 only a thousand remained), and they expanded their policy of slavery into the entire area.
With territorial expansion and slavery, America went on to become a superpower. France was relegated to the status of a European power. If Napoleon had not sold Louisiana, the history of Europe and North America would have developed in a different way—the Native Indian population (and the bison) would have survived in Louisiana, and slavery would have been abolished in North America in the early nineteenth century itself, instead of in the 1860s, after a prolonged civil war.