The United States owes a large portion of its continental size to Haitian freedom fighters that defeated Napoleon's army at the turn of the 19th century. Had the Haitians not succeeded in liberating their island from the French, Napoleon's New Orleans-based forces might have reconquered Britain's former colonies on the eastern seaboard. The Louisiana Territories were, in a sense, purchased with Haitian blood.On The Fourth of July, Thank the Most Important Founding Father: Haiti's Jean-Jacques Dessalines by Pascal Robert
This article previously appeared in Thought Merchant.
"Napoleon's defeat forced him to give up his plans of conquering North America and the United States."
With the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential election, a reactionary nativism has taken hold in America. Resentment towards immigrants and Muslims has found solace in Trump's promises to "build a wall" between Mexico and the United States, as well as deny further entry to Muslim immigrants. These themes have generated a white nationalistic fervor among Americans who believe they want to "take their country back," and "make America great again."
What is both ironic and comical about the pleas of these reactionary American nativists is that they are premised on ridiculous white settler colonial myths about the founding of America. The mythology assumes America was founded on notions of liberty and freedom when, in reality, those rights were originally only assured to land-owning white males. What is more important in deflating this pedestrian narrative about American history's "debt" to its bourgeois slave-owning revolutionary origins, is that the most important person in assuring this settler colonial project called America was not aborted less than 30 years after the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence, was a former black slave who helped lead an army of his fellows against three European empires to free his people: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, founder of the independent nation of Haiti.
"But the prejudice of race alone blinded the American people [to] the debt they owed to the desperate courage of 500,000 Haitian Negroes who would not be enslaved." -- Henry Adams, direct decedent of John Adams and America's foremost historian of the 18th and 19th centuries
After defeating one of the greatest military expeditions in the history of the British Empire,
"The most important person in assuring this settler colonial project called America was not aborted less than 30 years after the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence, was a former black slave."
L'Ouverture's second in command, General Jean Jacques Desssalines, was charged with the task of ultimately defeating Napoleon Bonaparte's massive army from the years of 1802-1803, after Toussaint was captured by Bonaparte's emissaries and sent back to France to die imprisoned.
What is lost on most Americans is that Napoleon Bonaparte, renowned as one of the greatest military minds in western history, was not merely intent on conquering the former African slaves in Haiti, but also using the opportunity to plant a military expedition in New Orleans large enough to conquer North America and then president Thomas Jefferson's United States. Hence making the newly independent United States a subject and colony of the French empire.
"[Napoleon] set his sights on a new goal: restoring the imperial crown's finest jewel, the lost Saint-Domingue/Haiti. In 1801, he sent the largest invasion fleet that ever crossed the Atlantic, some 50,000 men, to the island under the leadership of his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc. Their mission was to decapitate the ex-slave leadership of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. "No more gilded Africans," Napoleon commanded. Subdue any resistance by deception and force. Return to slavery all the Africans who survived.
Napoleon had also assembled a second army, and he had given it a second assignment. In 1800, he had concluded a secret treaty that "retroceded" Louisiana to French control after 37 years in Spanish hands. This second army was to go to Louisiana and plant the French flag. And at 20,000 men strong, it was larger than the entire U.S. Army. Napoleon had already conquered one revolutionary republic [France] from within. He was sending a mighty army to take another by brute force [The United States of America]." -- The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist
In the eyes of many Americans today, deluded with America's current military prowess, the notion of Thomas Jefferson and the United States ever being concerned about a threat from France may seem ridiculous. What such ahistorical analysis ignores is that Thomas Jefferson himself, drafter of America's Declaration of Independence, was so terrified at the prospect of Napoleon's army in Louisiana that he publicly stated that Napoleon's mere presence may force the newly independent United States to run back to cower under the protection of Great Britain's military.
"And yet, as Jefferson now instructed his envoy to Paris, Robert Livingston, 'there is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans.' Jefferson had to open the Mississippi one way or the other. 'Should a French army occupy New Orleans,' wrote Jefferson, 'we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and Nation.'"-- The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism , Edward E. Baptist
Thomas Jefferson, America's founding father, was cowering in fear about the prospect of fighting Napoleon's Army. The same army the Haitian former slaves had been bravely vanquishing and eventually totally defeated under the leadership of Jean Jacques Dessalines. So much for the idea of American exceptionalism.
"Dessalines planned a war of extermination of every Frenchman on the Island."