Napoleon’s American Dream

Defeated in Europe and captured by the British, Napoleon was hoping to start anew in America, a pioneer on the Frontier. In the end, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died two centuries ago on May 5, 1821.
Napoleon on board the Bellerophon, the British ship that took him to Saint Helena in 1815. © Courtesy of the Tate Britain

Defeated at Waterloo, shunned by his ministers, abandoned by his generals, and booed in Paris where he had sought refuge, Napoleon arrived in Rochefort, a port city on the Atlantic, on July 2, 1815. From there he hoped to take a ship to the United States, become an American, and start a new life. He was only 45 years old and imagined himself as a pioneer at the head of a large agricultural enterprise. His older brother, Joseph, who had been king of Spain and of Naples, made it to America (and lived in New Jersey for about fifteen years). The Bonapartes had always dreamed of America as a land of conquest; Napoleon agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory to Thomas Jefferson in 1803, but bitterly and under duress, having neither the troops nor the funds necessary to retain this French possession. But Napoleon I never became American; the British fleet blocked the port of Rochefort and the former emperor had no choice but to surrender, as he later wrote, “to the most constant of his enemies.” He proposed to the British government that he be allowed to become a farmer in England or a pioneer in the United States. In the end, he was sent to the island of St. Helena, where he died two centuries ago.

France’s president has decided to commemorate this date, no doubt for the same reason that convinced King Louis Philippe to bring Napoleon’s ashes back to Paris in 1840: the hope that a little of the emperor’s glory would rub off on him. After all, Macron is hardly more popular today than Louis Philippe was in his time. This return of the ashes helped Louis Philippe very little, but it did seem to elicit the enthusiasm of the Parisians. But is this true? Were the French of the day energized by their past glory, or did they count their dead? Napoleon had caused at least four million victims in fifteen years of military campaigns from Egypt to Russia, not to mention the wounded and the widowed.

The worship of Napoleon has always been a French mystery. Is it spontaneous, reflecting nostalgia for empire, or something organized by the state, which has inherited from that period and still maintains a taste for overarching authority? French school children are taught only the benefits of the emperor’s reign; according to our textbooks, Napoleon is supposed to have endowed France with a perfect legal system that governs us yet today, and to have caused the winds of freedom to blow over all of Europe. He was, it is said, a spokesman of the Revolution. A dozen books touting Napoleon’s glory are published in France every year; the supply seems inexhaustible. He has been represented more often than Christ on film, always as a positive hero. But other Europeans see him very differently. While French historians amplify the myth that Napoleon himself created by dictating his idealized Memorial of Saint Helena, English, German, Russian, and Spanish authors tally up the massacres and the destruction of their cities and civilizations. One factor is that Napoleon began crafting his own reputation while he was still alive. He regularly wrote reports of his victories before the battles had even begun, which makes him the founding father of fake news. Certain disasters, such as the Battle of Eylau (now in Poland) against the Russians and Prussians, for example, are still inscribed on the walls of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as if they were victories, since that is how they were first announced.

Since France is now part of Europe, while Europe has not become part of France as Napoleon wished, what should we commemorate? French victories, such as Austerlitz, were defeats for the Russians and Austrians; Waterloo, a day of mourning for the French, is a symbol of liberation for the British, the Germans, and the Dutch. In any case, since the return of the ashes, our view of history has changed; the fate of people concerns us more than that of armies. Napoleon’s stature does not benefit from this change of perspective. To finance his wars, he ruined Europe, banning international commerce (only smugglers got rich), conscripting peasants, ravaging harvests, and confiscating horses. How should we commemorate the Russian and German campaigns of 1812 and 1813, when the Grande Armée left behind it, not the liberation of people, but famine and disease?

Worse still, how should we commemorate the restoration of slavery in the French West Indies, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), where it had been abolished in 1794 by the representatives of the revolutionary Convention? Napoleon cannot be excused by his historical context, since the British had abolished slavery in Guadeloupe when they occupied it. What’s more, in the French and Spanish colony of Saint-Domingue, a Black republican general, Toussaint Louverture, had proclaimed the first Black republic of the New World with its own constitution founded on the ideals of the French Revolution. Napoleon sent a military expedition to the island and captured Toussaint Louverture, who died in a French prison. The only ones who welcomed the restoration of slavery by the law of May 20, 1802, were the white plantation owners in the West Indies and the southern United States who were worried this revolution would spread. The same year, Napoleon excluded officers of color from the army and, in 1803, banned mixed marriages on French territory. Napoleon, who liked to present himself as an heir of the Enlightenment, was quite simply a racist, while the French Revolution was not. Nor was Napoleon a republican, since he did away with the Republic with a military coup in 1799, before proclaiming himself emperor – which was already an anachronism in the 19th century.

The historians Emmanuel Macron has put in charge of organizing the festivities claim that the commemoration will not be a celebration. How we will distinguish between the two remains unclear, short of restoring a truth that would disorient the French and logically require removing the emperor from his mausoleum at Les Invalides and returning the body to the family. There are still descendants in France and in the United States; burying Napoleon I in America would make his dream finally come true.

Editorial published in the May 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.