Spain claimed most of the Americas from its native inhabitants by virtue of first discovery. Conquistadors who explored North America include:
- Ponce de Leon, 1513
- Panfilo de Narvaez, 1527
- Desoto, 1539
- Coronado, 1540
- Cabrillo, 1542
Since gold was minimal in North America, the area was of little interest to the Spanish empire, and thus was sparsely settled for over a century.
English settlements began in Virginia in 1607 and Massachusetts in 1620. In 1673, French missionary priest, Jacque Marquette, and French explorer Louis Joliet, traveled down from Canada to Lake Michigan. They then followed the Fox River till they reached the Mississippi, canoeing as far south as Arkansas.
In 1699, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, started the first French settlement, at Fort Maurepas (now Ocean Springs, Mississippi). France claimed Canada and the land west of the Appalachian Mountains, across the Mississippi River valley to the beginning of the Great Plains.
The Louisiana Territory was named after Louis XIV, “the Sun King,” the longest reigning monarch in European history. Louis XIV had a global empire stretching from the Far East to the Caribbean, Africa to America. Centralizing power, Louis XIV was reputed to have said “L’État, c’est moi” (“I am the state”) and “It is legal because I wish it.”
In 1702, Sieur de Bienville settled the Mobile, Alabama, area. In 1718, he started construction of New Orleans. In 1723, he moved the capital of French Louisiana there from its previous locations of Dauphin Island and Biloxi.
Beginning in 1755 the British drove the French out of Acadia, Canada, in the Great Expulsion. Thousands of French sailed to the Caribbean Islands and other colonies, most notably Louisiana, where the name “acadian” came to be pronounced “cajun.” Describing the expulsion, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Evangeline.”
Louis XIV’s grandson was Louis XV, who lost the French and Indian War in 1763. This gave Britain control of all of America east of the Mississippi, with the exception of Spanish Florida. As the war was ending, France ceded the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi to Spain in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau, 1762, to keep Britain from getting it. French settlers fled the the British-controlled land and crossed the Mississippi, founding the city of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1764, even though the land was nominally under Spanish control.
In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, the British and Indians led a failed attack on St. Louis. France’s new King, Louis XVI, sent his navy to help America win the battle of Yorktown, resulting in America’s independence from Britain.
Ironically, France’s enormous accumulated war debt weakened the monarchy. The French Revolution began in 1789, and on Jan. 21, 1793, a mob beheaded 38-year-old Louis XVI. A Reign of Terror began in France with 40,000 beheaded in Paris by the Committee of Public Safety, and hundreds of thousands killed across France who refused to embrace the new secular government.
Out of this chaos, Napoleon staged a coup d’état in 1799 and installed himself as first consul of France. Napoleon pressured Spain to sign the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800, giving the Louisiana Territory back to France. In 1802, Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston to France to purchase land in New Orleans to dock ships. Needing cash to fight Britain and the other European countries, Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million.
President Thomas Jefferson agreed to the purchase and the size of the U.S. doubled on April 30, 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase. The 828,000 square miles were purchased at less than three cents an acre – it was the greatest real estate deal in history! Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore it.
Not everyone in America was happy. The state of Massachusetts threatened to secede from the Union, arguing that the adding of so large a territory would dilute the influence of existing states.
Jefferson brokered a compromise with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, commenting in his second inaugural address, March 4, 1805: “I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger the union, but who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively?”
The rush to turn the Louisiana Purchase into new states, either slave or free, was a factor leading up to the Civil War.
Another contributing factor influencing Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory was the slave rebellion in Haiti. Christopher Columbus discovered Haiti, calling the island Hispanola, with the capital city of Santo Domingo named for Columbus’ father, Dominic. The French took half of the Island in the year 1660, and calling it Saint-Domingue, and later Haiti.
It was one of the wealthiest colonies in the world, producing sugar, indigo, cotton and coffee. Plantations deplorably used slave labor. While the French Revolution abolished slavery in France, they let it continue in Haiti. Slave revolts from 1791-1804 resulted in tens of thousands French, Mulattos, Blacks, and even Polish, dying with horrible brutality on all sides. After losing Haiti, France wanted another tropical colony, so Napoleon invaded Egypt, 1798-1801. Napoleon’s fear that Haiti’s slave rebellion might spread to the Louisiana Territory was a contributing factor in his rush to sell it.
During his career, Napoleon fought in over 100 battles, conquering large areas of Europe. When Napoleon put his brother Joseph on Spain’s throne in 1808, Venezuela declared independence in 1810, followed by Central American countries of Chili, Argentina, and eventually Mexico.
On June 23, 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with nearly a half million men. Six months later he retreated with less than 50,000. This disastrous loss forced him to abdicate the throne and he was exiled to the Mediterranean Island of Elba. Napoleon escaped Elba on Feb. 26, 1815, and returned to rule France for 100 days. After losing the battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815, Napoleon was permanently banished to the tiny South Atlantic island of St. Helena.
The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) had caused an estimated 6 million deaths from battle and related diseases, starvation and exposure. On the island of St. Helena, Napoleon began to reflect on his life and even began reading the Bible.
A few years before dying at the age of 52, Napoleon commented to General H.G. Bertrand, as recorded in “On St. Helena,” 1816: “The Gospel possesses a secret virtue, a mysterious efficacy, a warmth which penetrates and soothes the heart. One finds in meditating upon it that which one experiences in contemplating the heavens. The Gospel is not a book; it is a living being, with an action, a power, which invades everything that opposes its extension. Behold it upon this table, this book surpassing all others (here the Emperor solemnly placed his hand upon it): I never omit to read it, and every day with new pleasure. Nowhere is to be found such a series of beautiful ideas, and admirable moral maxims, which pass before us like the battalions of a celestial army … The soul can never go astray with this book for its guide. …”
Napoleon continued: “Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and His will confounds me. Between Him and whoever else in the world there is no possible term of comparison; He is truly a Being by Himself. His ideas and His sentiments, the truth which He announces, His manner of convincing, are not explained either by human organization or by the nature of things. Truth should embrace the universe. Such is Christianity, the only religion which destroys sectional prejudices, the only one which proclaims the unity and the absolute brotherhood of the whole human family, the only one which is purely spiritual; in fine, the only one which assigns to all, without distinction, for a true country, the bosom of the Creator, God.”
Napoleon concluded: “Christ proved that He was the Son of the Eternal by His disregard of time. All His doctrines signify one only and the same thing – eternity. What a proof of the divinity of Christ! With an empire so absolute, he has but one single end – the spiritual melioration of individuals, the purity of the conscience, the union to that which is true, the holiness of the soul. … Not only is our mind absorbed, it is controlled; and the soul can never go astray with this book for its guide. Once master of our spirit, the faithful Gospel loves us. God even is our friend, our father, and truly our God. The mother has no greater care for the infant whom she nurses. …”
Napoleon ended by telling General H.G. Bertrand: “If you do not perceive that Jesus Christ is God, very well: then I did wrong to make you a general.”
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