Eluding exile, a belligerent Napoleon declares himself King of Mexico and has his sights set on returning to the French throne
What might Napoleon have done next had he escaped St Helena for life in the United States?
What happened after Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815?
He abdicated from the French throne, and he had to figure out what to do, as the allies were potentially going to come and capture him. He spent a bit of time sitting around Paris, waiting to see what was going to happen, and then he went to the French coast, to Rochefort. He thought he was going to get passports, possibly to go to the United States. However once he got there, he found that the passports he had been hoping for were not forthcoming. So there was dithering back and forth in the port about what Napoleon was going to do. Some of his followers went to see whether American ships were willing to escape the British blockade. Napoleon decided in the end he wasn’t going to try this option, because he didn’t think it would be to his dignity to hide himself and go to the US as a fugitive. He wrote a special letter to the Prince Regent, saying he was going to put himself at the mercy of the British people. He got on a ship that took him to Plymouth, but it
wasn’t until he got to Plymouth that he discovered the British were going to send him to St Helena [where he would live in exile until his death on 5 May 1821].
Why did Napoleon consider going to America?
He had been reading a book by Alexander von Humboldt, who was a great German naturalist of the 19th century, about the US, and this seemed appealing to him. He thought it was an attractive destination, and he could perhaps do some scientific exploration there, or just retreat as a private gentleman essentially. He talked about retiring on the banks of the Mississippi or the Ohio River, and about travelling around the Americas on a scientific expedition.
so would he have lived a quiet life in America?
If you look at what the options would have been, the first is just to settle peacefully. That’s what his brother Joseph Bonaparte did. Another of his options would have been to attempt to gather his followers there and to peacefully start a colony, creating a sort of new minifrance within the US. That’s something he fantasised of doing when he was on St Helena. And in fact the Bonapartists who did flee to the US actually did try to start colonies in Alabama and also in Texas.
There was some argument that perhaps the purpose [of these colonies] was to rescue Napoleon from St Helena, and put him on the Mexican throne. The third possibility is this Texas expedition, which Napoleon might have got involved in if he was really in search of a new throne. He might have got involved in launching an invasion of Spain’s American colonies, because most of them were seeking independence from Spain at that point.
There were revolutionary wars going on in these places, and the most obvious candidate if he was in the US would have been Mexico. At one point when he was on St Helena and learned that Joseph had successfully reached the US, Napoleon said if he was in his place he would build a great empire in all of Spanish America. So there are some hints that this was playing on his mind.
If he had started a colony in the Us, would that have been tolerated?
Given Napoleon’s penchant for governance, this would have caused friction with the Americans, but would not necessarily have greatly altered world history – the exception being if he tried to do it in Louisiana, where there was a sizeable French-speaking population and Napoleon was well regarded. This could ultimately have led to an attempt to secede, which would have been resisted by the American government.
Could Napoleon have had a lasting impact on the Americas?
I don’t think he could have done anything comparable with what he did in Europe, because he didn’t have the infrastructure, the familiarity with the culture or the political situation there or the geography. And he just didn’t have the number of followers that were needed. Where he could have had an influence would have been in Spanish America, lending his support to one of the groups there. But there were so many individual players there, and in that stage of his life his health was declining. He died of cancer in 1821, and the symptoms were already showing as early as 1818. He was passed his prime. I don’t think the fire was still in his belly in the way it had been earlier.
Would he have changed the outcome of any of the independence revolutions in Central or south America?
Napoleon, in search of a new throne, might have tried to launch an invasion of one of Spain’s American colonies, which were then seeking independence. The most obvious candidate would have been Mexico, via Texas. There is some suggestion that Mexican patriots may have offered to put Joseph Bonaparte on the throne of an independent Mexico. Napoleon might also have meddled in other Spanish American colonies where his supporters had landed up. For example, Napoleonic General Michel Brayer briefly commanded the cavalry in Chile’s independence army and allegedly lent his support to a reported plan to rescue Napoleon from St Helena.
Would Napoleon have been safe in America?
A very real possibility is that Napoleon would have been assassinated in America by a supporter of France’s Bourbon regime [which ruled France in his stead]. Napoleon certainly feared that outcome, and it is one of the things that deterred him from going to America.
“Napoleon, in search of a new throne, might have tried to launch an invasion of one of Spain’s American colonies”
Is there any scenario where he returns to France?
He likely would have tried to undermine the Bourbon regime in some fashion, and try to drum up support to return to France, or for his young son to be placed on the French throne. But with the allies occupying France, I think the chances of that were quite slim.
He’d already had two kicks of the can, and the French people were tired of war and Napoleon at that point. The allied governments would have done everything in their power to stop him from coming back.
What would Napoleon’s involvement have meant for the Americas?
If Napoleon had embarked on a military adventure in the Americas, it could have led to an attempt by Spain or France to intervene directly in the Americas. Or, if Napoleon had fiddled around in Texas, it could have provided the US with an excuse to take Texas earlier than it actually did [from Mexico in 1845]. And Russia had posts on the west coast of North America at the time, and it might have taken advantage of the opportunity to take its toehold on the continent. Or Cuba could have wound up in French or British or American hands. So there are possibilities for how Napoleon could have had a lasting impact.
Is there a particular path for Napoleon that was most likely?
I like to think that the most likely might have been that he would have still undertaken a military venture. But speaking more as a historian, he would have lived peacefully, fretting about it, and possibly thinking more in terms of how to influence events in France or in Europe that would favour his son attaining the French throne at some point. His health at that stage of his life was not great, and he didn’t have a large core of supporters around him. I don’t think he would have had a large enough following to make a bit difference.
Would Napoleon going to America change the story of his life at all?
It was during that period [on St Helena] that Napoleon really built his reputation in a favourable fashion. He was dictating his memoirs there, he had sympathetic followers, and he was able to craft a real propaganda effort in his favour. Even within Britain, people began to refer to him much more sympathetically once he was on St Helena.
So if that St Helena period had not happened, his reputation may not have been the same today as it currently is. That could have cemented his reputation more as kind of a loser rather than as a great man in world history.
The British exiled Napoleon on St Helena in 1818
Alexander von Humboldt’s writing sparked Napoleon’s interest in America
Napoleon could have influenced the Mexican-american War