What if

Elud­ing ex­ile, a bel­liger­ent Napoleon de­clares him­self King of Mex­ico and has his sights set on re­turn­ing to the French throne

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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

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