What If Napoleon Had Come To America? : NPR History Dept. Two centuries ago, the fallen French emperor was licking his wounds and dreaming of America.
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What If Napoleon Had Come To America?

Two hundred years ago this year, in June of 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo by a coalition of countries — including Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom. Though he wound up in exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, he contemplated escaping to America.

What if Napoleon had come to the New World?

"The answer to your question varies depending on what year Napoleon might have arrived," says Shannon Selin, a writer of historical fiction in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of the novel Napoleon in America. "He seriously considered escaping to the United States from France in July 1815, and there were several reported plots to rescue him from St. Helena between 1816 and 1821."

The timing, Selin says, "affects both the geopolitical possibilities and Napoleon's physical capacity. By 1818, he was already suffering symptoms of the stomach cancer that went on to kill him."

Napoleon died in 1821 at age 51. But the last few years of his life led to folkloric stories of intrigue and possibility of life in America — on a grand scale.

New Worlds To Conquer

After Waterloo, political pressure convinced Napoleon to abdicate, writes Ines Murat — a distant relative of Napoleon — in her book Napoleon and the American Dream. As the Prussian army advanced on his home outside of Paris, he was reading a book about the geographical and botanical features of the New World. He even had picked out a pseudonym to use in America: Colonel Muiron.

"When Napoleon imagined his life in the United States," Murat wrote, "it was as a private individual and devotee of science. He had written in his abdication that his 'political life was over.' "

In a letter to a contemporary, Napoleon mused, "For me, idleness would be the cruelest torture. Without armies or an empire I see only science as influencing my spirit." And he planned to use America as his base camp.

One of his relatives wrote to another: "You've surely heard of the latest misfortunes of the Emperor ... He's going to the United States, where we shall all join him. He's quite calm and courageous."

His plan, Murat wrote, was to move 3 million gold francs to an American bank. He instructed underlings to ready his imperial library, the fine china and linen, enough furniture for two homes and a score of hunting guns. He also planned to take plenty of horses and 15 stable keepers.

Stephen Girard Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

A Man With A Plan

Meanwhile, according to a 1902 story in the Baltimore Americanreprinted in many American newspapers — a Philadelphia man named Stephen Girard plotted to spirit Napoleon away from his enemies and bring him to America.

A banker and a philanthropist, Girard was a fascinating character. Born in Bordeaux, he moved to Pennsylvania and became one of this country's wealthiest citizens in the early 19th century. Some say he worked with Napoleon and the French — on behalf of President Thomas Jefferson and the United States — to secure the Louisiana Purchase expansion in 1803.

Tradition has it that Girard's rescue plan, apparently, was to somehow transport Napoleon to the shores of Virginia and into a hideaway on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

In France, Napoleon fled to a seaport and prepared to board a swift clipper ship — provided by Girard, according to the Baltimore American. The idea was to set sail for America. But the harbor was full of enemy ships. Napoleon threw himself on the mercy of the Brits and they, in turn, banished Napoleon to "the barren island of St. Helena."

Rumors abounded in America, however. Ines Murat wrote about one traditional tale:

"From New York it was announced that Napoleon had embarked from France with a few faithful followers for the United States. 'If he has not fallen into the hands of the British cruisers, this celebrated man is at this moment near our shores to seek asylum from the persecutions of the Old World.' As word spread that Napoleon was approaching the coast of Virginia, Colonel King, commander of the militia of Somerset County in Maryland, summoned his men and hurried off to greet the hero of the day."

Napoleon Bonaparte never made it to the United States.

Complex Situation

Historical novelist Shannon Selin has found no credible evidence of the Girard story. "Given the time it took for messages to cross the Atlantic back then, there would not have been sufficient time for word of Napoleon's abdication to reach the United States and for a return message sent from the United States to reach Napoleon before he'd made his decision to give himself up to the British."

She refers to the memoirs of Napoleon's valet Louis-Joseph Marchand: "Captain Besson, commanding a Danish ship, placed himself at the disposal of the Emperor, promising to take him to the United States and to hide him so as to escape all searches of the cruisers: but hiding in the hold of a vessel if it were taken was not a method he found worthy of him."

Historians offer other scenarios for a Napoleonic plan to escape to the New World.

In any case, Napoleon dreamed of traveling to America. And what if he had come in 1815?

Selin sees several possibilities:

  • Napoleon might have settled peacefully, probably near his brother Joseph, who was living in New Jersey and had land in upstate New York. Through his supporters in Europe, Napoleon would likely have tried to undermine the Bourbon regime and drum up support for his return to France, or for his young son to be placed on the French throne.
  • Napoleon might have attempted to gather his followers and peacefully start a colony within the United States. This is something he fantasized about when he was on St. Helena. Bonapartists actually tried starting colonies in Alabama and in Texas — which was then under Spanish rule — without much luck.
  • In search of a new throne, Napoleon 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. In Napoleon in America, Selin imagine how this might have happened.

In 1816, according to Ines Murat, Napoleon read of his brother Joseph's safe passage to America. The next year he remarked to someone: "My great mistake was to turn to the English and to wind up on St. Helena. If I were in America, everything would go well, whereas here, everything goes badly. It's all an error."

Mediography

"Napoleon and America" by Pascal Cazottes, International Napoleonic Society

"The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine" by Mike Dash, Smithsonian magazine

The Bonapartes in America by Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance

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