Study Guide

François de Barbé-Marbois in Louisiana Purchase Treaty

By Robert R. Livingston, James Monroe, and François de Barbé-Marbois

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François de Barbé-Marbois

What does it mean to be loyal?

And which kind of loyalty is most important: loyalty to a person, loyalty to a country, or loyalty to a set of ideas?

These are deep questions, and they're not any easier to answer here in the 21st century than they were for François de Barbé-Marbois in late 18th-century France.

If we just look at Barbé-Marbois' resume, we see he looks like a serial job-hopper, moving from position to position, location to location, royalist to republican, which maybe says loyalty wasn't that big of a thing in his world.

But if we take into consideration the absolute chaos that was the nation of France at the time, maybe his job-hopping looks less like opportunism and more like self-preservation.

Hoppin' Jobs

When Barbé-Marbois first entered the working world as a tutor for the Marquis de Castries' kids, France was a monarchy.

It was a monarchy in trouble, to be sure, but it was a monarchy nonetheless. And it was under this monarchy that Barbé-Marbois began his career as a French statesman.

His first assignment was as the secretary of the French Legation to the United States in Philadelphia, which was the capital of the brand-new United States of America. Barbé-Marbois loved America—he even married a local gal from Philly—and served happily in the post and as France's chargé d'affaires (a.k.a. France's ambassador to the United States) from 1779 to 1785. He became buds with people like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and a dapper New Yorker named Robert R. Livingston.

Then, in 1785, he was sent to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean to serve as intendant, which is sort of like a governor. He instituted some reforms that made the island's rich landowners kind of mad; they ended up accusing him of being all kinds of shady and asked that he be removed from his position.

It worked.

On the Road Again

Four years later, Barbé-Marbois was recalled to France, this time as an employee of the new French revolutionary government known as the National Assembly.

In 1791, when the National Assembly was replaced by another new government—the Legislative Assembly—Barbé-Marbois was sent to Ratisbon, Germany, to help out the French ambassador stationed there. He quit the gig; he wasn't really a big fan of the bloody politics put forth by some of the Legislative Assembly folks.

When he got back to Paris, he was found guilty of treason, but since evidence that he'd actually committed treason was pretty much nonexistent, the charges were eventually dropped (though he did get a little prison time).

In 1793, yet another new French government was put in place—this one called the First Republic—and Barbé-Marbois found himself re-employed with a whole new set of bosses. He was elected to the Council of Ancients (kind of like a parliament) in 1795.

The First Republic leaders suspected him of being a royalist since he didn't jump on the down-with-all-the-nobles bandwagon they were driving, but then he gave a lovely speech about how awesome Napoleon's recent victory in Italy was, so all was forgiven.

For a while.

He's in, He's out, He's In

When the First Republic fell in 1795 and was replaced by the fourth and final French revolutionary government—the Directory—Barbé-Marbois was yet again accused of being disloyal and traitorous.

This time, though, the charges stuck, and he and a bunch of other suspected royalists were exiled to the French convict colony of Guiana in South America.

Thankfully, the time he'd spent in Saint-Domingue had allowed him to build up immunity to all the bugs, diseases, and tropical weather that killed off many other prisoners who had been sent there. (They didn't call Guiana the "dry guillotine" for nothing.) So when Napoleon Bonaparte finally came to power in 1799 and freed Barbé-Marbois, he was alive and healthy and able to return to Paris.

In 1801, he became Napoleon's counselor of state and finance director. In 1802, he also became a senator. In 1805, he was made a count and grand officer of the Legion of Honor; in 1808, he became president of the Cour des Comptes, France's version of the IRS.

Despite all these titles and promotions from Napoleon, in 1814, Barbé-Marbois helped draw up the First Consul's abdication papers (which totally miffed Napoleon, BTW).

Once the Bourbon monarchy was in place (buh-bye, Napoleon) and King Louis XVIII was on the throne, Barbé-Marbois was named a peer of France and confirmed once again as the Cour des Comptes prez.

In 1815, he was named minister of justice, but people thought he was too moderate, so he got fired in 1816.

In 1818, he was given the noble title of marquis, now that nobility was allowed again (in limited capacity).

In 1830, when the new king, Louis-Philippe, came into power, Barbé-Marbois was once again confirmed as the president of the Cour des Comptes, and he held the position until 1834, three years before his death.

If that sounds like a lot of dates, titles, and French leaders, it is. It so is.

Going With the Flow

In the years between 1788 and 1830, France had eight different governments, not including that random 100 days in 1815 when Napoleon reappeared on the scene and tried to take everything back over.

It's really not all that shocking, then, that a politician type such as Barbé-Marbois also held at least that many positions during that time.

And it's also not shocking that his loyalties appear to shift between monarchs, despots, and republican leaders. How else was the guy supposed to hold onto a job, let alone avoid being jailed or killed?

And maybe he did switch his allegiances. We can't be sure how he really felt from the historical documents that exist, and it's not like he's taking interviews these days.

But when we look at the things he accomplished (and the things he tried to accomplish), we can't help but wonder: did he really change loyalties like some folks change their pants, or was his allegiance ever first and foremost to the nation of France?

Sorry, folks, we don't have an answer for you on that.

But what we do have is ample info on the role he played in the Louisiana Purchase, and boy, is it a big role.

Crunchin' Numbers

Maybe the purchase would have happened without Barbé-Marbois, and maybe it wouldn't. But as one of the three authors and signatories on this monumental piece of legislation, it's definitely a good idea to delve into how, exactly, a numbers guy from Metz helped the whole thing come about.

When Napoleon came to power, his main objective was, essentially, French world domination. He was a lot more nuanced about it, of course, but that was his general goal.

But after dealing with some disastrous military misadventures—not to mention all of the chaos at home—he was starting to rethink that plan.

The Louisiana Territory, which had originally been slated to become France's empire in the Americas, was starting to look more and more like a ginormous, humid, swampy money pit. Finances were super tight; with an expensive war in Europe looming big on the horizon, Napoleon was thinking maybe he ought to just sell Louisiana to the Americans and be done with it.

And his finance minister was just the dude to handle the job.

Thanks to his friendship with Robert R. Livingston, the American ambassador to France, and also thanks to his generally warm and fuzzy relations with the United States, Barbé-Marbois was able to negotiate the price on the Louisiana Territory up from the 20 million francs ($8 mil) Livingston and Monroe originally offered to the 80 million francs ($15 mil) that was eventually settled upon.

This was still lower than the pie-in-the-sky 100 million francs that Napoleon originally wanted, but it was substantially higher than his lowest acceptable amount of 50 million francs.

Barbé-Marbois also helped figure out the payment terms for Louisiana, as well as the terms of the reparations France owed the United States for some shady naval behavior a few years prior.

Had Napoleon gone ahead with his planned invasion of England, that cash sure would have allowed him to do some damage. As it was, the invasion never happened, but Barbé-Marbois went down in history as one of the architects of the biggest real estate transaction ever.

And that's a title no changing of the governmental guard can take away.

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