America acquires its destiny


Territory: The Louisiana Purchase, made 200 years ago today, doubled the size of the United States and propelled the young republic toward its eventual western barrier, the Pacific Ocean.

April 30, 2003|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Precisely 200 years ago today, the new American nation broke past the confines of the Mississippi River to begin its march toward continental size and world power. Unsought and unexpected, but mightily cherished, the Louisiana Territory came into U.S. possession at a fire-sale price of less than 4 cents an acre. In the words of the most beautiful of American anthems, amber waves of grain would henceforth stretch over fruited plains to reach purple mountain majesties as the young republic instantly more than doubled in size.

"No event in all American history - not the Civil War, nor the Declaration of Independence nor even the signing of the Constitution - was more important," wrote scholar Bernard DeVoto on the sesquicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Consider: 828,000 square miles in an expanse beginning at the mouth of Mississippi River and stretching northwest to the Canadian border. It was an expanse that today embraces all or most of 15 states: Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Minnesota, Texas and New Mexico.

Consider, too, how profoundly it changed the nation's destiny. No longer limited to its original borders or the land between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, the United States would use the momentum of the Louisiana Purchase to grow from sea to shining sea, to capture Texas and the Southwest from Mexico and secure the Pacific Northwest from European rivals.

"Manifest destiny" was in gestation, along with the sectional battle over slavery in newly acquired territory, which was to lead to the Civil War. On April 30, 1803, Thomas Jefferson was president, James Madison secretary of state, and James Monroe special U.S. envoy to Paris. These three presidential Virginians, buttressed by the diplomatic skills and hard work of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, are rightly celebrated as the American statesmen who brought the acquisition to its successful conclusion.

But if American glasses are to be raised on this anniversary, the unlikely heroes who made it all possible would be two highly disparate foreigners - Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Touissaint L'Ouverture of Haiti.

The first was the conqueror of Europe, a military genius determined to regain New Orleans from a weakened Spain and push up the Mississippi to establish possessions that would check both the British and the Americans. His battle plan was to reassert French power in Haiti, where rebellious black slaves had taken the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution literally a decade earlier by declaring their independence. Next he intended to send troops battle-hardened in Haiti and a second expeditionary force then forming in Europe to conquer the Louisiana heartland.

Forty thousand French troops headed by the emperor's brother-in-law landed near Port-au-Prince in 1801. They were confident of victory. But at that point, L'Ouverture and his followers produced a miracle for which Americans should ever be grateful. In slightly more than a decade, this remarkable man had risen to become the de facto ruler of his people. His guerrilla soldiers defeated French forces decimated by yellow fever and threw their remnants off the island. L'Ouverture was to be martyred in the effort, lured by French treachery to a cold mountain death in European captivity, but his cause was triumphant.

It was a decisive moment, not only for Haiti but also for the United States. Having lost its colony in the Caribbean, France had no logical reason to struggle for a mainland base to supply and supplement Haiti's lucrative trade in sugar, coffee, cocoa and slaves. If the Louisiana Territory was not to be regained by France, then Napoleon was determined it would not fall into the hands of his British rivals.

The French emperor therefore made his fateful determination to sell all of the Louisiana Territory to the Americans, who had renounced territorial ambitions west of the Mississippi.

"They [the Americans] ask of me one town [New Orleans] in Louisiana," Napoleon told his advisers. "But I already consider the colony entirely lost. ... In the hands of this growing power [the United States], Louisiana will be more useful to the policy and even to the commerce of France than if I should attempt to keep it."

When Monroe and Livingston heard of Napoleon's decision, they could hardly believe their ears. Livingston had circulated in Paris a treatise that questioned what use New Orleans would be to a France that had lost Haiti. He reminded his hosts that even a Francophile like President Jefferson had warned that any foreign power seeking to close the Mississippi to American traders would become the "natural and habitual enemy" of the United States.

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