The Louisiana Purchase and The Slave Rebellion that Created America

The Louisiana Purchase is perhaps the greatest single acquisition in the history of the United States of America. It instantly doubled the size of the country and was purchased for pennies on the dollar. France, the previous holder of the territory, sold the 800,000 square miles of land in 1803 for 3 cents an acre. This amounted to a grand total of 15 million dollars( in 2010 dollars that would be slightly over 215 million dollars). A relative steal for the massive track of land that would open up the country to increased western settlement and the possible expansion of slavery. But why would France want to sell this prime real estate? What does a slave rebellion have to do with the creation of America? These and more questions will answered in the following article. It all starts with Thomas Jefferson and a certain constitutional dilemma.

Jefferson’s Philosophical Dilemma

The Louisiana Purchase posed a philosophical dilemma for Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an Anti-Federalist who argued heavily against the concept of a strong national government. He greatly feared under such a government that America would slip into the throes of tyranny. It is not a stretch to say that he was near paranoia in his viewing a strong central government as a threat to the safety and welfare of the country. As such, he would lobby and advocate for state’s rights. He only saw a centralized government as necessary in terms  of foreign affairs. This viewpoint would place him in direct opposition to founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton who was an ardent Federalist. Hamilton supported the idea of a strong national government and supported the creation of a national bank. According to Hamilton, this could be done with proper constitutional authority utilizing the elastic clause(Article 6, sect.8, clause 18 of the U.S. Constitution). The elastic clause aka the “necessary and proper” clause stated the government of the United States could “Make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this constitution.” Alexander Hamilton believed a national bank and its creation fell into this category. Thomas Jefferson strongly disagreed with this interpretation. He felt that the powers of Congress were clearly enumerated(stated or written) and should be strictly adhered to( it is worth mentioning that this particular clause has been the source of centuries of heated political debate that continues today). The enumerated powers that Jefferson refers to can be found in three places primarily: 1) Article 1 Sect.8, Clauses 1-18( the enumerated powers of Congress) 2) Article IV, Sect.3(regarding the admission and formation of new states), and 3) XVI Amendment which gave Congress the power to lay and collect taxes. For Thomas Jefferson anything outside of these(with the exception of the 16th amendment which wasn’t ratified until 1913) expressly written powers was borderline tyrannical and indicative of the federal government overstepping its constitutional authority. If it wasn’t specifically written it was clearly a matter reserved for the states.

For Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase would put him in direct conflict with his own Anti-Federalist beliefs. A transaction of this sort was not enumerated in the constitution. If he elected to wait for the passage of a possible constitutional amendment, the deal very well may have fallen through. Time was of the essence in this political opportunity that suddenly availed itself to him. So in a move of political hypocrisy motivated by national interest, Jefferson proceeded with the purchase and the blessings of most Americans(despite his years of Anti-Federalist tirades).

Historical Context of the Louisiana Purchase

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America became interested in the French territories west of the Mississippi River primarily due to the increasing use of the river as a main artery for trading goods. The territory was also viewed as ripe for the dislocation of Native Americans and the expansion of slavery as well. All of these reasons were supported by President Thomas Jefferson. At the center of the Louisiana Territory’s economic activity was the Port of New Orleans. It easily was the most important port city on the mighty Mississippi River. It is important to note that pre-1800 much of the Louisiana territories were under Spanish rule. However, Spain’s ability to adequately defend the area was being called into question. So in secrecy unbeknownst to the U.S., Spain and France struck the Treaty of Ildefonso on Oct. 1,1800(not to be confused with a treaty of the same name in 1796 which united Spain and France against the British). This treaty gave back the territories(which France had ceded to Spain in 1763) to France. The land,now back in French hands, posed an immense threat to America. The Port of New Orleans now closed its navigation of the Mississippi to American citizens, forbade trade, and the denied the right of deposit(granted by treaty in 1795). This was fast becoming a potential powder keg and financial crisis for Pres. Jefferson. A major contributor to the nation’s economic prosperity was now closed and war with France now loomed as an ever close possibility.

Enter Haiti

Saint Domingue(Haiti) was the most important of the French colonies in the Caribbean. It was the economic heartbeat of France’s colonial acquisitions. By 1789, it was producing 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the world’s sugar consumed in Europe. Its plantation owners were the wealthiest in the Caribbean. In 1789, whites numbered 40,000, mulattoes and free blacks 28,000, and black slaves somewhere between 500-700,000. The number of slaves accounted for one-half of the entire Caribbean slave population. Because of the rigors of slavery there(sugar cane/coffee slaves had a much lower life expectancy than cotton or tobacco slaves), the death rate outnumbered the birth rate causing a need for the constant influx of slaves and the maintenance of slavery.

The Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791-1804. On Jan. 1, 1804, Haiti declared itself independent with the final defeat of French military forces. The Revolution was initiated by a Haitian Houngan(Priest) named Boukman who prophesied over a religious gathering of slaves and told them that they would revolt and win their freedom. Boukman died early in the war but the slaves found leadership and renewed vigor in Toussaint L’Ouverture. L’Ouverture would become General of the Haitian Army(which was formally organized by Toussaint not just a rag-tag bunch of slaves) and profoundly influence the political and military landscape of the now wavering French colony.

The war had lulls and periods of sheer terror as well. France was not yet fully committed to combating the rebellion due to fast rising tensions and war with Great Britain looming large. Toussaint, the ever shrewd tactician, took advantage of this opportunity to galvanize slaves,  politically organize, and set-up Haiti to be self-governing. He even went so far as to proffer a new constitution. Napoleon would eventually send 25,000 troops to quell the rebellion but that would prove ultimately unsuccessful. The strength and will of the slaves coupled with French military defections, disobedience, and disease would prove to much to overcome for Napoleon and the French Empire.

Haitian Revolution and The Impact on America

France worried that Britain would block their access to critical American southern ports(mainly New Orleans) and that action would result in diverting too much of its navy to protect it. Napoleon sought to raise funds for his ambition to conquer England. The recent loss of his most profitable colony(Haiti) encouraged him to seek funds from the sale of the Louisiana Territories that could be used to focus his full attention on England. With this in mind, he rejected America’s initial offer to purchase the Port of New Orleans and instead offered the entire territory for sale. As stated before, The cheap price of 15 million dollars for an area of land that would instantly double the size of the United States was an offer Sec. Of State James Madison could not pass up. Madison agreed to the deal and signed in place of the President and Congress approved the deal by a 24-7 vote.  Thomas Jefferson throughout the Haitian Revolution would cut-off aid to Toussaint L’Ouverture and pursue an isolationist policy against Haiti. He feared that the rebellion would spread to slaves in America. Even after the Haitian Revolution was over, Jefferson would refuse to acknowledge the country as independent. France, the former colonizers of the island, in a moment of irony would recognize Haitian independence in 1825. The United States of America would take nearly 40 years longer to do the same in 1862. Southern states in reaction to the events in Haiti would tighten laws concerning slaves for fear of possible rebellions. Northern abolitionists would use the example of Toussaint as a motivating factor in the crusade to end slavery and prove the equality of blacks to whites.

So save the Haitian Revolution, America may not have gained the territory to double her size. The arguments and actions of slave owners and abolitionists may have been vastly different. With all this mind, imagine what this great country would be without the actions of those brave black souls? Those courageous Africans who fought for the most basic of all human rights….life and freedom. I look at the dire condition of Haiti today and it breaks my heart. A country who has done so much for us struggles to exist today. After all, the Haitian Revolution is the only successful recorded slave rebellion in world history.



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