How did a shipwreck double the size of the United States?

The Haitian Revolution and Louisiana Purchase

Napoleon dream­ed of creating a Western empire centered on international trade. The French Caribbean islands and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) could farm sugar, coffee and tropical produce. With New Orleans as its trading stronghold in North America, Napoleon would wield economic power over the United States [source: Lachance]. However, a slave uprising led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in Saint-Domingue (the former name for Haiti) dashed those imperial plans.

The only successful slave revolt in history, French forces couldn't quell the Haitian rebellion. Napoleon dispatched 20,000 soldiers to restore peace and order, but a combination of yellow fever and unyielding solidarity among the former slaves defeated the military's efforts. By late 1802, France had lost an estimated 55,000 men [source: Lachance]. Since Saint Domingue was France's most lucrative colony in the West, Napoleon considered it a key asset for building his Caribbean empire [source: Rodriguez]. Cutting his losses, Napoleon abandoned the Western strategy and decided to refill France's dwindling treasury for impending war with Britain.

While Napoleon sorted out his imperial problems, another legendary leader also contemplated expanding his nation's horizons. President Thomas Jefferson viewed French control over the port at New Orleans as a hindrance to American settlement in the West. Jefferson didn't want to fight with France over the territory, instead seeking a diplomatic solution. He sent James Monroe as his envoy to the French government with an offer to buy New Orleans for no more than $3 million.

Instead of haggling over the port city, Napoleon surprised Jefferson by upping the ante. He put up the entire Louisiana Territory for sale -- no more, no less. The strict constructionist president was conflicted at first with the offer since the Constitution didn't include allowances for the federal government to accept land purchases. To get around that, he framed the deal as a treaty between the United States and France. The strategy worked, and Jefferson bought the enormous swath of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains for $15 million on April 30, 1803.

Priced at barely four cents per acres, the 828,000 square miles (2.1 million square kilometers) signed over in Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase Treaty effectively doubled the size of the country. In less than three years, Louisiana passed from Spain to France to the United States. Though it took an unlikely shipwreck, war and a slave uprising to get there, Jefferson sealed the largest land deal in U.S. history with peaceful diplomacy and a signature.

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  • ­McConnaughey, Janet. "A Fishing Vessel Called Mistake Finds Sunken Spanish Treasure by Accident." Los Angeles Times. Feb. 13, 1994.
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