the electrifying louisiana purchase -- 9/27/17

Today's selection -- from American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis. Thomas Jefferson discarded his deeply held convictions regarding small government to engineer the Louisiana Purchase, a transformative acquisition for the country and the greatest increase in American territory until the massive land acquisitions under President James Polk. Jefferson handled the purchase with decisiveness and skill:

"There was nothing miniature about the American West, nothing less than grandiose about Jefferson's vision of its future role in Ameri­can history and nothing but extraordinary presidential leadership, matched with even more extraordinary good fortune, that produced the Louisiana Purchase. When word reached Washington in 1803 (on July 4 no less) that France had agreed to the sale of the Louisiana Terri­tory for fifteen million dollars, the American republic doubled in size overnight. Even compared with the legendary purchase of Manhattan from the Indians for a pittance, the acquisition of half a continent for about three cents an acre was a bigger steal. It was unquestionably the greatest achievement of the Jefferson presidency and, with room left for scholarly quibbling about Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin Roo­sevelt in the 1930s and Harry Truman in 1945, one of the most conse­quential executive actions in all of American history.

Transfer of Louisiana by Ford P. Kaiser for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904)

"It was fashionable for many years to tell the story of the transaction primarily as a meditation on the influence of dumb luck. 'Napoleon threw the province, so to speak, at Livingston, Monroe, Madison and Jefferson,' wrote one historian, 'and they share between [sic] them­ -- equally -- whatever credit there was in catching it and holding it -- that is all.' This interpretation represented a continuation of Federalist expla­nations at the time. '[T]he acquisition has been solely owing to a for­tuitous concurrence of unforeseen and unexpected circumstances,' said an editor in the New York Evening Post, 'and not to any wise or vig­orous measures on the part of the American government.' The fairer judgment would seem to be that Jefferson was both more fortunate and more prescient than anyone realized at the time. And his nearly mystical sense of the American West made him more flexible in the implementation of his political principles than at any other time in his public life. To seize an empire, it turned out, required an imperial pres­ident. ...

"Jefferson regarded Spanish ownership of the vast western region of North America as essentially a temporary occupation that conveniently bided time for the inevitable American sweep across the continent. Of all the Euro­pean powers, Spain, the chronically weak 'sick man of Europe,' was, as Rufus King put it, 'the most proper to possess a great empire with insignificance.' When rumors reached Washington in 1802 that Spain had ceded its rights in North America, including the all-important control over the Mississippi, to Napoleon and France, Jefferson imme­diately recognized the French presence as a fundamental shift in the strategic situation; it both threatened American security and blocked westward American expansion. Without quite shouldering Madison to the sidelines, Jefferson assumed personal control over the diplomatic initiative to remove this unacceptable intrusion of a major European power onto the American continent.

"His instructions to Robert Livingston, the newly appointed Ameri­can ambassador to France, minced no words. He apologized for tem­porarily displacing the secretary of state but explained that he 'cannot forbear recurring to it personally, so deep is the impression it makes in my mind.' The sale of the Louisiana region to France was a major dis­aster that 'completely reverses all the political relations of the United States and will form a new epoch in our political course.' It consti­tuted, he believed, the greatest challenge to American independence and national integrity since the American Revolution: 'There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habit­ual enemy,' he explained to Livingston. That epicenter of American national interest was New Orleans. Despite past friendship with France and despite his own personal affinity for the Franco-American alliance, the moment France occupied New Orleans the two nations must become mortal enemies. 'From that moment,' he concluded omi­nously, 'we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.' Given his deep and lifelong hatred of England, Jefferson was effec­tively describing French control of the Mississippi as the equivalent of an international earthquake that moved all the geological templates into a new pattern.

"Though eminently capable, Livingston possessed the singular disadvantage of not being a Virginian. Jefferson wanted someone on the ground in Paris whom he could trust implicitly. So he in effect ordered James Monroe, a Jefferson protege currently serving as governor of Vir­ginia, to become a special envoy to France. '[T]he circumstances are such as to render it impossible to decline,' Jefferson observed dramati­cally, because 'on the event of this mission, depends the future des­tinies of this republic.' Monroe's instructions authorized the purchase of New Orleans and as much of the Mississippi Valley as possible -- the geographic boundaries of the French acquisition from Spain were fuzzy -- for up to ten million dollars. Even the paramount domestic goal of debt reduction was subordinated to recovering control over America's interior.

"During the winter and spring of 1803, while the outcome of the Monroe mission remained up in the air, Jefferson's management of the prospective crisis was deft and shrewd. He saw to it that du Pont de Nemours, an old French friend, was provided information about America's deadly serious intentions that could be leaked in the proper corridors at Versailles. When the Spanish official still governing New Orleans abruptly closed the port to American commerce, Jefferson came under considerable pressure to launch a unilateral military expe­dition to seize both the city and the Floridas, thereby abandoning diplomacy in favor of war with both Spain and France. Hamilton, writ­ing as Pericles, endorsed the military solution, arguing that 'in an emergency like the present, energy is wisdom.' Despite an authoriza­tion from Congress empowering the president to raise eighty thousand volunteers for a military campaign, Jefferson remained calm. Even if the ongoing negotiations in Paris failed, he explained -- and of course they did not -- outright war was both unwise and unnecessary. Time and demography were on the American side, justifying a patient policy 'till we have planted such a population on the Mississippi as will be able to do their own business, without the necessity of marching men from the shores of the Atlantic 1500 or 2000 miles thither ...'

"Jefferson was also extremely fortunate, in some ways ironically so. Napoleon's decision to sell not just New Orleans but also the entire
Mississippi Valley and modern-day American Midwest was prompted by the resumption of the Anglo-French war in 1802. Ambassador Liv­ingston had earlier complained that negotiating with France was impossible: 'There is no people, no Legislature, no counsellors. One man is everything. He seldom asks advice, and never hears it unasked.' This, of course, was the essence of the Napoleonic all-or-nothing style. But once Napoleon decided to cut his losses in America in return for money that would subsidize his European army, the same style worked to Jefferson's advantage; Napoleon sold all his North American posses­sions for practically nothing. The early Federalist attempts to undercut Jefferson's coup in acquiring the Louisiana Territory emphasized the impulsive character of Napoleon's decision, which had nothing to do with Jefferson's diplomatic maneuverings and everything to do with the shifting European context and the unpredictable Napoleonic char­acter.

"The deeper truth was that Louisiana was a providential gift from the insurgent slaves and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). The immediate cause of Napoleon's decision to abandon his dreams of a French empire in America was the disastrous failure of a twenty-five-thousand­-man expeditionary force headed by Charles Leclerc, Napoleon's brother-in-law, that had been dispatched to Santo Domingo to sup­press the slave insurrection there under the charismatic leadership of a black man named Toussaint L'Ouverture. Believing that a show of American support against the revolutionary government of Toussaint might win Napoleon's favor, Jefferson had informed the French gov­ernment that 'nothing would be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything, and to reduce Toussaint to starvation.' As it hap­pened, Leclerc's troops were decimated in the savage fighting against the slave insurrectionaries before American aid could arrive, and the mosquitoes killed off the rest. The virtual extinction of the French expeditionary force, which had been scheduled to proceed to New Orleans after dispatching the blacks of Santo Domingo, was the imme­diate cause of Napoleon's decision to cut his losses in the Western Hemisphere. In that sense, Jefferson was not only extraordinarily lucky but also beholden to historical forces that he had actually opposed.

"If, then, one ever wished to construct a monument in New Orleans memorializing the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson would have to be a central figure, but he would also need to be flanked by busts of Tous­saint and his fellow black insurrectionaries, plus perhaps a tribute to the deadly mosquito. And the most appropriately eloquent quotation would come from Talleyrand, that ubiquitous and famously unscrupu­lous French foreign minister. 'I can give you no direction,' he said to Livingston, 'you have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I sup­pose you will make the most of it.' Talleyrand was referring to the imprecise and therefore controversial borders of French Louisiana, but his statement accurately described Jefferson's presidential style in the immediate aftermath of the sale. He violated his most cherished politi­cal principles several times over in order to guarantee the most expan­sive version of the 'noble bargain,' and he temporarily made himself into just the kind of monarchical chief magistrate he had warned against. 'It is incumbent on those who accept great charges,' he explained afterward, 'to risk themselves on great occasions,' adding that 'to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written laws, would be to lose the law itself.' "



Joseph J. Ellis


American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson


Vintage Books


Copyright 1996 by Joseph J. Ellis


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