In 1803 the Louisiana purchase doubled the size of the United States for $15,000,000 paid to France. The western boundary leaped from the Mississippi to the Pacific. We bought more than half a billion acres for about $.04 each even when the cost of financing the 6% loan from European bankers is included. I think I learned all that in school and then forgot it. But there is much more in John Kukla’s A Wilderness So Immense about the Louisiana purchase and the European and American politics which surrounded it than I ever learned in school .
If you’re not a history buff, there is probably too much detail here. But the story is extremely well told. It is a story of the foresight and guile of Thomas Jefferson, the needs of Napoleon, the slave rebellion in Haiti, the weakness of King Carlos IV of Spain, and the tensions between the North, South, and West of the brand new United States. It is a story of unintended consequences (which I suspect is true of much of history). Even the new celebrities–all-the-time CNN would have liked to cover some of it. For example, did you know that Carlos IV of Spain delegated most important state business to his queen’s lover Manuel Godoy and gave him the title “Prince of Peace”? And that the queen’s children looked more like Godoy than Carlos? This is actually important as well as titillating. Carlos’ weakness and Godoy’s inexperience had a lot to do with how the Louisiana purchase happened.
All of this territory, you’ll remember, belonged to Spain and not to France. In 1786, a major fight between Northern and Southern states was over whether John Jay should press the Spanish for an American right of navigation of the Mississippi. The Spanish controlled all of its west bank, both banks in the South, and, most importantly, the port of New Orleans at the mouth of the river.
The North was much more concerned with fishing rights off Newfoundland and trading rights for its fleet in Spanish ports. There was fear in the North that trade on the Mississippi would compete with New England ports. The South had much more of a stake in westward expansion. As a result of this disagreement and the wiliness of Carlos III (much stronger than his son), America did not get this right in 1786.
In Paris at the time, Thomas Jefferson wrote that frontiersmen “should take care to not…press too soon on the Spaniards. These countries cannot be in better hands. My fear is that they are too feeble to hold them till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece.”
Barges of American produce went down the Mississippi without the formal right of navigation. Bribes were paid. Threats were made. Spain’s real interest was in its Latin American empire. New Orleans and the Louisiana territory were seen only as a buffer protecting that empire. By 1794 there was serious doubt that New Orleans could protect itself from determined frontiersmen. In 1795 Napoleon was beginning to press into Spain. When Godoy negotiated a treaty with the French under pressure, the Spanish court feared with good reason, that the Americans would ally with England and simply take New Orleans and everything on the way to and perhaps beyond it. To forestall this, Spain signed a treaty with the US allowing free navigation and establishing the all-important right of deposit so that the Americans could store goods in New Orleans duty-free for transfer to ocean-going ships.
In 1801 Carlos secretly traded Louisiana and six Spanish warships to Napoleon in return for Napoleon creating a duchy in Northern Italy for his beloved queen’s nephew. Actually Spain was glad to be rid of the cost of maintaining the possession. According to the book, Spain and France agreed to keep the treaty secret for fear that the British or American would react by capturing the territory before Napoleon could take possession. Napoleon felt that, before taking possession of Louisiana, he had to recapture St. Dominique (the island which is to today split between the Dominican Republic and Haiti) from rebellious slaves and free people of color who had seized it. Later, with plenty of time to think on St. Helena, he said this was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. The rebellion and yellow fever swallowed up one French force after another, forces whose next move was supposed to be Louisiana.
The secret didn’t keep for long. Thomas Jefferson, long time Francophile and apologist for the bloody excesses of its revolution, wrote: “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market.” President Jefferson instructed his ambassador in Paris to open negotiation for the purchase of New Orleans with the French despite that country’s denial that it owned the territory. He instructed Ambassador Livingston to inform the French that, as soon as they officially took possession of New Orleans, the US would end its neutrality and ally with Britain in the European wars.
In 1802 a Spanish bureaucrat in New Orleans used a technicality to end the American right of deposit in New Orleans. There were quickly stories of flatboats full of cotton being turned back and fears that the fall crop would not be able to reach a market. This action was taken on secret orders of the Spanish king, perhaps angered by American smuggling, perhaps pressed by Napoleon. Whatever his motives, he succeeded in uniting America’s regions and political parties at least temporarily.
The mainly-Northern Federalists had long sought to ally with Britain and were Francophobic. Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans was now incensed with both the Spanish and the French to whom they had been friendly. Quickly, the Senate unanimously passed a bellicose resolution authorizing the president to direct the state governors “to organize, arm, and equip” as many as 80,000 militia. When word of this resolution reached Napoleon, already reeling from losses in Haiti, he decided to sell Louisiana to the Americans despite a pledge he had made to the Spanish not to alienate it. He was a realist, knew he needed his resources to back his land-based armies, could not defend Louisiana, and wanted to preserve American neutrality and he needed the money. However, he decided that he would sell all of Louisiana or nothing, not just New Orleans and the Floridas which was what the Americans were authorized to buy.
Nevertheless, it was all over but the haggling. The Americans ended up with a huge territory which nobody wanted very much and whose boundaries nobody knew, the all-important port city of New Orleans, and didn’t get Florida until later negotiations with the Spanish.
There is one final insight into Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t believe that the government had constitutional authorization to make the purchase. The Republicans, despite many similarities to the liberals of today, were strict constructionists. They believed the government had only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Jefferson began to draft a constitutional amendment to authorize the purchase. Then he realized that he didn’t have time for that process because Napoleon had set a deadline for ratification and was reported to be looking for a reason to renege. Jefferson did not want to use the argument that the “necessary and proper clause” was a broad grant of authority to do anything which might be needed to implement the specifically granted powers like treaty making. “If it is, then we have no Constitution,” he warned.
Jefferson’s solution was to push for ratification – his party had the needed 2/3s of the Senate – without raising the constitutional issue at all. “The less we say about the constitutional difficulties respecting Louisiana the better,” he told Madison. “What is necessary for surmounting them must be done sub-silentio.” Vintage Jefferson: he didn’t want to embrace broad construction and he did want Louisiana so he just swept the issue under the rug. However, both the nation and the construction of the Constitution were greatly enlarged from then forward.