The Louisiana
The story of the Louisiana Purchase has as many twists and turns as the Mississippi itself, and the biggest challenge in retelling it is to avoid getting caught in the diplomatic backwaters, where clerks chatter endlessly about minutiæ. But just as sure as the Gulf of Mexico is the final destination of the Mississippi, the story of the Purchase flows inevitably toward a providential sense of American destiny as a continental empire, what Jefferson, with unintentional irony, called "an empire of liberty."

Even the all-time American champion of historical irony, Henry Adams, acknowledged that the Louisiana Purchase, in the end, was a triumph on a par with the winning of independence and the adoption of the Constitution. Frederick Jackson Turner, the founding father of western history, also described the Purchase as the formative event in the national narrative: "Having taken the decisive stride across the Mississippi, the United States enlarged the horizon with other views, and marched steadily forward to the possession of the Pacific Ocean. From this event dates the rise of the United States into a position of world power."

At least on the face of it, this triumphal tone seems wholly justified. For $15 million --- the rough equivalent of $260 million today --- the United States doubled its size, adding what is now the American midwest to the national domain, all the land from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. At less than 4 cents an acre, the Purchase became the most lucrative real estate transaction in American history, easily besting the purchase of Manhattan for $24. Without quite knowing it, the United States had acquired the most fertile tract of land of its size on the planet, making it self-sufficient in food in the nineteenth century and the agrarian superpower in the twentieth.

There was more. Politically, the Louisiana Purchase was the most consequential executive decision in American history, rivaled only by Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb in 1945. The fact that the man who made the decision, Thomas Jefferson, was on record as believing that any energetic projection of executive power was a monarchical act only enhanced the irony. Strategically, the Purchase opened a new chapter in American national security by removing, in one fell swoop, all British and French imperial ambitions in North America.

Spain remained the only European power blocking American expansion to the Pacific, and Spain was not so much a threatening power as a convenient presence, in effect a holding company awaiting an American takeover at the appropriate time. Although the term "manifest destiny" had not yet been coined, the Purchase made the idea itself another one of those self-evident Jeffersonian truths. A colossal and fully continental American empire was now almost inevitable. If the Mississippi ends at New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, the story of the Purchase (at least its triumphal version) ends at the Pacific.

As befits an epic, there is an all-star international cast. On the American side, there are Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, working their collaborative magic again, this time on the foreign policy front. The Parisian delegation is headed by James Monroe, perhaps the most loyal Jefferson protege of all, and Robert Livingston, a member of New York's baronial elite who actually sealed the deal. On the French side, no less a star than Napoleon Bonaparte heads the bill, already the most famous and feared man in the world, described by Henry Adams as "Milton's Satan on his throne of state." His supporting cast is led by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, simultaneously the most brilliant and unscrupulous diplomat in Europe, the kind of man who considered Machiavelli naive. Finally, the supporting cast includes the greatest black leader of the age, Toussaint L'Ouverture, the ex-slave turned "black Spartacus" of Santo Domingo, without whom the Purchase would never have happened.

Unfortunately, the various versions of the story have all been driven by the simplistic urge to assign credit to one person or another. Most of Jefferson's biographers describe his management of the diplomacy as a tour de force, on a par with his inspirational role as author of the magic words of the Declaration of Independence. Other historians claim that Napoleon was the major player, that he, rather impetuously, "threw the province" at Jefferson and the American negotiators, that they "caught it and held it, and share between them equally --- whatever credit there was." Alexander Hamilton, not one disposed to acknowledge Jefferson's brilliance, insisted that the story of the Purchase was really a tale about dumb luck. "Every man possessed of the least candor and reflection," observed Hamilton, "will readily acknowledge that the acquisition has been solely owing to the fortuitous concurrence of unforeseen and unexpected circumstances, and not to any wise or vigorous measures on the part of the American government."

Though blatantly partisan, Hamilton's assessment does have the virtue of its anti-Jefferson prejudices, for it calls attention to the multiple ingredients in the diplomatic equation beyond any single player's control. In that sense the Louisiana Purchase was like the perfect storm in which European clouds, Caribbean winds, and North America's prevailing westerlies converged in one place at one time. Jefferson's genius was to seize that time, to recognize that acquiring an empire required an imperial president. Given the peaceful way the Purchase occurred, it might be more accurate to think of it as the perfect calm, and of Jefferson's greatest diplomatic talent as the patience to stand still while history formed around him.

Given the triumphal tone of most histories of the Purchase, and the somewhat silly scramble to assign credit for the triumph, it is curious that Jefferson himself made a point of not listing it on his tombstone as one of his proudest achievements. Nor did he list his presidency, in which the Purchase was unquestionably his singular accomplishment. As we shall see, there were several reasons for this omission, and modesty was not one of them.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that there is a tragic as well as triumphal version of the story. As one version moved gloriously and inexorably toward the Pacific, the other moved ominously and just as inexorably toward the Civil War, whose immediate cause was the debate over slavery in the territory Jefferson had done so much to acquire. Indeed, the tragedy was double-barreled, since the Louisiana Purchase also proved to be the death knell for any Indian presence east of the Mississippi. And since the failure to end slavery and the failure to preserve and protect the indigenous peoples of North America were the two great stains on the legacy of the founding generation, the fact that the Purchase locked these failures into place was not an achievement Jefferson wished to advertise.

We could begin the story around 15,000 B.C., with the retreat of the glacial ice that formed the Mississippi Valley. But since we are doing history rather than geology, a more appropriate starting line is March 6, 1801, as Jefferson ascended to the presidency after one of the most controversial elections in American history. In his inaugural address, destined to become one of the best in the genre, he outlined the principles that would guide him, which were essentially the same principles that had shaped the agenda of the Republican Party over the past decade: "A wise and frugal government which ... shall not take from the mouth of labour the bread it has earned;" a reduction of the national debt, made possible by a slashing of all federal budgets and a transfer of all domestic policies to the states; an innocuous and almost invisible executive branch, rendered even more inconspicuous by Jefferson's decision to file all presidential correspondence with the relevant cabinet officers in order to eliminate even a presidential paper trail. These were "the ancient Whig principles," the values of "pure republicanism" that the Federalists had betrayed, what Henry Adams called "the strange hymn" that Americans "had learned to chant with their chief." These were the cherished principles Jefferson proclaimed. He was about to violate every one of them.

--- From American Creation
Triumphs and Tragedies at
The Founding of the Republic

Joseph J. Ellis
(Random House Audio)
Go to a
of this book

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH