The Louisiana Purchase: Stealth Aid for Napoleon or Fantastic Land Deal, Adroitly Pulled Off By Rascally Yankees?

 

La Salle
Rene-Robert La Salle, Explorer

Although the story of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the fateful choice to buy at bargain basement prices just about a third of all the eventual United States, is about nations and global politics, much the real story rests in the lives of a handful of individuals. The folks who brought about this exchange of millions of acres included near geniuses, pathological egoists, visionaries, and the most squalid of colonial functionaries.

     . . . details include greedy merchants .  .  .  vanity filled functionaries, astonishingly brave explorers, and monarchs with king sized egos to match their blue blood, at times apparently unburdened by competency or sense of civic duty  . . .

 

The details include greedy merchants. It’s about vanity filled functionaries, astonishingly brave explorers, and monarchs with king sized egos to match their blue blood, at times apparently unburdened by competency or sense of civic duty. Perhaps it was a time of incredible statesmanship; perhaps it was a time when our Constitution was rendered a blank scrap of paper. When the recrimination (or celebration) faded to silence, the ink dried, the people died, the living memory passed on, the Nation had become enormous, and its future potential staggering.

The tale might as well start back when the Spain was riding high, in the 16thcentury the greatest power on earth before foolishly bankrupting itself with the Great Armada in 1588 and later, useless wars.  In 1493 the Pope had divvied the globe up into hemispheres in an attempt to prevent territorial bloodshed between Spain and Portugal, recipients of each part. When Islamic Arab traders had shut these sea faring nations out of the spice market, the result was a great spurt of world exploration for other routes to the East. Spain was hugely powerful and jealous of that position; she ruled the waves and made strong effort to resist encroachment. Eventual Dutch, English, and French colonial settlements in the New World were thus further north than Spanish ones, in the colder less desirable climes.

Spanish Armada
Loss of Spanish Power- Fire Ships. The Armada

France, too, began its New World colonial empire, basing it on furs, trade, and, where it could in the Caribbean or West Indies, sugar cane. English near Hudson’s Bay, French along the St. Laurence and the Great Lakes, and Russians in Alaska exported millions of furs or “pelts” to Europe to make felt for hats. These hats were formed using mercury, which poisoned the maker and brought about our phrase, “mad as a hatter.”

Big areas in the Western Hemisphere were colonized: the North Atlantic maritime region (also called Acadia and later donor of the Acadian refugees), “New France,” the St. Lawrence River Valley and the Great Lakes; last, “Louisiana,” involving the southerly Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast region.

A brave and resourceful figure, Tonti had survived eight years of French military service, having his hand blown to bits by a grenade in Sicily, yet he exhibited the typical young blueblood ideas of the time. . .

 

By the late 1600s remarkable men like Henri Tonti, whose father, Lorenzo, developed the “tontine” principle of term life insurance still in use today, were on hand. He established, explored and worked to develop Poste des Arkansas on the Mississippi River in about 1685. A brave and resourceful figure, Tonti had survived eight years of French military service, having his hand blown to bits by a grenade in Sicily, yet he exhibited the typical young blueblood ideas of the time. He was critical of monarchal absolutism, bored by court society, and yearned for zest in life. He hooked up with René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle in Paris, and caught the empire-building bug.

Spanish Armada
Spain Risks It’s Fleet – Ships Aflame. The Armada

Tonti was a good balance for hotheaded LaSalle. However, his plans to open up the Mississippi valley from the Great Lakes were blunted by efforts of the Montreal merchant elite, worried that their virtual trade monopoly would be broken.  They went so far as to bribe servants into putting hemlock into La Salle’s salad.

At home in France, Louis the XIV was squandering millions on an absurd war with the Dutch, matching that waste by throwing up the great architectural pile at Versailles, intended to replace the Louvre. The Bourbon’s were not intent on building a colonial presence in the New World. . .

 

At home in France, Louis the XIV was squandering millions on an absurd war with the Dutch, matching that waste by throwing up the great architectural pile at Versailles, intended to replace the Louvre. The Bourbon’s were not intent on building a colonial presence in the New World. Indeed, the administrative plan has been described as sending one man out to do a job, and a second man out to prevent the job being done. However that may be, in the meanwhile, English settlements all along the east coast flourished, penetrating westward yearly.

Le Salle Voyages Down the Mississippi

Frustrated at the St. Lawrence, in 1678 Le Salle and his gang won or wheedled permission to find the mouth of the Mississippi, build forts there, and control the trade in buffalo hides. French adventurers founded Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1714, and New Orleans some four years later. Spain was still the power along the Gulf coast and through the West. In 1700 the Bourbon king, Philip V, rising to the Spanish crown, caused more loss of power and influence, as well as waves of war and hostility.

Henri Tonti
Henri de Tonti, Explorer

The pattern was established; French influence centered on the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo (supported by a cash crop of sugar cane) and along the Mississippi valley, New Orleans up the Missouri River to modern-day Montana. Pelts, meat, flour, grain, salt, furs, and lumber for the sugar islands flowed north and south on the river.

Although revolution was in the air, by the late middle of the century, in 1762, French leaders accepted that they would lose the Seven Years War, which in the American colonies was known as the French and Indian War. . .

 

Although revolution was in the air, by the late middle of the century, in 1762, French leaders accepted that they would lose the Seven Years War, which in the American colonies was known as the French and Indian War. They were pretty sure that would mean, also, the loss of their entire North American “empire.” Enemies for a long while, the French hated the idea that the British might then possess Louisiana. To avoid that, they “ceded,” or signed over, the area west of the Mississippi to Spain. As a result, the Spanish administered the colony for 40 years. This historic fact explains why the architecture of the French Quarter is very Spanish in design.

The terms of the In 1763 Treaty of Fontainebleau, which helped end fighting, gave the British the portion of Louisiana east of the Mississippi. The situation was not easy: a Spanish Royal Governor administered St. Louis, for example, way up the Mississippi, from Havana, Cuba. He, in turn, was located in New Orleans, and had to work through a pair of far apart lieutenant governors. After years of semi-secret help for the American cause, in 1779 Spain entered the Revolutionary War against England. It did so by being an ally of the French, never being open as an American ally. In 1779 Spain, after years of covert help to the American cause, entered the Revolutionary War against England as an ally of France.

Louie 14th
Louis XIV, King of France

Spanish power continued to wither, French and English friction was resolved with the French and Indian War, and the American Colonists threw off the yolk of the English crown in the late 1700s. The stage was set for the cascade of events leading to the Louisiana Purchase in1803. As the Purchase approached, Spain was a weak echo of power, its navy prey to the English almost everywhere.

The revolutionary ideas in France had been terrifying European monarchy and French blue bloods alike. Napoleon was on the scene, having won stunning victories in the French Revolutionary Wars (fought to extend principles of citizenship first exported to and won for the American colonists).  In 1798, ironically, a few American stragglers from Italy let slip to the British blockading a Spanish fleet at Cadiz that Napoleon’s preparations at Toulon had the place jumping.

The short but fiercely aggressive general was getting ready to carry an army to Egypt, conquer it and the region, for the grater glory of France. Napoleon transshipped that army, which punished the English forces in Egypt. . .

 

The short but fiercely aggressive general was getting ready to carry an army to Egypt, conquer it and the region, for the grater glory of France. Napoleon transshipped that army, which punished the English forces in Egypt. However, ever reliant on sea power, England sent more than a dozen ships o’the line, festooned with cannon, under young, talented Nelson.  The admiral actually beat Napoleon to Alexandria, and, finding it empty, sailed to Palestine. Bulging British sails, bellied out before the wind, eased over the Eastern horizon, the French sails emerged over the Western.

Louie 14th
Louis XIV

Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt had begun. But, quickly enough, the British fell on the French fleet at strategic anchor, including Napoleon’s enormous flagship L’Orient. The terrible L’Orient blew up, well into the battle, with an explosion heard at Rosetta, 32 kilometers away, and a flash seen at Alexandria. It was a decisive clash, certainly further humiliating, and virtually destroying the French. Not that they didn’t fight like tigers: one French commander, slowly dying after losing his legs, continued to direct his gallant but frightened crew from inside a barrel of bran.

Napoleon: Land Rich, Ships and Men Poor

In the end, not a single British vessel was lost (only two French survived) and only 218 lives were sacrificed. About 1,700 brave Frenchmen were killed, 3,000 or so taken prisoner—though most were released when they could not be properly fed. To this day the three rows of rickrack on sailor’s uniforms celebrates Nelson’s outstanding naval victories at Trafalgar, the Nile, and Copenhagen. With the fleet gone, Napoleon deserted his North African army, and hurried back to Europe, the defeat reminding him of the loss of face in America with the French and Indian War, (1754-1763).  The short-lived Treaty of Amiens of 1802 brought peace with Austria and with England.

 

The short but fiercely aggressive general was getting ready to carry an army to Egypt, conquer it and the region, for the grater glory of France. Napoleon transshipped that army, which punished the English forces in Egypt. . .

 

Napoleion
Napoleon, Andrea Appiani

At the turn of the century, both Americans and the French bridled at the arrogance of the British. A weakened Spain could merely protest incursions it its territory.The short but fiercely aggressive general was getting ready to carry an army to Egypt, conquer it and the region, for the grater glory of France. Napoleon transshipped that army, which punished the English forces in Egypt. Moreover, the nation faced the West and the frontier, ready to act on the growing idea of its “Manifest Destiny,” the emerging feeling that the new country had the right and responsibility to people the landscape coast to coast. Napoleon, dictator since 1799, had great freedom of action and unquenchable zeal for conflict though army finances were in bad shape.

defeat
Austerlitz

Aware that Spain had turned Louisiana over to Napoleonic France (or had be unable to resist it being taken), Thomas Jefferson dispatched first Robert Livingston and later James Monroe with direction to buy New Orleans, for its great value as a warm water port far from the contest on the Canadian border, and the Floridas. (Indeed, the Floridas question was not resolved until the the treaty of Adams-Onis in 1818).  With a two-million dollar budget, and with scheming, war-hark Federalists harping on their every move, they began and continued negotiation which ended on or around April 30, 1803, the French offering to sell the whole of the Louisiana territory for about $15 million, or sixty million francs outright and twenty million francs set aside to deal with litigation following in its wake.

Nelson
Horatio Nelson, destroyer of the fleet

The Federalists and others pointed out that it might not have been Constitutional to float stock to raise the resources to buy the land.  Young Senator John Quincy Adams suggested an amendment and a referendum within Louisiana but Jefferson was on a roll. He did not mention the Constitutional issue when he spoke to the House and Senate about the Louisiana Purchase Treaty (ratified in the Senate 3 days later by a 27 to 7 vote). The House also approved the stock issue to Bonaparte.

Nile
Battle on the Nile – An Entire Army Doomed.

Louisiana and the Atchafalaya Basin

One can imagine the Atchafalaya River Basin, thinking of its role in Louisiana’s life and history, to help put the Purchase in scale perspective. As with many things, there is not a good fit between the size of the basin and familier human objects.

To help imagine what a wonderful deal Americans got when they made the Louisiana Purchase, think about today’s Atchafalaya Basin.  The Basin is one of the great wetland areas in the United States, taking up a big part of the south central section of Louisiana.  Indians and then European people who moved in fished the region for commercial harvests, selling the fish, meat, and furs they gathered.

The [Atchafalaya] includes sloughs, copses, hardwood forests, cypress swamps, marshes, streams, seasonal ponds, open water, and bayous—that is, all sorts of water and land conditions.  . .  [it’s] 833,000 acres are home to some of this country’s most productive conditions for fish and wildlife. . .

 

The big area includes sloughs, copses, hardwood forests, cypress swamps, marshes, streams, seasonal ponds, open water, and bayous—that is, all sorts of water and land conditions. The Atchafalaya Basin’s 833,000 acres are home to some of this country’s most productive conditions for fish and wildlife. Since the oldest days, its waters provided transportation, food, drink; its flora offered wild food, flavorings, medicine, and wood for all sorts of construction, including Indian canoes, “Cajun” pirogues, and fisherman’s skiffs. If you round out the Basin’s area to a generous million acres it’s easy enough tocompare it to the Louisiana Purchase area of a million square miles. In 15 or 16 years when final borders were agreed upon, this was reduced to about 883,072 square miles.

Framer of the purchase
Robert Livingston

The purchase of all formerly French land extended from the Gulf of Mexico to British North America, and from the Mississippi west to the Rocky Mountains – some land remained in Spanish possession. It was so vast and untraveled a landscape that no one really knew its real size. However, Jefferson understood that France’s contribution was perhaps 200,000 square miles, and that of Charles the IV’s Spain was roughly the same. He reckoned that the British Isles were about half that size. According to reasonable estimates, the entire purchase involved about two million acres. For comparison, that would mean that ten Frances, or ten Spains or 20 of the British Isles could be placed in the Purchase area.

Jefferson understood that France’s contribution was perhaps 200,000 square miles, and that of Charles the IV’s Spain was roughly the same. He reckoned that the British Isles were about half that size. . .

A Vast and Beautiful Land

A parish was named after Livingston, and his words are chiseled above the doors of the new State Capital in Baton Rouge—La Salle is honored in the group of monumental figures just below and his bas relief is included on the wings. But Livingston thought himself to be slighted back then during the negotiations. After 14 months of bombarding Bonaparte with missives, notes, essays, and letters, he read that Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison were sending James Monroe to help him. Madison, his old Philadelphia housemate during the Revolution, rubbed it in, pointing out that Livingston was an “ordinary representative of the United States,” while Monroe, was an “envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary.” Livingston had been struggling to coax Tallyrand, Joseph Bonaparte, and Barbe-Marbois to get him into contact with First Council, Napoleon.

stamp, 100 years of the purchase
Celebration of the Purchase

Talleyrand had been a powerful Bishop prior to the French Revolution for equality-brotherhood-liberty. After the fall of the Bastille he claimed status of patriot, urged the sale of church property, and plunged into politics. He had Napoleon’s ear, as did his brother Joseph. Francois de Barbe-Marbois was the French minister of the treasury. Barbe-Marbois loved America and Americans, having married a young Philadelphia socialite. To pull off that feat—she was beautiful and half his age—he wowed her with slang language taught him by John Adam’s teenaged son, John Quincy.

portrait of Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, Rembrandt Peale

Talleyrand did eventually introduce Livingston to Bonaparte. Their conversation, done through an interpreter, involved the First Counsel asking the American if this was his first visit to Europe. When Livingston said yes, Napoleon noted, “you have come to a very corrupt world.”

Still, Livingston knew that time was of the essence. He wanted the glory of getting ink on the paper, and he understood that the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso (which took place in 1800), transferred the Louisiana territory to France also mandated that it be returned to Spain if necessary, but not passed along to a third party, might pop up into world politics at any moment. It was improper for Napoleon to go through with the Louisiana Purchase, yet the Spanish were not so angry that they refused becoming a virtual ally one year later, declaring war on England when British vessels stole $5,000,000 in bullion from them.

The Louisiana Purchase not only increased the size of the nation, it filed our heads the notion of what a great nation could be. Unhappily for the Indians in residence across the Mississippi, with the Louisiana Purchase came an unprecedented expansion. . .

 

Livingston and Monroe did close the deal, and congress did appropriate cash for Jefferson’s 1803 plan for a western exploring expedition, Lewis and Clark adding their vast reservoir of results to James Mackay’s notes on Yellowstone and Alexander Mackenzies book about his scramble to Bella Coola Bay in 1781. The Louisiana Purchase not only increased the size of the nation, it filed our heads the notion of what a great nation could be. Unhappily for the Indians in residence across the Mississippi, with the Louisiana Purchase came an unprecedented expansion. European settled steadily crept westward like mold crawling over a forgotten crust of last week’s bread.

 

Claiborne
Claiborne

The Louisiana State Insect is, fittingly enough, the honeybee, since it’s industrious but stands its ground when wronged, and is willing to die, in the face of ridiculous odds, for the sake of the community. Similarly, the state bird, the Pelican, is graced with a superb reputation for loyalty and comradeship. The legend goes that “the pelican, rather than let its young starve, would tear at its own flesh to feed them.” Thus, Louisiana’s first territorial governor, William C.C. Claiborne, had such admiration for the awkward, improbable, yet ultimately wonderful birds, that he selected it for the state seal and symbol.

Claiborne, who had been a U.S. commissioner tasked during the Louisiana Purchase with accepting lower Louisiana from Napoleon’s prefect, Pierre Clement de Laussat, was first use the bird on official documents. De Laussat was an old school Jacobin, terrifying the Ursuline Convent nuns as a heretic (they scooted off to Havana to serve under His Catholic Majesty Charles IV), and being loathed by French Creoles who feared that his Republican streak would lead to freeing the slave work force. For the Creoles, the slave worry was not fruitful for more than a half-century, but they very quickly saw their beautiful, elegant language usurped by twangy American English.

Pelican state
The Great Seal, State of Louisiana

The 1803 exchange of land for cash added about a third of our present day nation. Put another way, it doubled the size of the America of that time. . . 

 

The 1803 exchange of land for cash added about a third of our present day nation. Put another way, it doubled the size of the America of that time. When that took place, it fired American citizens with courage and a sense of confidence. In terms of benefits, the addition of the Purchase is even more important. Even keeping in mind the richness of use folks got from the treasure house of the swamp, the Purchase made more and different things available. The purchase gave us convenient water transportation from New Orleans way up to Chicago. It brought a terrific “bread basket” of mid-western farmland under American ownership.

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