“Jefferson’s Great Gamble”

The title is that of a book by the same name by Charles Cerami about the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It was a fascinating read on a number of levels. Once again, I was able to revel in and learn about a major event of American history. Just the cast of characters is amazing. Jefferson was the major player of course. But, on the American side alone there were  James Madison and James Monroe, the next 2 presidents, Robert Livingston, John Quincy Adams, and after the fact a little Andrew Jackson. On the French side, one sees Napoleon and the wily Talleyrand as well as the lesser known but important Louis Pichon.

One quote from the book really hit home for me. Its source was our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. He called the purchase”next in historical importance to the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. It was unparalleled in diplomacy because it cost almost nothing.” In raw dollars the price was $15 million. When interest is factored in up till the final payment in 1823( money borrowed from the Dutch) the total expended was around $ 27 million. That equates to less than ten              cents per acre for  an acquisition that doubled the size of the United States.So, in our infancy as a nation, we at one fell swoop surpassed the whole of Europe and “sea to shining sea” became just  a matter of time.

Among the many things on which to reflect are the quality of our nation’s leaders at that time. It just amazes me to realize how incredibly capable  our nation’s leadership was at what was our infancy as  a country. Less than 30 years prior, there was  a group of colonies with a rag tag army arrayed against the pre-eminent  military power in the world. Now, Jefferson,et. al are jousting diplomatically with France and to a degree England, whose spectre hovered in the background throughout the negotiations. Virtually all the decisions made by France and the United States had an English influence. France needed money to wage war against England. The United States feared English control of New Orleans and thus the Mississippi River, and so on.

So, in looking back, the purchase now  seems like  a no-brainer. An offer that you can’t refuse, in a very good sense. That is what I always thought, along with astonishment at the price per acre. But the beauty of studying history tells us much more.

First, France had bullied Spain into “giving” them the land by treaty with the provision that it could not be sold but would revert to Spain. Obviously that did not happen. And what actually was being purchased? What was the western boundary and was Florida included? Napoleon’s response, it’s what you want it to be.

  Did  Jefferson actually have the authority to make the purchase? He wrestled mightily with the idea, leaning as he did, towards the states rights side. Did James M0nroe, our point man in Paris, have the right to agree to  a price of $15 million when Congress had “approved” about 2 million. Would he be disgraced for the agreement? Might Jefferson even be impeached?

There was so much intrigue over the many months of negotiation that one must conclude it was near miraculous that the purchase  happened at all. To me, calling the deal for Louisiana in the health care legislation the  Louisiana Purchase did nothing but provide  a coarse  comparison to this monumental event that took place 207 years ago on May 2, 1803.

For certain, it was a gamble that not only brought the fledgling nation 875,000 square miles and all or part of 13 new states but in Madison’s words “one great, respectable, and flourishing empire.”


March 21, 2010 - Posted by | Foreign Policy, History | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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