Thomas Jefferson And The Louisiana Purchase
When Thomas Jefferson took the Oath of Office as the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, the nation contained 5,308,483 persons. Nearly one out of five was a Negro slave. Although the boundaries stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, from the Great Lakes nearly to the Gulf of Mexico (roughly a thousand miles by a thousand miles), only a relatively small area was occupied. Two-thirds of the people lived within fifty miles of tidewater. Only four roads crossed the Appalachian Mountains, one from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, another from the Potomac to the Monongahela River, a third through Virginia southwestward to Knoxville, Tennessee, and the fourth through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.
The potential of the United States was, if not limitless, certainly vast - and vastly greater if the nation could add the trans-Mississippi portion of the continent to its territory. In 1801, however, it was not clear the country could hold on to its existing territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, much less add more western land.
Fewer than one out of ten Americans, about half a million people, lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, but as the Whiskey Rebellion had shown, they were already disposed to think of themselves as the germ of an independent nation that would find its outlet to the world marketplace not across the mountains to the Atlantic Seaboard, but by the Ohio and Mississippi river system to the Gulf of Mexico. This threat of secession was quite real. The United States was only eighteen years old, had itself come into existence by an act of rebellion and secession, had changed its form of government just twelve years earlier, and thus was in a fluid political situation.
In addition, it seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire continent. The distances were just too great. A critical fact in the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef (or any beef on the hoof, for that matter), no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster. Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson's contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would.
To the west, beyond the mountains, there were no roads at all, only trails. To move men or mail from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Seaboard took six weeks or more; anything heavier than a letter took two months at least. Bulky items, such as bushels of grain, bales of fur, barrels of whiskey, or kegs of gunpowder, could be moved only by horse-, ox-, or mule-drawn wagons, whose carrying capacity was severely limited, even where roads existed.
Rivers dominated Jefferson's thinking about North America. For the immediate future, he was determined to get control of New Orleans for the United States, so as to prevent the West from breaking away from the United States. Beyond that, he sought an all-water route through the unexplored western two-thirds of the continent.
When Robert Gray sailed Columbia into the estuary of the river he named for his ship and fixed its latitude and longitude, mankind knew for the first time how far the continent extended. Knowing the exact location of the mouth of the Columbia represented a great triumph of eighteenth-century science and exploration. Most closely associated with England's Captain James Cook, the Second Great Age of Discovery had used the sextant and other navigational devices to delineate the continents and the seacoasts of the world, the great harbors and the mouths of the great rivers, with precision on the map, and with descriptions of the landforms and native people.
What remained to be discovered on earth was the interior of Africa, Australia, the Arctic and Antarctic, and the western two-thirds of North America. The latter was most important to Europeans and Americans.
It was known to be vast, some two thousand miles from the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Columbia. It was known to contain a wealth of furs. It was presumed to contain immense quantities of coal, salt, iron, gold, and silver. It was assumed that the soil and rainfall conditions were similar to those in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee - which is to say, ideal for agriculture.
But what was not known, or what was assumed but was badly wrong, was more important than what was known. Donald Jackson, the great Lewis and Clark scholar, points out that, although Jefferson had the most extensive library in the world on the geography, cartography, natural history, and ethnology of that awesome terra incognita west of the Mississippi, when he took the Oath of Office in 1801 he believed these things: "That the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia might be the highest on the continent; that the mammoth, the giant ground sloth, and other prehistoric creatures would be found along the upper Missouri; that a mountain of pure salt a mile long lay somewhere on the Great Plains; that volcanoes might still be erupting in the Badlands of the upper Missouri; that all the great rivers of the West-the Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande-rose from a single 'height of land' and flowed off in their several directions to the seas of the hemisphere. Most important, he believed there might be a water connection, linked by a low portage across the mountains, that would lead to the Pacific."
Louisiana in 1801 - that part of North America lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains - was up for grabs. The contestants were the British coming out of Canada, the Spanish coming up from Texas and California, the French coming up the Mississippi-Missouri from New Orleans, the Russians coming down from the northwest, and the Americans coming from the east. And, of course, there were already inhabitants who possessed the land and were determined to hold on to it.
There were scores of Indian tribes living across Louisiana, but, given their lack of effective political organization, their inability to combine forces into an alliance, their utter dependence on whites for rifles, and the experience of Americans east of the Appalachians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in Kentucky and Ohio in the 1790s, it could be taken for granted that the conquest of the Indian tribes would be bloody, costly, time-consuming, but certain.
Spain claimed to own Louisiana, which was roughly defined as that part of the interior of the continent drained by the Missouri River and the southwestern tributaries of the Mississippi River. But, except for a handful of weak garrisons scattered along the Mississippi and anchored by New Orleans in the south and St. Louis in the north, Spain had no effective force in the empire.
The British had fur-trading interests in upper Louisiana, and a claim of sorts to the Oregon country west of the Rockies. The Russians had interests in the area around and north of the mouth of the Columbia. The Spanish had some vague claims to the entire Pacific Coast. The French, who had once owned Louisiana and whose people (French Canadians) were the only white men to have much experience in Louisiana, were considering reasserting their position.
On the day of Jefferson's inaugural, frontiersmen west of the mountains could move their bulky agricultural products to market only by river, which meant via the Ohio-Mississippi route. That economic fact dictated politics - the Americans of the West would join Spain, France, or Britain, or whoever controlled New Orleans, or create their own nation and take New Orleans for themselves. Vice-President Aaron Burr was full of plots and schemes and conspiracies to break the west loose from the United States and form a new nation.
Jefferson would have none of it. He believed in what he called an Empire of Liberty. "Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North or South, is to be peopled," he wrote even before the Constitution was adopted, and as president he said that he awaited with impatience the day when the continent would be settled by a people "speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws."
In an age of imperialism, he was the greatest empire builder of all. His mind encompassed the continent. From the beginning of the revolution, he thought of the United States as a nation stretching from sea to sea. More than any other man, he made that happen.
His motives were many. He sought greatness for himself and for his nation. He rejected the thought of North America's being divided up into nation-states on the European model. He wanted the principles of the American Revolution spread over the continent, shared equally by all. He was one of the principal authors of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, as revolutionary a document as his Declaration of Independence. The Ordinance provided for the admission into the Union of from three to five states from the territory east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio, when the territories had a large enough population. These states would be fully equal to the original thirteen. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, the United States would be an empire without colonies, an empire of equals. The Ordinance helped bind the trans-Appalachian region to the United States; what mountains and rivers threatened to drive asunder, Jefferson helped to overcome through a political act.
The Spanish might have title to Louisiana, the French might have interests in Louisiana, the British might have designs on Louisiana; the Spanish and French and Russians and British might be contemplating exercising vague titles to or otherwise meddling in Oregon; but in Jefferson's mind it would all be part of the United States, in due course.
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