This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Disturbing Intelligence About Louisiana.
President Thomas Jefferson once remarked that whichever country owned New Orleans would be an adversary of the United States. The Mississippi River system, which included the Missouri and the Ohio mandated that. Then an unexpected series of events with Napoleon at the center of them caused Jefferson to ditch long-held beliefs on the limits of the power of the Federal Government in order to grasp an opportunity.
Before The Purchase the boundaries of the United States limited expansion. The Mississippi River was the hard stop. After The Purchase the interior of the continent beckoned .
This selection is This selection is from The Life of Thomas Jefferson by Henry S. Randall published in 1858. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Henry S. Randall is the only biographer to interview Jefferson’s immediate family. The selection is from his multi-volume biography of Jefferson.
Place: West of Mississippi River
Intelligence of the cession of Louisiana and the Floridas by Spain to France reached the United States. The important changes this event caused in our own foreign relations, and the new and decisive line of policy it at once suggested to President Jefferson, should be given in his own words. He wrote to Mr. Livingston, the American minister in France, April 18, 1802:
“The cession of Louisiana and the Floridas by Spain to France works most sorely on the United States. On this subject the Secretary of State has written to you fully, yet I cannot forbear recurring to it personally, so deep is the impression it makes on my mind. It completely reverses all the political relations of the United States, and will form a new epoch in our political course. Of all nations, of any consideration, France is the one which, hitherto, has offered the fewest points on which we could have any conflict of right, and the most points of a communion of interests. From these causes, we have ever looked to her as our natural friend, as one with which we never could have an occasion of difference. Her growth, therefore, we viewed as our own: her misfortune ours. There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three — eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half of our inhabitants.
“France, placing herself in that door, assumes to us the attitude of defiance. Spain might have retained it quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there, so that her possession of the place would be hardly felt by us, and it would not, perhaps, be very long before some circumstance might arise which might make the cession of it to us the price of something of more worth to her. Not so can it ever be in the hands of France: the impetuosity of her temper, the energy and restlessness of her character, placed in a point of eternal friction with us, and our character, which, though quiet and loving peace and the pursuit of wealth, is high — minded, despising wealth in competition with insult or injury, enterprising and energetic as any nation on earth; these circumstances render it impossible that France and the United States can continue long friends when they meet in so irritable a position.
“They, as well as we, must be blind if they do not see this; and we must be very improvident if we do not begin to make arrangements on that hypothesis. The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to re strain her forever within her low — water mark. It seals the union of two nations, who, in conjunction, can maintain exclusive pos session of the ocean. From that moment we must many our selves to the British fleet and nation. We must turn all our attention to a maritime force, for which our resources place us on very high ground: and having formed and connected together a power which may render reinforcement of her settlements here impossible to France, makes the first cannon which shall be fired in Europe the signal for tearing up any settlement she may have made, and for holding the two continents of America in sequestration for the common purposes of the united British and American nations. This is not a state of things we seek or desire. It is one which this measure, if adopted by France, forces on us, as necessarily as any other cause by the laws of nature brings on its necessary effect.
“It is not from a fear of France that we deprecate this measure proposed by her. For however greater her force is than ours, compared in the abstract, it is nothing in comparison to ours when to be exerted on our soil. But it is from a sincere love of peace, and a from persuasion that, bound to France by the interests and the strong sympathies still existing in the minds of our citizens, and holding relative positions which insure their continuance, we are secure of a long course of peace. Whereas, the change of friends, which will be rendered necessary if France changes that position, embarks us necessarily as a belligerent power in the first war of Europe. In that case, France will have held possession of New Orleans during the interval of a peace, long or short, at the end of which it will be wrested from her. Will this short — lived possession have been an equivalent to her for the transfer of such a weight into the scale of her enemy? Will not the amalgamation of a young, thriving nation continue to that enemy the health and force which are at present so evidently on the decline? And will a few years’ possession of New Orleans add equally to the strength of France? She may say she needs Louisiana for the supply of her West Indies. She does not need it in time of peace, and in war she could not depend on them [supplies], because they would be so easily intercepted. I should suppose that all these considerations might, in some proper form, be brought into view of the Government of France. Though stated by us it ought not to give offence; because we do not bring them forward as a menace, but as consequences not controllable by us, and inevitable from the course of things. We mention them, not as things which we desire by any means, but as things we deprecate; and we beseech a friend to look forward and to prevent them for our common interests.
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