But the question was, in commercial phrase, would the contest “pay”? Was it worth while to wage a war with so distant a power while the marine of France was so inferior to that of England, the sure ally of the enemies of France?
Continuing The Louisiana Purchase,
our selection from The Life of Thomas Jefferson by Henry S. Randall published in 1858. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Louisiana Purchase.
Place: West of Mississippi River
The discrepancy between the instructions and private letter admits of a ready explanation. The one exhibited the official attitude which it was considered prudent to take—the other gave warning of the inner and entire feelings and purposes, in a form which would have its full effect, but which could not be officially recognized and therefore construed into a menace, or made the subject of official discussion and disclosure. The unofficial letter, in effect, converted the propositions of the official ones into ultimata. If France would cede to the United States New Or leans and all the territory east of the Mississippi, for an equivalent in money, then the “marrying” with England would not take place, and France could have the benefit of another American guaranty. But what was a guaranty worth which would fall with the first collision of the parties between whom the predicted “friction” would not be in the least reduced by the pro posed arrangement? What would the remaining territory be worth to France—never worth a thousandth part as much to her as to the United States—in the then situation of the world, with out any navigable approach to the greater portion of it, except through a river of which the United States would hold the absolute control?
To accept the President’s offer would be to give up the most valuable part of the possession and the key to all the remainder, for the purpose of having the remainder secured from England. Yet, if the reasoning in the President’s letter was sound—which enforced the first cession—the rest would inevitably soon follow that cession. In fact, the first cession would render the second more inevitable, and a thousand times less capable of being forcibly prevented. The President’s idea, then, amounted practically to this: that if France would sell us all we then needed of her territory, for either commercial, military, or any other purposes, we would help her—or rather allow her to help us — — keep the other part from a more dangerous occupant, until we also had need for that other part. Precisely in this light the French Government viewed this offer. Talleyrand emphatically declared that if the French Government gave up what we then asked, what was left was worthless to France.
We neither accuse nor suspect Mr. Jefferson of insincerity. There is no doubt he would have respected his guaranty; and that he would have remained adverse to taking any unjust advantage. But he foresaw, and clearly and warningly pointed to, the train of causes which must inevitably end, sooner or later, in the overthrow of any French power on the Mississippi. Having done this, he took middle g1ound—ground that would neither disgust France nor mankind by its rapacity—and awaited the result. We have no doubt that having such intellects as Bonaparte’s and Talleyrand’s to deal with, he very strongly anticipated the result which finally took place. It was to be ready for this, or some other equivalent or similar proposition, that he sent Monroe to France, with verbal instructions extending to any contingency.
The President’s views produced no immediate visible change in Bonaparte’s plans. Livingston informed his Government, November 11th, that the military expedition to New Orleans was about embarking, and he feared “no prudence would pre vent hostilities ere long.” Some of his later dispatches were rather more hopeful in their tenor; but no marked change occurred in the open aspect of things until the news reached France of the war flame that was burning in Congress, on account of the proceedings of Morales at New Orleans. The Federalists, who were so vehemently laboring to overthrow the Administration on that question, were unconsciously playing into its hands, and as effectually serving one of its great objects—the greatest object of its foreign policy—as if they had been employed expressly for that purpose.
When intelligence of war resolutions, vehement speeches in Congress, and of every other apparent indication of a popular ferment and of a national explosion in the United States was waited across the Atlantic, the French Consul—used to the fiery energy of democratic legislatures—unable to discern distinctly at such a distance between parties—finding one set openly talking war and the other only asking for privacy in the deliberations on the question—observing that all were in favor of firm declarations and provisional warlike preparations—fancied he saw the American scenes of 1798 about to be reenacted. He saw the United States again preparing with the p1odigal bravery which distinguishes an aroused democracy, to tauntingly defy France to the combat; and he doubtless believed this was the first act of the drama which the President’s letter had foreshadowed.
It would be something worse than ridiculous to suppose that Bonaparte was intimidated, or that the Directory were intimidated in 1798. But the question was, in commercial phrase, would the contest “pay”? Was it worth while to wage a war with so distant a power while the marine of France was so inferior to that of England, the sure ally of the enemies of France? Was it worth while to attempt to garrison a wilderness, destitute even of provisions, against five million contiguous people, who could reach it by a large number of navigable rivers? Was it worth while to expose the French West India possessions to the attacks of such a neighbor? Was it worth while to tempt a partition of all the colonial possessions of France between the United States and England? Was it worth while to “marry” these powers in the bonds of a common interest, and induce their allied maritime flags to “maintain exclusive possession of the ocean,” and fix “the sentence which was to restrain France forever within her low — water mark”? The shattered ships of France bore good testimony whether the menaces of the President in the last particular would prove bagatelles, if the policy he threatened was entered upon.
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