. . . you may be able to impress on the Government of France the inevitable consequences of their taking possession of Louisiana. . . .
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
“I have no doubt you have urged these considerations on every proper occasion, with the Government where you are. They are such as must have effect, if you can find means of producing thorough reflection on them by that Government. The idea here is that the troops sent to Santo Domingo were to proceed to Louisiana after finishing their work in that island. If this were the arrangement, it will give you time to return again and again to the charge. For the conquest of Santo Domingo will not be a short work. It will take considerable time and wear down a great number of soldiers. Every eye in the United States is now fixed on the affairs of Louisiana. Perhaps nothing since the Revolutionary War has produced more uneasy sensations through the body of the nation. Notwithstanding temporary bickerings have taken place with France, she has still a strong hold on the affections of our citizens generally. I have thought it not amiss, by way of supplement to the letters of the Secretary of State, to write you this private one, to impress you with the importance we affix to this transaction.”
This letter was to be sent to M. de Nemours, who was about to proceed from the United States to France. As he did not call for it, the President forwarded it to him open; requesting him to possess himself thoroughly of its contents, and then seal it. His object was thus explained:
“I wish you to be possessed of the subject, because you may be able to impress on the Government of France the inevitable consequences of their taking possession of Louisiana; and though, as I here mention, the cession of New Orleans and the Floridas to us would be a palliation, yet I believe it would be no more, and that this measure will cost France, and perhaps not very long hence, a war which will annihilate her on the ocean, and place that element under the despotism of two nations, which I am not reconciled to the more because my own would be one of them. Add to this the exclusive appropriation of both continents of America as a consequence. I wish the present order of things to continue, and with a view to this I value highly a state of friendship between France and us. You know too well how sincere I have ever been in these dispositions, to doubt them. You know, too, how much I value peace, and how unwillingly I should see any event take place which would render war a necessary resource, and that all our movements should change their character and object. I am thus open with you, because I trust that you will have it in your power to impress on that Government considerations in the scale against which the possession of Louisiana is nothing. In Europe nothing but Europe is seen, or supposed to have any right in the affairs of nations; but this little event, of France’s possessing herself of Louisiana, which is thrown in as nothing, as a mere make — weight in the general settlement of accounts—this speck which now appears as an almost invisible point in the horizon, is the embryo of a tornado which will burst on the countries on both sides of the Atlantic, and involve in its effects their highest destinies. That it may yet be avoided is my sincere prayer; and if you can be the means of informing the wisdom of Bonaparte of all its consequences, you have deserved well of both countries. Peace and abstinence from European interferences are our objects, and so will continue while the present order of things in America remains uninterrupted.”
This was a bold experiment on the ruler of France—the first general and one of the least timid statesmen and diplomatists of modern times. The morality of the President’s attitude rests on the basis of necessity—the right to do that which is indispensable to self — preservation. The practical consequences involved were the same in a single point—so far as Louisiana was concerned—as those contemplated in Hamilton’s Miranda scheme. But the latter made conquest its primary object, and it proposed to fall upon another power because it was weak and defenseless, not because it was dangerously strong. It indeed made some late show of acting for the purpose of guarding against precisely what now had taken place; but if we should assume this to be a sincere ground of action, it would only have put our country in the posture of plundering a weak neighbor to prevent a more dangerous neighbor from plundering it—doing a moral wrong in anticipation, for fear some other power might do that moral wrong. This would be a plea on which nations or individuals could always found a right to rob the weaker.
But when France actually obtained a title to these contiguous provinces and proposed to make herself our neighbor, she voluntarily, and by no fault of ours, practically commenced a step which all Americans agreed in considering fraught with the extremist danger to our country. Even then we did not attempt secretly to form confederacies to wrest her property from her. We went to her frankly and told her our views. We went boldly to the then strongest nation on earth, and informed her if she persisted in colonizing at a point which gave her the key of our western possessions, she must prepare for war with us and such friends as we could secure to our alliance. And neither was this made the alternative of her yielding up anything that belonged to her without a rightful equivalent. It was the purpose of our Cabinet, the moment it was found France would negotiate on the basis of parting from her newly acquired possession, to offer her far more for them than they had cost her. Our Cabinet might or might not judge correctly of our danger. But there was nothing dishonorable or immoral in its conduct. There was nothing which required a covering of false pretences to deceive our people or to draw them into a war on fictitious grounds, when, had they known them, they would have abhorred the true ones.
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