The Louisiana Purchase

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"Was
the United States to become a colonial power within one generation
of its own anticolonialist revolution, or would the ceded territory
[Louisiana] be incorporated into the Union on some basis of equality,
as called for in the treaty with France?"

I
was contemplating an answer to this question, asked by George Dargo
in Jefferson
Louisiana: Politics and the Clash of Legal Traditions
, when
I read "Patriotism
then and Now
" by Donald W. Miller, Jr. on LRC.

In
his piece, Miller presents a theory for the evolution of the United
States from a republic to an empire. He writes:

The
United States has gone through three stages in its 225-year history.
They started out as a republic (1776-1864). When the South
lost the Civil War it became a nation (1865-1916); and
when President Wilson sent American troops overseas to fight in
the Great War in Europe the United States became an empire
(1917-the present).

I
would love to agree with Miller's arguments; however, if we answer
Dargo's question above in the affirmative, then we need to ask,
can a "colonial power" qualify still as a "republic"?

As
we know, in 1803, the Louisiana territory was purchased by the United
States, which, at the time, were under the leadership of President
Thomas Jefferson. For a little more than $15 million (or less than
four cents per acre), the Feds purchased 900,000 square miles of
territory, thereby doubling the size of the wannabe-republic with
what we now often call "the greatest real estate bargain in
U.S. history."

An
important fact, often overlooked, is that the constitution, to which
Jefferson had contributed a few years earlier, did not give the
U.S. government, nor its president, the right to purchase sovereign
territory (and its people), which Louisiana was at the time. By
relying on the ability of the government to trade with other nations,
the then-rulers rationalized that they could acquire land, by treaty,
and take over the governing of the people inhabiting the land in
question. This, in my opinion, is when the constitution started
to live (or die, depending on how one looks at it).

As
for the people who lived in the Louisiana territory, free and slaves
alike were purchased with the land. Because no price tag is ever
attached to the people, one may consider that they were lagniappe
(Louisiana French for bonus, something extra, the 13th
donought in the baker's dozen).

The
largest group in Louisiana's population at the turn of the 19th
century was the French-speaking community, which consisted of French,
Acadians, and Creoles, both white and of color. (For more on the
Acadians' journey, see "When
Genealogy Meets History
"; for a definition of "Creole,"
visit the Encyclopedia
of Cajun Culture
).

Among
other groups found in Louisiana at the time were Creoles of German
descent, Spanish settlers, small English-speaking communities consisting
of Scots, Irish, English, and Americans, slaves (who represented
nearly half of the total population), and numerous native-Indian
communities.

While
all but the Indians were themselves colonists, as Dargo points out
with the very first sentence of his work, "For Jefferson's
contemporaries, Lower Louisiana was a foreign country, a distant
and forbidding land given to extremes of climate and topography
and inhabited by an exotic people."

Late
in 1803, Jefferson sent William C.C. Claiborne to take possession
of, and to lead, the newly acquired territory. Claiborne's mission
was to establish a first governing council, where, according to
Jefferson's wishes, "Americans" would hold a majority
of the seats, with the rest going to French and Spaniards.

The
following year, Claiborne reported to James Madison that "the
principles of a popular Government are utterly beyond comprehension
of the Louisiana-French. He added that the representative system
was "an enigma that at present bewilders them."

What
Claiborne and his cohorts failed to acknowledge is that in Louisiana,
English-speaking Americans were greatly outnumbered; therefore,
an American, English-speaking governing body was not at all
"representative" of the population.

Unexpectedly,
Claiborne's correspondence reached the press and provoked an outcry
from the local French-speaking population. Joseph Dubreuil, a wealthy
French-speaking planter, wrote:

It
is not unknown here, after reading over Northern public papers,
that the ceded territory has been described to congress as some
sort of Tower of Babel, suffering from the confusion of tongues,
and the Louisianians as men stupefied by despotism or ignorance,
and therefore unable to elevate themselves for a long time to
the heights of a free constitution. [...]

[Governor
Claiborne is] a stranger here, a stranger as far as the soil itself
is concerned, its local interests, the customs, habits, and even
the language of the inhabitants, and who is therefore without
even the most absolutely necessary knowledge…

From
the beginning, and despite the multicultural picture that Louisiana
offered at the time, George Dargo reports that,

…ethnic
conflict tended to be bipolar, with the "ancient inhabitants"
and the "Anglo-Americans" at the extreme ends of the
axis. [...] Numerically, of course, the American population was
outnumbered about seven to one at this time. But their potential
for growth and their aggressive behavior bothered the local residents
more than their numbers. English was now the language of government,
and unlike the Spanish, who preserved much that was French, the
new American officials showed every sign of being determined to
transplant their institutions and culture into the territory.
[...]

The
results of Congress's labors were well known by June 1, and the
worst fears of the people of Louisiana were realized: self-government
had been withheld.

While
the third article of the Purchase agreement stated that, "…the
inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the
Union of the United States, and admitted as soon as possible, according
to the principles of the Federal constitution, to the enjoyment
of the rights, advantages, and immunities, of citizens of the United
States…," Louisiana did not become a state until 1812. Nine
years, it seems, was the time needed to overwhelm and take control
of the exotic population, not only with American immigration into
the territory, but with the force of law as well.

The
first organic law providing for the government of the territory
was passed on March 26, 1804. It did not even mention the potential
statehood of Louisiana, which did not please the inhabitants one
bit, and it did something else that further contributed to the already
existing tensions in the area.

Dargo
writes: [emphasis mine]

For
many in Lower Louisiana, the most distressing provision of the
act of March 26 was the embargo on further slave importations
into the territory. According to the enactment, neither slaves
from foreign ports nor those from the United States that had been
imported from abroad after May 1, 1798, could be brought into
Orleans. The only slaves permitted to enter were those accompanying
American citizens "removing into said territory for actual
settlement."
This violated the language and spirit of
the third article of the treaty of cession, which had guaranteed
to the original inhabitants of Louisiana "the free enjoyment
of their…property." Louisianians viewed the continued importation
of slaves as a necessary condition of their economic prosperity.
The United States Constitution barred statutory interference with
the foreign slave trade prior to the year 1808
, so that here
again, the inhabitants had evidence of Congress acting discriminatorily
and in violation of the Louisiana treaty.

The
state's first charter, in 1812, did not exactly make everything
right, either. Here's what historian Carl Brasseaux wrote in "Acadian
to Cajun: transformation of a people": [emphasis mine]

The
planter-dominated convention drafted a very undemocratic document
reflecting the concerns of the state's emerging economic elite.
Indeed, the state's first charter reserved the franchise for
property holders, and state officeholding was effectively restricted
to planters by high property qualifications:
representative,
$500 in property holdings; senator, $1,000; and governor, $5,000.
Property qualifications for governor were especially significant,
for the state's chief executive enjoyed extensive appointive powers
and thus influence.

[In
today's dollars, the amounts respectively would be $7,937; $15,873;
$79,365.]

Those
restrictions essentially disfranchised thousands of white males,
who otherwise had the right to vote in the other states of the Union.
In Louisiana, they finally obtain that right with the 1845 Constitution,
nearly half a century later.

Finally,
Dargo writes also that,

Louisiana was America's first imperial possession. [...]
The acquisition of a western empire changed the dimensions
of America's development, but it also challenged the nation's
fundamental political, cultural, and legal institutions. [...] At
first, they believed that as a precondition for Louisiana's entry
into the Union nothing less than a total cultural transformation
would suffice. In essence, Jeffersonian policy aspired to nothing
less. For a regime based upon the principles of strict construction
and limited federal power, this was a remarkable doctrinal turnabout
and a perversion of the essential meaning of republicanism.

Could
it be that the American Empire was indeed born earlier than we generally
assume?

May
11, 2002

Chantal
K. Saucier [send
her mail
] is a freelance writer and a French
neutral currently living in South Louisiana.

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