Jefferson's Folly

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Was
the Louisiana Purchase worth the price? For a mere $15 million,
Thomas Jefferson doubled the American realm, bequeathing us not
only a breadbasket but the soul of Middle American culture. Yet,
as Henry Adams wrote, this gargantuan real-estate deal also "gave
a fatal wound to u2018strict construction' of the Constitution."

Louisiana
was the largest re-gift in North American history. France ceded
it to Spain in 1762; in 1801 the Spaniards gave it back. Remote
colonies drain the treasury, and besides, the Europeans could read
the handwriting on the Mississippi River. American settlement of
the "wilderness so immense" was inevitable. As the Spanish
governor of Louisiana said in 1794: "A new and vigorous people,
hostile to all subjection, [are] advancing and multiplying with
a prodigious rapidity." Not to mention bellicosity. Swallowing
hard, the Francophile Thomas Jefferson warned: "The day that
France takes possession of New Orleans…we must marry ourselves to
the British fleet and nation."

But
the French never came. Mosquitoes and machetes were decimating the
French army in St. Domingue, the site of a slave revolt. Desperate
for francs to fuel his militarism, Napoleon negotiated the sale
of Louisiana with U.S. diplomats James Monroe and Robert Robert
Livingston. (The repetition is no typo, just a typical Hudson Valley
conceit.)

Livingston
would call the agreement "the noblest work of our whole lives,"
though the plural was a courtesy: He and Monroe engaged in what
Thomas Fleming calls, in The
Louisiana Purchase
, an "ugly quarrel about who deserved
credit for buying Louisiana," with Robert Robert even backdating
a key document.

President
Jefferson admitted that the Purchase was "beyond the Constitution."
He fiddled with an authorizing amendment before concluding that
"the less that is said about any constitutional difficulty,
the better." This was not his finest hour but rather his imperial
moment. As Jon Kukla writes in A
Wilderness So Immense
. "Only five years earlier, Jefferson's
party had championed states' rights and strict construction in the
Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798. Now their words could
have been scripted by the Hamiltonian Federalists."

Almost
all the opposition to the Purchase came from New England, and what
is most interesting in Mr. Kukla's and Mr. Fleming's books are the
voices of dissent. The Yankees had read their Montesquieu, who wisely
wrote: "It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory,
otherwise it cannot long subsist." The country was already
too large, perhaps, and further expansion would swell it past the
point of viability.

To
the splenetic Federalist Fisher Ames, the U.S. was "rushing
like a comet into infinite space." Even Jefferson's allies
wondered if the enlargement of the territorial U.S. might lead inevitably
to a larger and less responsive central government. Was Jefferson
signing the death warrant for Jeffersonianism? Or, as an editorialist
asked in September 1803: "Will republicans, who glory in their
sacred regard to the rights of human nature, purchase an immense
wilderness for the purpose of cultivating it with the labor of slaves?"

Alas,
yes, answers Roger G. Kennedy in Mr.
Jefferson's Lost Cause
. That lost cause – a South of
free and independent yeomen – was sold out by Presidents Jefferson,
Madison and Monroe, who were simply "planters serving other
planters," according to Mr. Kennedy.

Mr.
Kennedy frankly despises the planter class, gentlemen whose country
manors and courtly manners rested on man-owning and on the short-sighted
exploitation of the land through such cash crops as tobacco and
cotton. "Yeomen were kinder to the land than planters,"
he writes, because they themselves, and not uprooted slaves, worked
their little patches of earth. Unlike vagabond planters, yeomen
also exhibited the virtue of "sedentism," or staying in
one place.

Mr.
Kennedy is fashionably hard on Jefferson, arguing that, by acquiring
Louisiana and refusing to insist on the prohibition of slavery in
the new territory, Jefferson doomed his South. Those "who had
worn out the productivity of their soil for their staple crops were
provided new land to wear out and new markets for the sale of their
surplus slaves."

Mr.
Kennedy's Jefferson is an expropriator of Indian lands, disrespecter
of black intellects and unconscious dupe of British textile interests.
He is a hypocritical lover of liberty and owner of slaves, the architect
not of an Empire of Liberty but of an "empire of servitude."
(The anti-Jefferson current of our age has gone too far: "The
Wall of Shame" in my daughter's rural New York public school
featured Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson and Thomas Jefferson.)

I
can accept a principled radical condemning Jefferson for trimming,
but surely a career bureaucrat who "served six presidents,"
as Mr. Kennedy's author-biography boasts, is in no position to accuse
anyone of compromise – least of all Jefferson, who, whatever
his sins, did more to promote liberty than almost any politician
in our history.

Still,
Mr. Kennedy's astringency forces us to reconsider settled opinions,
always a good thing. Of the Purchase, he concludes: "The American
nation became bigger but not necessarily better, from the point
of view of those of us who admire the aspirations of the Founding
Fathers."

The
Louisiana Purchase was not a freebie. We gained Mark Twain, Huey
Long and the Mississippi River and lost strict construction and
the small republic. I guess every deal has its price.

December
12, 2003

Bill
Kauffman’s [send him mail]
most recent book is Dispatches
from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small
Town’s Fight to Survive
(Henry Holt). This review first appeared
in the Wall Street Journal.


        
        

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