The Louisiana Purchase

"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?

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