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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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The Republicans and the Great West

Expansion and Land Hunger.—The first of the great measures which drove the Republicans out upon this new national course—the purchase of the Louisiana territory—was the product of circumstances rather than of their deliberate choosing. It was not the lack of land for his cherished farmers that led Jefferson to add such an immense domain to the original possessions of the United States. In the Northwest territory, now embracing Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota, settlements were mainly confined to the north bank of the Ohio River. To the south, in Kentucky and Tennessee, where there were more than one hundred thousand white people who had pushed over the mountains from Virginia and the Carolinas, there were still wide reaches of untilled soil. The Alabama and Mississippi regions were vast Indian frontiers of the state of Georgia, unsettled and almost unexplored. Even to the wildest imagination there seemed to be territory enough to satisfy the land hunger of the American people for a century to come.

The Significance of the Mississippi River.—At all events the East, then the center of power, saw no good reason for expansion. The planters of the Carolinas, the manufacturers of Pennsylvania, the importers of New York, the shipbuilders of New England, looking to the seaboard and to Europe for trade, refinements, and sometimes their ideas of government, were slow to appreciate the place of the West in national economy. The better educated the Easterners were, the less, it seems, they comprehended the destiny of the nation. Sons of Federalist fathers at Williams College, after a long debate decided by a vote of fifteen to one that the purchase of Louisiana was undesirable.

On the other hand, the pioneers of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, unlearned in books, saw with their own eyes the resources of the wilderness. Many of them had been across the Mississippi and had beheld the rich lands awaiting the plow of the white man. Down the great river they floated their wheat, corn, and bacon to ocean-going ships bound for the ports of the seaboard or for Europe. The land journeys over the mountain barriers with bulky farm produce, they knew from experience, were almost impossible, and costly at best. Nails, bolts of cloth, tea, and coffee could go or come that way, but not corn and bacon. A free outlet to the sea by the Mississippi was as essential to the pioneers of the Kentucky region as the harbor of Boston to the merchant princes of that metropolis.

Louisiana under Spanish Rule.—For this reason they watched with deep solicitude the fortunes of the Spanish king to whom, at the close of the Seven Years’ War, had fallen the Louisiana territory stretching from New Orleans to the Rocky Mountains. While he controlled the mouth of the Mississippi there was little to fear, for he had neither the army nor the navy necessary to resist any invasion of American trade. Moreover, Washington had been able, by the exercise of great tact, to secure from Spain in 1795 a trading privilege through New Orleans which satisfied the present requirements of the frontiersmen even if it did not allay their fears for the future. So things stood when a swift succession of events altered the whole situation.

Louisiana Transferred to France.—In July, 1802, a royal order from Spain instructed the officials at New Orleans to close the port to American produce. About the same time a disturbing rumor, long current, was confirmed—Napoleon had coerced Spain into returning Louisiana to France by a secret treaty signed in 1800. “The scalers of the Alps and conquerors of Venice” now looked across the sea for new scenes of adventure. The West was ablaze with excitement. A call for war ran through the frontier; expeditions were organized to prevent the landing of the French; and petitions for instant action flooded in upon Jefferson.

Jefferson Sees the Danger.—Jefferson, the friend of France and sworn enemy of England, compelled to choose in the interest of America, never winced. “The cession of Louisiana and the Floridas by Spain to France,” he wrote to Livingston, the American minister in Paris, “works sorely on the United States. It completely reverses all the political relations of the United States and will form a new epoch in our political course.... There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market.... France, placing herself in that door, assumes to us an attitude of defiance. Spain might have retained it quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state would induce her to increase our facilities there.... Not so can it ever be in the hands of France.... The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark.... It seals the union of the two nations who in conjunction can maintain exclusive possession of the ocean. From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.... This is not a state of things we seek or desire. It is one which this measure, if adopted by France, forces on us as necessarily as any other cause by the laws of nature brings on its necessary effect.”

Louisiana Purchased.—Acting on this belief, but apparently seeing only the Mississippi outlet at stake, Jefferson sent his friend, James Monroe, to France with the power to buy New Orleans and West Florida. Before Monroe arrived, the regular minister, Livingston, had already convinced Napoleon that it would be well to sell territory which might be wrested from him at any moment by the British sea power, especially as the war, temporarily stopped by the peace of Amiens, was once more raging in Europe. Wise as he was in his day, Livingston had at first no thought of buying the whole Louisiana country. He was simply dazed when Napoleon offered to sell the entire domain and get rid of the business altogether. Though staggered by the proposal, he and Monroe decided to accept. On April 30, they signed the treaty of cession, agreeing to pay $11,250,000 in six per cent bonds and to discharge certain debts due French citizens, making in all approximately fifteen millions. Spain protested, Napoleon’s brother fumed, French newspapers objected; but the deed was done.

Jefferson and His Constitutional Scruples.—When the news of this extraordinary event reached the United States, the people were filled with astonishment, and no one was more surprised than Jefferson himself. He had thought of buying New Orleans and West Florida for a small sum, and now a vast domain had been dumped into the lap of the nation. He was puzzled. On looking into the Constitution he found not a line authorizing the purchase of more territory and so he drafted an amendment declaring “Louisiana, as ceded by France,—a part of the United States.” He had belabored the Federalists for piling up a big national debt and he could hardly endure the thought of issuing more bonds himself.

In the midst of his doubts came the news that Napoleon might withdraw from the bargain. Thoroughly alarmed by that, Jefferson pressed the Senate for a ratification of the treaty. He still clung to his original idea that the Constitution did not warrant the purchase; but he lamely concluded: “If our friends shall think differently, I shall certainly acquiesce with satisfaction; confident that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects.” Thus the stanch advocate of “strict interpretation” cut loose from his own doctrine and intrusted the construction of the Constitution to “the good sense” of his countrymen.

The Treaty Ratified.—This unusual transaction, so favorable to the West, aroused the ire of the seaboard Federalists. Some denounced it as unconstitutional, easily forgetting Hamilton’s masterly defense of the bank, also not mentioned in the Constitution. Others urged that, if “the howling wilderness” ever should be settled, it would turn against the East, form new commercial connections, and escape from federal control. Still others protested that the purchase would lead inevitably to the dominance of a “hotch potch of wild men from the Far West.” Federalists, who thought “the broad back of America” could readily bear Hamilton’s consolidated debt, now went into agonies over a bond issue of less than one-sixth of that amount. But in vain. Jefferson’s party with a high hand carried the day. The Senate, after hearing the Federalist protest, ratified the treaty. In December, 1803, the French flag was hauled down from the old government buildings in New Orleans and the Stars and Stripes were hoisted as a sign that the land of Coronado, De Soto, Marquette, and La Salle had passed forever to the United States.

The United States in 1805

By a single stroke, the original territory of the United States was more than doubled. While the boundaries of the purchase were uncertain, it is safe to say that the Louisiana territory included what is now Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and large portions of Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming. The farm lands that the friends of “a little America” on the seacoast declared a hopeless wilderness were, within a hundred years, fully occupied and valued at nearly seven billion dollars—almost five hundred times the price paid to Napoleon.

Western Explorations.—Having taken the fateful step, Jefferson wisely began to make the most of it. He prepared for the opening of the new country by sending the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore it, discover its resources, and lay out an overland route through the Missouri Valley and across the Great Divide to the Pacific. The story of this mighty exploit, which began in the spring of 1804 and ended in the autumn of 1806, was set down with skill and pains in the journal of Lewis and Clark; when published even in a short form, it invited the forward-looking men of the East to take thought about the western empire. At the same time Zebulon Pike, in a series of journeys, explored the sources of the Mississippi River and penetrated the Spanish territories of the far Southwest. Thus scouts and pioneers continued the work of diplomats.

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