The Louisiana Purchase

Fallout from the Haitian Revolution brought more than just refugees to Louisiana, it played a major role in the best real estate deal in American history. By the 1790’s, the fledgling United States had grown accustomed to having Spain as their western neighbor. Not only were the Spanish an established ally, but they had granted several trade concessions permitting American commerce in New Orleans and free access on the Mississippi River. All that was brought to a rude end by the rising French Empire.

Francois Bouchot 18 Brumaire
Napoleon seizes power, his hapless brother in law commanded the troops who backed his play, though support was pretty widespread. Painting credit: Francois Bouchot

Unsurprisingly, the French Revolution had caused a seismic shift in European politics. It had also proved impossible to contain or stop, as the French armies shifted rapidly from a demoralized shell to an aggressive juggernaut fueled by the material output of an entire country. Instead of crumbling in the face of invasion, the French rolled back their adversaries and sallied forth. Belgium fell, then the Netherlands. In the hands of the brilliant Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1796 a small wing of the revolutionary army smashed its way through northern Italy, and shattered the Austrian hold on the entire region. In 1799, Bonaparte effectively seized the reins of power in the Coup of 18 Brumaire,[1] and continued to smash his way through Europe. Under the threat of a repeated bashing, the Spanish had been pulled into an alliance with the French in 1796 with the Second Treaty of Ildefonso.

Practically for the Americans, the political realignment led the Spanish to close the Mississippi to United States traffic in 1798. While this caused a few cries of protest, it was nothing compared to the much nastier shock in 1800 when the Spanish finally returned the entire Louisiana territory to the French. While the Spanish were to administer the territory for a few more years, the prospect of a Napoleonic neighbor was worrying even to noted Francophile Thomas Jefferson. Now president, he dispatched a several confidants, including James Madison, to France to at least explore the prospect of buying New Orleans and some limited territories.

LouisianaPurchase ErnstA
The Louisiana Purchase, projected over modern boundaries. Photo Credit: user ErnstA

Napoleon himself was also at a crossroads where Louisiana was concerned. On the one hand, the land itself was quite tempting, but his control over the area was more theoretical than practical. Another war with Britain was clearly on the horizon, and his last attempt to project force in his colonial holdings had gone over like a lead balloon. In 1801 he had dispatched his own brother in law Charles Leclerc and 20,000 troops to Saint-Domingue to reassert French control on the island. While Leclerc successfully captured L’ouverture, he quickly found the entire island rising against him when he attempted to reinstate slavery. By 1803, Leclerc and a full two thirds of his army had died, either from fighting any one of the different revolutionary factions or more often from yellow fever.[2] With that in mind and desperately in need of some additional finances, Napoleon signaled interest in selling the entire territory to the tune of about $15 million, including some debt relief. Though Jefferson wasn’t entirely convinced he could even buy territory, or that the French could even legally sell it, he wasn’t going to look this gift horse too closely in the mouth. For less than three cents an acre, the United States abruptly jumped in size.[3] For New Orleans practically, this meant a major economic boom. Anglo-American settlers began to flood in to an unfamiliar city, much to the resentment of the locals who found themselves swapping owners for the third time with little notice.

The Creoles were hard partiers. New residents noted in confusion about house parties that stretched for days. Visitors would arrive for a weekend, and then leave three weeks later, their hosts seemingly hospitable to a fault. Nothing though, confused the Americans more than the local’s habit of men kissing on the cheeks in greeting. To good (prudish) New Englanders, this was about the most scandalous behavior they had ever seen. The wealthier French descendants were dressed to the nines, wearing the fashions their Parisian counterparts had worn a year earlier. Gloves, ties, and top hats were common in public, with women wearing dresses that clung a little more to the frame, and showed off a little more skin than their parents would have liked. As one scandalized American put it, “Great Babylon has come before me. Oh, the wickedness, the idolatry of the place! The unspeakable riches and splendor”.[4]

William Claiborne. While relations with his new subjects were initially strained by the whole “military occupation” thing, Claiborne gradually won the support of the Creole population. Photo Credit:

The newly American New Orleans was effectively Mos Eisley for the United States. New Governor Claiborne was American, but he helped smooth relations when he married first a Spanish Creole, then a French one after his first wife died of malaria. He dressed like the locals, and even learned French during his time. The city seemed to resist any attempts by its new Anglo overlords to scrub out any changes to its very French allure. The surroundings were also far from secure. Lurking in the bayous just outside was a collection of smugglers and pirates. Most notoriously were the Lafittes, Alexandre, Pierre, and Jean. Though none of the brothers really resembled Johnny Depp, the three led a group 800 strong, armed to the teeth and lurking just 40 miles away from the Crescent City on the island Grand Terre. Yet for all their differences, Creoles, Americans, and even the pirates all agreed on one thing, they really hated the British. It would prove a useful asset in the days to come.

[1] Pulled from the word “fog” in French, actually on November 9th 1799. The Revolutionaries decided to alter the calendar to reflect the dawn of this new enlightened age. It lasted about 12 years before everyone got sick of it. Needless to say, the calendar’s author was also guillotined.

[2] Incidentally, yellow fever’s still a major killer today, with about 30,000 fatalities annually. Transmitted by the mosquito, the name is derived from the yellowish tint victims get in its final stage as the disease eats through their liver.

[3] At least as far as international powers were concerned. Shawnee leader Tecumseh and many others would have quite a few things to say about a “purchase” they had never heard of.

[4] Remini, R. 1999. The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory.


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