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The Day America Doubled In Size

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
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May 8, 2023 3:02 am

The Day America Doubled In Size

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 8, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Dedra and Brad Birzer tell the story of the Louisiana Purchase.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. This is our American stories and up next an important story about our own history. In 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of this country. Here's our own Monty Montgomery and Dr. Brad and Deidre Burzer with the story. The year is 1803 and four people, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, James Monroe and Napoleon are about to get involved in one of the most interesting land deals in history.

Here's Brad Burzer and Deidre Burzer of Hillsdale College with more. So the Louisiana Purchase was one of those fascinating moments in really world history, not just in American history, but you have that moment where Napoleon is trying so hard to maintain his grasp and his control on things going on in Europe and in the colonies, but because of the Haitian Revolution, he loses control of the West Indies and it takes him a lot of money and a lot of manpower, a lot of resources to try and reclaim that. And when he gets bogged down trying to reclaim Haiti, he decides that one of the best things to do in the new world is get rid of Louisiana, which the French, of course, had controlled for centuries and wanted to re-control again.

I mean, they believe that they could recreate New France in some way and maybe in a very revolutionary direction. But once the Haitian Revolution happened and Napoleon started losing his grip on the new world, he decided that it was really in his best interest to get as much money as possible, actual specie, get money, get as much money as possible and sell off the possibility or the obligations that he had in North America. New Orleans is incredibly important in this too. So in New Orleans, the Spanish had declared that the right to deposit was no longer going to be allowed. So that meant that traders could no longer stockpile their goods in New Orleans waiting for ships to take them out. So Livingston had been sent by Jefferson to France to try to buy New Orleans and West and South Florida to buy Florida. And so that's what they had permission to do when Napoleon then presented this offer of buying all of Louisiana. And they couldn't get a message across the Atlantic fast enough for Jefferson to weigh in on it. So Monroe was due in the next day as secretary of state. So it was really up to Livingston and Monroe what to do.

And they had to figure that out. Really kind of second guessing what would Jefferson want them to do? And they said, yes, we will buy Louisiana. And so Napoleon supposedly said something along the lines of, what will you give it to me for?

What will you give me for it? And he does so with $15 million. Once he does that, we gain an extra 800,000 square miles, one of the largest land deals ever done in world history. It almost, not quite, but almost doubled the legal size of the United States at that point. And that means that we're purchasing acreage at about 3 cents an acre, which is why it makes it one of the most important and weirdest land deals in history. But despite the amazing deal on land, the purchase wasn't without controversy. Jefferson himself was reluctant to make the purchase only because he didn't know if Article II of the U.S. Constitution, or even if the Constitution as a whole, allowed us to purchase land. But there was a huge difference in acquiring land and paying for land. So they made a strong distinction between what we would call expansionism versus what would have been called imperialism at the time.

Jefferson was an anti-imperialist, but he was very pro-expansion. And people in his party, like his secretary, or the Speaker of the House at the time, John Randolph of Roanoke, was adamantly opposed to the possibility of the executive using money this way and using the executive power to purchase land for a lot of reasons. One, they were worried about what would happen to the American Indian. They were worried about the question of slavery. Jefferson, of course, was adamantly against slavery in the West, adamantly, but there was still this worry. And it also, there was a worry that there was being too much power being given to the executive. So when we look back now, we celebrate it's become so much a part of our narrative as an American people that it's very hard for us to question it. But at the time, it was truly questioned and it caused a lot of political problems. Jefferson himself had qualms, but he decided that it was worth the risk simply because the opportunity was so great. And as Deidre said, was so chancy because Napoleon was problematic and he was moody and you didn't know exactly what he was going to do on one day or the next day.

And here was this opportunity. And so Jefferson decided just to go ahead and make the most of it. And one of the reasons that Lewis and Clark were being sent out as quickly as they were, was to show and demonstrate that this Louisiana purchase was worth it. You know, they did have some sort of idea of what was in Louisiana, but most of it was rumors and Jefferson's own ideas changed about changed on this pretty dramatically. If you look at some of his writings in the 1780s and the 1790s, Jefferson was convinced that there were certain vapors that the West breathed. And maybe these came from stories of Yellowstone, but that there were vapors that allowed the Indians to be physically superior to the European. He thought that in the West, there were still probably mastodons. There were various kinds of ancient creatures still running around and in large part because of these vapors that were supposedly were being breathed.

But, and I say all of this because it's, I mean, it sounds so absurd to us now. By 1803, Jefferson had calmed down on a lot of this and wasn't so convinced that there had been these kind of almost mythical elements of the West, but those mythical elements certainly helped shape how we viewed the West. But even some of their more serious views on things that potentially existed in the West would seem a bit strange today.

They wanted to see if there was a passage to Japan and China and to India and find out if there was a way to have a trade route in which America could gain control over that Eastern trade and outcompete Europe as well. There was this strange vision and it's an old enlightenment vision, but it's the idea that land has to have symmetry to it. So if Eastern America had the Appalachian Mountains and it had the Mississippi River, then Western America had to have the equivalent of the Appalachian Mountains and the equivalent of a Mississippi River. Now that's ridiculous, of course, and we know land doesn't work that way, but that was part of 18th century thought on the way that creation worked, that there would have to be that symmetry. But even if we don't take it to that level, you can imagine what 800,000 square miles of farmland would mean for the average European coming over to America.

I mean, this is a paradise, an absolute paradise. The same land had been farmed for generation after generation, sometimes thousands of years in Europe, and now suddenly there's what they call virgin soil or virgin land in America. This seemed Edenic or utopian to them, and they certainly believe that they had this gift from God that is this huge amount of land and that they should take as much of that as they can, not in a greedy sense, but in the sense that it needed to be used in the way that God wanted it to be used, as we see in Genesis, where God gives stewardship and dominion to man. Jefferson personally, of course, was not that religious, but Jefferson did see expansion into the West as something that was glorious and important for America. In 1801, Jefferson said, a rising nation spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye. When I contemplate these transcendent objects and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue and the auspices of this day, I shrink before the contemplation and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. And that that was critical for Jefferson. This idea that this land is this gift that's given to us to attempt a republic to actually see if we can have an agrarian republic. And Jefferson makes this statement at the time, and this, you know, we think about the cemetery being odd and the fact that there might be mastodons with possibilities just bizarre when we look back, especially, I mean, given Jefferson may be the most intelligent mind ever born on North or South American soil. How could he think like that?

Well, let me put it this way. One way to think about America is always to understand the West as its future. If America is to have a future, it will always be in the West. That was the understanding in the late 18th and early 19th century. So when you talked about the West, you're really talking about America and what America is. That was that much of an identification with what the West was and what the frontier was. So that's part of what Jefferson is playing into when he's able to go ahead and purchase these 800,000 square miles. Part of the reason he's able to do that is because of this great myth of America. It's not a false myth. I think it's a true myth, but this myth of, well, what is the West? The West is our future and we definitely have to secure it.

And great job as always to Monty and a special thanks to Dr. Brad and Deidre Burzer. The story of the Louisiana purchase here on Our American Story. Whether you're searching for the latest sneaker drop, that iconic handbag, a timeless watch, or your next piece of classic jewelry, eBay authenticators are there verifying every detail of your purchase. With years of experience, they're making sure the piece you're searching for is worthy of your collection. eBay's authenticators are experts in their craft, true connoisseurs, and as leaders in their fields, they're making sure your items always arrive as authentic as your style. In a world full of fakes, it's time to get real with eBay Authenticity Guarantee. Everyone deserves real.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-08 04:29:08 / 2023-05-08 04:34:51 / 6

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