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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

The colony of Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi


most important event of Jefferson's first administration was the Louisiana Purchase. The colony of Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi, with its vast _hinterland_ stretching into the heart of the American continent, had, as we have seen, passed in 1762 from French into Spanish hands. Its acquisition by the United States had been an old project of Jefferson's. When Secretary of State under Washington, he had mooted it when settling with the Spanish Government the question of the navigation of the Mississippi. As President he revived it; but before negotiations could proceed far the whole situation was changed by the retrocession of Louisiana to France as part of the terms dictated by Napoleon to a Spain which had fallen completely under his control. The United States could not, in any case, have regarded the transfer without uneasiness, and to all schemes of purchase it seemed a death-blow, for it was believed that the French Emperor had set his heart upon the resurrection of French Colonial power in America. But Jefferson was an excellent diplomatist, at once conciliatory and unyielding: he played his cards shrewdly, and events helped him. The Peace of Amiens was broken, and, after a very brief respite, England and France were again at war. Napoleon's sagacity saw clearly enough that he could not hope to hold and develop his new colony in the face of a hostile power which was his master on the sea. It would suit his immediate purpose better to replenish his treasury with
good American dollars which might soon be urgently needed. He became, therefore, as willing to sell as Jefferson was to buy, and between two men of such excellent sense a satisfactory bargain was soon struck. The colony of Louisiana and all the undeveloped country which lay behind it became the inheritance of the American Federation.

Concerning the transaction, there is more than one point to be noted of importance to history. One is the light which it throws on Jefferson's personal qualities. Because this man held very firmly an abstract and reasoned theory of the State, could define and defend it with extraordinary lucidity and logic, and avowedly guided his public conduct by its light, there has been too much tendency to regard him as a mere theorist, a sort of Girondia, noble in speculation and rhetoric, but unequal to practical affairs and insufficiently alive to concrete realities. He is often contrasted unfavourably with Hamilton in this respect: and yet he had, as events proved, by far the acuter sense of the trend of American popular opinion and the practical requirements of a government that should command its respect; and he made fewer mistakes in mere political tactics than did his rival. But his diplomacy is the best answer to the charge. Let anyone who entertains it follow closely the despatches relating to the Louisiana purchase, and observe how shrewdly this supposed visionary can drive a good bargain for his country, even when matched against Talleyrand with Bonaparte behind him. One is reminded that before he entered politics he enjoyed among his fellow-planters a reputation for exceptional business acumen.

Much more plausible is the

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