Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Vent de la Louisiane

The Cabildo
The biggest property deal in history was finalised in this New Orleans building two hundred and eight years ago today.

The previous year (1802) Thomas Jefferson had sent future president James Monroe and his Minister to France Robert Livingston, to Paris, to discuss with Napoleon Bonaparte the purchase of the strategically vital port of New Orleans, which France had herself only recently acquired from Spain. New Orleans was the most important port on the Gulf of Mexico, and of course the gateway to the Mississippi, and Monroe and Livingston were authorised by Jefferson to go, if necessary, to 10 million dollars.

Imagine their surprise . . .  It turned out that not only was Napoleon prepared to let New Orleans go (his ambitions for North America having been dimmed by his failure to secure a foothold in Central America, which would have been seen as a more valuable prize) – he was also prepared to throw in the entire territory of Louisiana if the US would up their offer to 15 million. Given that Louisiana, at that time, was almost five times the size of France, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, it's unsurprising that the negotiators went out on a limb and committed Jefferson to 15 million dollars without express authorisation.

The Louisiana Purchase was not only the biggest, but easily the best property deal in history. For three cents an acre, it doubled the size of the United States and paved the way for westward expansion under the banner of Manifest Destiny.

The green part of the map shows the extent of the United States before the Purchase. The staunchly anti-federalist Jefferson, who believed the prospective New Orleans deal was outside the scope of the Constitution, was embarrassed enough to have sent negotiators to secure the port in the first place. He must have been mortified when they came back with Louisiana.
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