U.S. National Security and Party Politics: The Consensus on Louisiana, 1789-1803

Article excerpt

WITH THE TWO HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY of the Louisiana Purchase, it is appropriate to once again examine the developments surrounding this sea change in American history. The purchase has been celebrated as the result of the vision of one man, Thomas Jefferson, and as the beginning of the great western expansion of the U.S. Yet the purchase should be understood not simply in the context of western expansion but also of a young republic's quest for national security. In an oft-quoted statement, Jefferson declared:

There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans . . . . The day France takes possession of New Orleans, fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low-water mark. . . . From that moment, we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.1

Jefferson was doing more than indulging in political hyperbole or expressing some solitary inspiration. he was reflecting a political consensus among national leaders that had developed since the founding of the Republic. It stressed the need for access to the Mississippi River and the importance of the Mississippi Valley to national security.

An important party to this consensus, Federalists, has been accorded only a minor place in histories of the purchase. In United States history textbooks, for instance, the reaction of the Federalists to the purchase, if it is mentioned at all, is only given one or two sentences and generally focuses on the opposition in New England.2 The support of leading Federalists, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams, is seldom mentioned.

The United States' concerns over Louisiana between 1789 and 1803 have been the subject of much study, but less attention has been paid to the role these concerns played in prompting leading Federalists to support purchase of the territory. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's work on the early republic, The Age of Federalism, shows the importance of national security concerns to the early Federalist governments, but it does so by looking at domestic politics and not directly at attitudes about Louisiana and, in any case, ends with Jefferson's assumption of the presidency.3 James Lewis in American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood notes leading policy makers' "commitment to securing the goals of the Revolution against the problem of neighborhood . . . as they responded to changing conditions throughout the New World between 1783 and 1815."4 But he makes little reference to the attitudes and reasons behind Federalist support of the purchase and says nothing about pre-1800 rumors of retrocession of Louisiana to France.

Other studies make more of Federalist enthusiasm for the purchase. Daniel Lang in Foreign Policy in the Early Republic argues that party leader Alexander Hamilton saw the acquisition of "those countries [Louisiana and the Floridas] as essential to the permanency of the Union."5 Alexander DeConde's This Affair of Louisiana notes that even before 1800 it was not Republicans alone who saw possession of Louisiana in the United States' future. "Like Jefferson, policy makers in the new American government thought of Louisiana and the Floridas as being held by the Spanish in a kind of trusteeship."6 Federalist leaders besides Hamilton "also desired Louisiana and the Floridas."7

But Federalist reactions to the Louisiana Purchase merit further study. The national security concerns faced by Federalist administrations between 1789 and 1801 helped lead Federalists who had served in these governments as officers and diplomats-they might be termed national Federalists-to a consensus with Republicans on the status of Louisiana. They accepted Jefferson's purchase, in spite of opposition within their own party and the possibility that the new territory, like other parts of the West, would become heavily Republican.

Louisiana's strategic and economic importance was immense. …