Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 53 Sub Silentio

THE treaty for the purchase of Louisiana was sent with some inner trepidation by the envoys to America. "An acquisition of so great an extent was," they acknowledged, "we well know, nor contemplated by our appointment; but we are persuaded that the circumstances and considerations which induced us to make it, will justify us in the measure to our Government and country."1

According to the terms of the treaty, Louisiana was transferred "with the same extent that is now in the hands of Spain and that it had when France possessed it, and such as it should be after the treaties subsequently entered into between Spain and other States." The Americans tried hard to find our just what was this pig in the poke which they had purchased, but were met with smiling evasions from the French. Napoleon must have chuckled as he told Marbois: "If an obscurity did not already exist, it would perhaps be good policy to put one there."2 Livingston asked Talleyrand in vain what were its eastern boundaries, and what the French had actually intended to take from Spain. All that he received was a monotonous: "I do not know." A light burst on the American. "Then you mean that we shall construe it our own way?" he inquired. Talleyrand shrugged. "I can give you no direction. You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it." All that he was ready to say was that the Floridas were not included; though Napoleon had indicated orally--refusing to incorporate it in writing--that he would support the United States in negotiating for them with Spain.3

Livingston, considering the matter in the privacy of his own chamber, determined for himself that at least West Florida--the Gulf Coast between the Mississippi and East Florida (approximately what is now known as Florida)--came within the purchase. He wrote to Madison: "Now, sir, the sum of the business is, to recommend to you, in the strongest terms, after having obtained the possession, that the French commissary will give you, to insist upon this as a part of your right; and to take possession, at all events, to the river Perdido. I pledge myself that your right is good; and, after the explanations that have been given here, you need apprehend nothing from a decisive measure."4 And later Monroe joined him in a similar assurance that it was "incontrovertible that West Florida is comprised in the cession of Louisiana."5

Actually, it was nothing of the sort, and went directly counter to what Talleyrand had expressly told them. But the envoys, uneasy over the fact

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