Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part Two)

We consider ourselves so strongly founded in this conclusion, that we are of opinion the United States should act on it in all the measures relative to Louisiana in the same manner as if West Florida was comprised within the Island of New Orleans, or lay to the west of the River Iberville. . . The moment is so favorable for taking possession of that country that I hope it has not been neglected, even though a little force should be necessary to effect it. Your minister must find the means to justify it.” (Robert Livingston, pp. 350–351)

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In the second half of Thomas Jefferson’s first term, the specter hanging over the country was whether the United States would come out as an empire. This the feeling I got from reading the second volume of Henry Adam’s massive history of the Jeffersonian “revolution.” The United States was an empire by birth, but like any child that just emancipated itself from a cruel parent, it did not want to confess that it was of the same ilk. Out of the victory in the revolution, the United States inherited all the lands to the Mississippi. Simultaneously, the young nation claimed all the people in those places defeated and conquered, including the more or less undefeated Iroquois. In the first years of the independent republic, the government oversaw a brutal dispossession of these Indians, although it would take a half a century to be completed.

What forced the issue of empire out into the open was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which almost doubled the size of the nation. As we know, the direct cause of this was the Haitian Revolution and the loss of the French position in the Caribbean, combined (we guess) with a desire to keep the territory out of the hands of the British. Although Adams is careful to note that due to commercial ties between the United States and Britain this would have just given Britain indirect access to Louisiana. I doubt it has any impact on the outcome of the Napoleonic wars. The sale was a straight forward diplomatic affair that emerged out of the Monroe mission to ensure open access to New Orleans for American shipping. Adams dwells on the hand-wringing among Americans that followed the sale. While on the surface it was a debate about Constitutional powers, if Americans had been more honest they would have known they were debating openly for the first time if the nation would be an empire or not.

Here is Adams on Jefferson’s clever dance around the issue:

Jefferson took a different view. He regarded, or wished to regard, the Louisiana treaty and legislation, as exceptional and as forming no precedent. While he signed the laws for governing the territory, he warmly objected to the establishment of a branch bank of the United States at New Orleans. (389)

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He even earlier tried a focused Constitutional Amendment that would have made it clear that such a purchase was a one-time deal. At the same time, we see that annexation through purchase (or conquest, as the nation would learn 45 years later) is perilous because it places on the central government a duty to administer the territory. Simply stating that the Bank of the United States cannot operate there is a ridiculously narrow excuse. There was nothing that could be done but behave imperially in Louisiana, although time would ensure that the heavy lifting of this would be done by other presidents less anxiety-ridden over America’s identity as an empire.

The fact that Louisiana opened up an epic question of the national identity is seen in the almost immediate discussions about Florida and its place in an expanding United States. The first step toward the conquest of Florida may have been the Mobile act, which declared the “shores, waters, inlets, creeks, and rivers, lying within the boundaries of the United States” to be within the taxation zone of the United States. While the territory was still fairly well-defined, commerce would necessarily cross over into Spanish Florida, leading to future decisions to annex the territory by treaty.

Sometimes Adams does not talk much about is the violence that all of this entailed. He can avoid it for two reasons. First, he is interested in the diplomacy above everything else. Second, the territories were largely left alone. From the perspective of an Indian living in Dakota or the Rocky Mountain areas, the second boot would not drop for years or decades. The wars Jefferson’s decision to purchase Louisiana would come and they would be his doing, after a fashion. Now perhaps is not the place to discuss this, as they are outside of Adam’s story, but I would like to challenge Adams on his blinders. Writing at the turn of the century he must have known the result of these decisions and the imperial nature of the Louisiana Purchase. Had he written this tale a bit differently perhaps more Americans would be learning about the purchase as a prelude to genocide rather than as the great achievement of the Jefferson administration.

With the Constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase assured, the United States entered the world stage as a formal empire. Adams devotes the remainder of second volume of his history to three issues: warming relations with England, the Tripoli incursion as part of the ongoing war with the Barbary pirates, and the re-election of Jefferson. As to our theme, the second battle of Tripoli Harbor is the clearest evidence of the young republic acting with an imperial will. Ultimately, Adams is more interested in what this meant for international diplomacy and the relations between England, France, and the United States, but there it is. In the name of suppressing piracy, Jefferson was all too comfortable with empire. Around the time that Jefferson gave his second inaugural address, an American unit under the leadership of William Eaton, the consul of Tunis, was fighting America’s first overseas land battle against Tripoli.

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