The Louisiana Purchase
Miller: When President-elect Thomas Jefferson walked through the muddy
streets of Washington to take the oath of office in March of 1801, America was
that rare and wonderful thing: a hopeful democracy that had just seen power
peacefully transferred from one ruling party to another. It was a new country,
aching to grow, aching to push the limits of the land and the talents of its
people -- optimistic, restless, invigorated by a vision Jefferson gave a name to: "an empire of liberty."
America, however, had to contend with two great rival powers that dominated the
world, France and Britain. Britain had lost her 13 colonies and maintained a
presence only in what is today Canada. France was a different story. Under
its brilliant and aggressive leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, France had plans for
beating Britain at its imperial game. And those plans involved America--not
for the first time.
More than a century before, an adventurer, a priest, and five voyageurs set out
in two lightly outfitted birch bark canoes from a Catholic mission on the Upper
Great Lakes. Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette embarked with very
different purposes. Father Marquette, a learned, passionate Jesuit, believed
he was sent by his God to find the souls of pagan savages and convert them to
Christianity. Joliet, only 27 years old, but a crack geographer and mapmaker,
was sent by the French crown to find and claim the Mississippi. No one, least
of all the French, acknowledged that the Spaniard De Soto had found that river 150 years earlier.
Marquette and Joliet made their way from the far northeastern edge of Lake
Michigan through present-day Wisconsin, and down the Mississippi River, to
what is today St. Louis. They recorded what they saw with great enthusiasm and
interest. They described monstrous wildcats and fish and wild cattle, huge
herds of bison that blackened the prairie.
Downriver, they saw cliff paintings so beautiful that Marquette said, "The
good painters in France would find it difficult to paint so well." They slept
in the cabin of the chief of the Illinois Indians, who feasted with them. The
next day, 600 of his people escorted them to their canoes.
Further downriver, the torrents of the swollen Missouri River almost
overturned their canoes. And on their arduous return north, they paddled
upriver through an inland sea of grass, the breathtaking tall grass prairie
that fills the middle of America.
Amazingly, they paddled more than 2,500 miles in four months. And in doing so,
they etched what would become the northeastern boundary of the Louisiana
Territory, a huge tract of land, which Napoleon would secretly buy from the
Spanish in 1800. With this piece of land, France could control the Mississippi
River from Canada all the way to New Orleans.
In 1800 that land meant everything to President Thomas Jefferson with his vision of "an empire of liberty." Jefferson had long planned an expedition -- soon to be the Lewis and Clark expedition -- to explore the country's vast and wild northwest interior. So it was with genuine horror that he received the news of Napoleon's incredible real estate deal. He knew that whoever controlled the Mississippi would control his country's destiny.
However, in three years, Napoleon's colossal ambitions for a presence in North
America came to an end. Jefferson was able to buy what he and other Americans
wanted--for a mere $15 million dollars. With the stroke of the pen, the
America of 1803 doubled in size.
The Louisiana Purchase opened the gateway West.