What is the Louisiana Purchase?

The same year when Louisiana was bought, President Jefferson, by a confidential message to Congress, proposed the first of those peaceable conquests which have opened, and are still opening, to civilization and human industry, the vast inland regions of our continent, then unknown. He recommended an appropriation to defray the expenses of an exploring expedition across the continent from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. The appropriation was made, and an expedition was afterward organized under the control of Captains Lewis and Clarke, consisting of a little less than thirty persons. They left the western shore of the Mississippi on the 14th of May, 1804, traversed the continent between the great river and the "South Sea" of the earlier explorers, and in the course of twenty-seven months, completed their labors, by which the first reliable information was obtained respecting the vast country which they had penetrated and passed through.

The Spaniards did not like the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States. The Spanish minister at Washington protested against the bargain. Questions concerning the true boundaries of the territory were raised. The Spaniards were disposed to hold all the country east of the Mississippi, and so retain New Orleans. This disposition aroused the resentment of the people of the West against the occupants of the Lower Mississippi Valley, and our government was disposed to assert its rights by force of arms, if necessary. Regular troops under General Wilkinson, and militia from Tennessee, assembled at Natchez as a sort of army of observation. But a peaceful transfer of the domain was made. The boundaries were defined, and the Spaniards were left in possession of the country along the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, east of a line nearly corresponding with the present boundary between Louisiana and Mississippi, on the Pearl River, and south of the thirty-first degree of latitude. It was known as the Floridas. The country was agitated by stirring events in the region beyond the Alleghanies in 1805, and for a year or two afterward. The fertile valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi were rapidly filling with adventurers and settlers, and materials for new States, sufficient to make an empire, were rapidly gathering. The stream of navigation was flowing full from the east, down the western slopes of the great hills. Michigan was erected into a Territory that year (1805); and all along the Mississippi, settlements were taking deep root and flourishing. These were generally composed of hardy and venture-some men and women ready for any honorable enterprise that promised gain.

At that time there was a prevailing opinion in our country that the Spanish inhabitants in Louisiana would not quietly submit to the rule of our government. Taking advantage of this belief, and the restless spirits of the inhabitants who were forming States in the Great Valley, Aaron Burr, an ardent politician and expert and unscrupulous intriguer, who had been Vice-President of the United States during Jefferson's first term, thought he saw an opportunity to make circumstances subservient to his own ambitious views. In the summer of 1804, he had murdered General Hamilton in a duel, and became an outcast from society. He was tolerated only by his political party, and was not renominated with Mr. Jefferson. Smarting under the stings of neglect and the "good man's contumely," he was ready to attempt the execution of any scheme that promised a retrieval of his fame and fortune. He seems to have contemplated one in which the fortunes of the inhabitants west of the mountains were involved, but what it was exactly will never be made known, for the chief actors are dead and have "left no sign." It was thought that he intended to dissever the Union and set up an independent republic in the West with himself at the head. Others have believed that his scheme was to organize a strong military force in the West, and with it to invade Mexico, wrest that country from Spain, and set up an independent government there with himself at the head, either as president or monarch. It is certain that General Wilkinson, who was in command of United States troops in the West at that time, was associated with Burr for awhile in his schemes, whatever they may have been.

In the spring of 1805, Burr departed for the West, giving deceptive reasons for his journey. He went down the Ohio River in an open boat, and on a pleasant morning in May he appeared at the charming island-home of Herman Blennerhassett, an Irish gentleman possessed of a fine education, scientific tastes, an ample fortune, and a beautiful and accomplished wife. He was seated upon an island in the Ohio River, near the mouth of the Muskingum River, not far from Marietta, where he had a beautiful and happy home, enriched with books, adorned with pictures, enlivened with music from the lips and by the skillful fingers of Mrs. Blennerhassett as she touched the harp and guitar and sang sweet airs, and made attractive to the man of science and taste by conservatories of rare plants and fine pleasure-grounds. It was the resort of persons of the best minds beyond the mountains.

Into that paradise the wily serpent crept, and repeated the story of the fall. Mrs. Blennerhassett, an ambitious woman with an enthusiastic nature was tempted by the apple of Burr's seductive promises of wealth, power, and immortal honors, and she persuaded her husband to eat of the fruit. He placed his fortune and reputation at the disposal of that heartless demagogue, and lost both. He was driven by necessity from his lost paradise, and died in comparative poverty.

Burr, at first, gained the confidence of that stern patriot, Andrew Jackson, whom he visited at his log-dwelling at the "Hermitage," near Nashville. They corresponded for a time after Burr returned to the East in the fall of 1805, and so active were the schemer and his few partisans in the West in 1806, that a military organization was partly effected. He had overcome General Wilkinson with his wiles; and so strong was the confidence of Jackson in the integrity of Burr, that when the latter again visited the Hermitage early in the autumn of 1806, the former procured for him a public ball at Nashville, at which the tall hero, in military dress, led the little adventurer in his suit of black into the room, and introduced him to the ladies and gentlemen present. Circumstances soon afterward caused Jackson to suspect Burr's fidelity to his country, and he communicated his suspicions to Governor Claiborne at New Orleans. The national government received similar warnings, and took measures to crush the viper in its egg. Burr's arrest was ordered, and this was accomplished in February, 1807, near Fort Stoddart, in Alabama, by Lieutenant (afterward Major-General) E. P. Gaines. Burr was taken to Richmond, in Virginia, and there tried for treason. The evidence seemed to show that his probable design was an invasion of the Mexican provinces and not a disseverance of the Union, and he was acquitted.

With the acquisition of Louisiana, there grew up a powerful opposition to the administration, on the North and East. The idea was disseminated that the transaction was a scheme to strengthen the South, and with it the Southern Democracy, into whose hands the control of the government had fallen. In past times the prescription of disunion as a remedy for political evils had been a favorite one with that Democracy. The Opposition now approved it, or rather the very radical men of that party did. In the years 1803 and 1804, desires for a disseverance from the South were freely expressed in the States east and north of the Potomac and Susquehanna. A convention of leading Federalists to consult upon the measure, was called at Boston in 1804, to which Alexander Hamilton was invited; but his emphatic condemnation of such an unpatriotic course, only a short time before his death, disconcerted the leaders and dissipated their schemes. In the New York State Senate, in 1809, DeWitt Clinton, alluding to this act of Hamilton, said: "To his honor be it spoken, it was rejected by him with abhorrence and disdain."

At about the time when Burr conceived his schemes, trouble between Spain and the United States had occurred, and, for awhile, threatened to kindle a flame of war between the two governments. The United States had preferred a claim against Spain for indemnity for spoliations committed against the commerce of our country by Spanish cruisers under their own and the French flags. The liability on the part of those under the Spanish flag was admitted, and by an agreement negotiated in 1802, a commission to adjust the claims was authorized; but the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States, and questions growing out of that act, and claims to a portion of Florida, seemed to indicate a determination on the part of our government to take that portion of the Spanish domain by force of arms, if necessary. Spain, highly offended, refused to carry out the agreement concerning indemnity, and, for awhile, the political firmament appeared very lowering. But, as we have observed, the boundaries were amicably settled by satisfactory definitions, and the clouds passed away.

Return to Our Country, Vol II