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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
In Pursuit of the Floridas
by Johnson, Allen

The purchase of Louisiana was a diplomatic triumph of the first magnitude. No American negotiators have ever acquired so much for so little; yet, oddly enough, neither Livingston nor Monroe had the slightest notion of the vast extent of the domain which they had purchased. They had bought Louisiana "with the same extent that it 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," but what its actual boundaries were they did not know. Considerably disturbed that the treaty contained no definition of boundaries, Livingston sought information from the enigmatical Talleyrand. "What are the eastern bounds of Louisiana?" he asked. "I do not know," replied Talleyrand; "you must take it as we received it." "But what did you mean to take?" urged Livingston somewhat naively. "I do not know," was the answer. "Then you mean that we shall construe it in our own way?" "I can give you no direction," said the astute Frenchman. "You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it." And with these vague assurances Livingston had to be satisfied.

The first impressions of Jefferson were not much more definite, for, while he believed that the acquired territory more than doubled the area of the United States, he could only describe it as including all the waters of the Missouri and the Mississippi. He started at once, however, to collect information about Louisiana. He prepared a list of queries which he sent to reputable persons living in or near New Orleans. The task was one in which he delighted: to accumulate and diffuse information--a truly democratic mission gave him more real pleasure than to reign in the Executive Mansion. His interest in the trans- Mississippi country, indeed, was not of recent birth; he had nursed for years an insatiable curiosity about the source and course of the Missouri; and in this very year he had commissioned his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to explore the great river and its tributaries, to ascertain if they afforded a direct and practicable water communication across the continent.

The outcome of the President's questionnaire was a report submitted to Congress in the fall of 1803, which contained much interesting information and some entertaining misinformation. The statistical matter we may put to one side, as contemporary readers doubtless did; certain impressions are worth recording. New Orleans, the first and immediate object of negotiations, contained, it would appear, only a small part of the population of the province, which numbered some twenty or more rural districts. On the river above the city were the plantations of the so-called Upper Coast, inhabited mostly by slaves whose Creole masters lived in town; then, as one journeyed upstream appeared the first and second German Coasts, where dwelt the descendants of those Germans who had been brought to the province by John Law's Mississippi Bubble, an industrious folk making their livelihood as purveyors to the city. Every Friday night they loaded their small craft with produce and held market next day on the river front at New Orleans, adding another touch to the picturesque groups which frequented the levees. Above the German Coasts were the first and second Acadian Coasts, populated by the numerous progeny of those unhappy refugees who were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755. Acadian settlements were scattered also along the backwaters west of the great river: Bayou Lafourche was lined with farms which were already producing cotton; near Bayou Teche and Bayou Vermilion--the Attakapas country--were cattle ranges; and to the north was the richer grazing country known as Opelousas.

Passing beyond the Iberville River, which was indeed no river at all but only an overflow of the Mississippi, the traveler up-stream saw on his right hand "the government of Baton Rouge" with its scattered settlements and mixed population of French, Spanish, and Anglo-Americans; and still farther on, the Spanish parish of West Feliciana, accounted a part of West Florida and described by President Jefferson as the garden of the cotton-growing region. Beyond this point the President's description of Louisiana became less confident, as reliable sources of information failed him. His credulity, however, led him to make one amazing statement, which provoked the ridicule of his political opponents, always ready to pounce upon the slips of this philosopher-president. "One extraordinary fact relative to salt must not be omitted," he wrote in all seriousness. "There exists, about one thousand miles up the Missouri, and not far from that river, a salt mountain! The existence of such a mountain might well be questioned, were it not for the testimony of several respectable and enterprising traders who have visited it, and who have exhibited several bushels of the salt to the curiosity of the people of St. Louis, where some of it still remains. A specimen of the salt has been sent to Marietta. This mountain is said to be 180 miles long and 45 in width, composed of solid rock salt, without any trees or even shrubs on it." One Federalist wit insisted that this salt mountain must be Lot's wife; another sent an epigram to the United States Gazette which ran as follows:

Herostratus of old, to eternalize his name Sat the temple of Diana all in a flame; But Jefferson lately of Bonaparte bought, To pickle his fame, a mountain of salt.

Jefferson was too much of a philosopher to be disturbed by such gibes; but he did have certain constitutional doubts concerning the treaty. How, as a strict constructionist, was he to defend the purchase of territory outside the limits of the United States, when the Constitution did not specifically grant such power to the Federal Government? He had fought the good fight of the year 1800 to oust Federalist administrators who by a liberal interpretation were making waste paper of the Constitution. Consistency demanded either that he should abandon the treaty or that he should ask for the powers which had been denied to the Federal Government. He chose the latter course and submitted to his Cabinet and to his followers in Congress a draft of an amendment to the Constitution conferring the desired powers. To his dismay they treated his proposal with indifference, not to say coldness. He pressed his point, redrafted his amendment, and urged its consideration once again. Meantime letters from Livingston and Monroe warned him that delay was hazardous; the First Consul might change his mind, as he was wont to do on slight provocation. Privately Jefferson was deeply chagrined, but he dared not risk the loss of Louisiana. With what grace he could summon, he acquiesced in the advice of his Virginia friends who urged him to let events take their course and to drop the amendment, but he continued to believe that such a course if persisted in would make blank paper of the Constitution. He could only trust, as he said in a letter, "that the good sense of the country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce its ill effects."

The debates on the treaty in, Congress make interesting reading for those who delight in legal subtleties, for many nice questions of constitutional law were involved. Even granting that territory could be acquired, there was the further question whether the treaty-making power was competent irrespective of the House of Representatives. And what, pray, was meant by incorporating this new province in the Union? Was Louisiana to be admitted into the Union as a State by President and Senate? Or was it to be governed as a dependency? And how could the special privileges given to Spanish and French ships in the port of New Orleans be reconciled with that provision of the Constitution which, expressly forbade any preference to be given, by any regulation of commerce or revenue, to the ports of one State over those of another? The exigencies of politics played havoc with consistency, so that Republicans supported the ratification of the treaty with erstwhile Federalist arguments, while Federalists used the old arguments of the Republicans. Yet the Senate advised the ratification by a decisive vote and with surprising promptness; and Congress passed a provisional act authorizing the President to take over and govern the territory of Louisiana.

The vast province which Napoleon had tossed so carelessly into the lap of the young Western Republic was, strangely enough, not yet formally in his possession. The expeditionary force under General Victor which was to have occupied Louisiana had never left port. M. Pierre Clement Laussat, however, who was to have accompanied the expedition to assume the duties of prefect in the province, had sailed alone in January, 1803, to receive the province from the Spanish authorities. If this lonely Frenchman on mission possessed the imagination of his race, he must have had some emotional thrills as he reflected that he was following the sea trail of La Salle and Iberville through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. He could not have entered the Great River and breasted its yellow current for a hundred miles, without seeing in his mind's eye those phantom figures of French and Spanish adventurers who had voyaged up and down its turbid waters in quest of gold or of distant Cathay. As his vessel dropped anchor opposite the town which Bienville had founded, Laussat must have felt that in some degree he was "heir of all the ages"; yet he was in fact face to face with conditions which, whatever their historic antecedents, were neither French nor Spanish. On the water front of New Orleans, he counted "forty-five Anglo-American ships to ten French." Subsequent experiences deepened this first impression: it was not Spanish nor French influence which had made this port important but those "three hundred thousand planters who in twenty years have swarmed over the eastern plains of the Mississippi and have cultivated them, and who have no other outlet than this river and no other port than New Orleans."

The outward aspect of the city, however, was certainly not American. From the masthead of his vessel Laussat might have seen over a thousand dwellings of varied architecture: houses of adobe, houses of brick, houses of stucco; some with bright colors, others with the harmonious half tones produced by sun and rain. No American artisans constructed the picturesque balconies, the verandas, and belvederes which suggested the semitropical existence that Nature forced upon these city dwellers for more than half the year. No American craftsmen wrought the artistic ironwork of balconies, gateways, and window gratings. Here was an atmosphere which suggested the Old World rather than the New. The streets which ran at right angles were reminiscent of the old regime: Conde, Conti, Dauphine, St. Louis, Chartres, Bourbon, Orleans--all these names were to be found within the earthen rampart which formed the defense of the city.

The inhabitants were a strange mixture: Spanish, French, American, black, quadroon, and Creole. No adequate definition has ever been formulated for "Creole," but no one familiar with the type could fail to distinguish this caste from those descended from the first French settlers or from the Acadians. A keen observer like Laussat discerned speedily that the Creole had little place in the commercial life of the city. He was your landed proprietor, who owned some of the choicest parts of the city and its growing suburbs, and whose plantations lined both banks of the Mississippi within easy reach from the city. At the opposite end of the social scale were the quadroons--the demimonde of this little capital--and the negro slaves. Between these extremes were the French and, in ever-growing numbers, the Americans who plied every trade, while the Spaniards constituted the governing class. Deliberately, in the course of time, as befitted a Spanish gentleman and officer, the Marquis de Casa Calvo, resplendent with regalia, arrived from Havana to act with Governor Don Juan Manuel de Salcedo in transferring the province. A season of gayety followed in which the Spaniards did their best to conceal any chagrin they may have felt at the relinquishment--happily, it might not be termed the surrender--of Louisiana. And finally on the 30th of November, Governor Salcedo delivered the keys of the city to Laussat, in the hall of the Cabildo, while Marquis de Casa Calvo from the balcony absolved the people in Place d'Armes below from their allegiance to his master, the King of Spain.

For the brief term of twenty days Louisiana was again a province of France. Within that time Laussat bestirred himself to gallicize the colony, so far as forms could do so. He replaced the cabildo or hereditary council by a municipal council; he restored the civil code; he appointed French officers to civil and military posts. And all this he did in the full consciousness that American commissioners were already on their way to receive from him in turn the province which his wayward master had sold. On December 20, 1803, young William Claiborne, Governor of the Mississippi Territory, and General James Wilkinson, with a few companies of soldiers, entered and received from Laussat the keys of the city and the formal surrender of Lower Louisiana. On the Place d'Armes, promptly at noon, the tricolor was hauled down and the American Stars and Stripes took its place. Louisiana had been transferred for the sixth and last time. But what were the metes and bounds of this province which had been so often bought and sold? What had Laussat been instructed to take and give? What, in short, was Louisiana?

The elation which Livingston and Monroe felt at acquiring unexpectedly a vast territory beyond the Mississippi soon gave way to a disquieting reflection. They had been instructed to offer ten million dollars for New Orleans and the Floridas: they had pledged fifteen millions for Louisiana without the Floridas. And they knew that it was precisely West Florida, with the eastern bank of the Mississippi and the Gulf littoral, that was most ardently desired by their countrymen of the West. But might not Louisiana include West Florida? Had Talleyrand not professed ignorance of the eastern boundary? And had he not intimated that the Americans would make the most of their bargain? Within a month Livingston had convinced himself that the United States could rightfully claim West Florida to the Perdido River, and he soon won over Monroe to his way of thinking. They then reported to Madison that "on a thorough examination of the subject" they were persuaded that they had purchased West Florida as a part of Louisiana.

By what process of reasoning had Livingston and Monroe reached this satisfying conclusion? Their argument proceeded from carefully chosen premises. France, it was said, had once held Louisiana and the Floridas together as part of her colonial empire in America; in 1763 she had ceded New Orleans and the territory west of the Mississippi to Spain, and at the same time she had transferred the Floridas to Great Britain; in 1783 Great Britain had returned the Floridas to Spain which were then reunited to Louisiana as under French rule. Ergo, when Louisiana was retro-ceded "with the same extent that it now has in the hands of Spain, and that it had when France possessed it," it must have included West Florida.

That Livingston was able to convince himself by this logic, does not speak well for his candor or intelligence. He was well aware that Bonaparte had failed to persuade Don Carlos to include the Floridas in the retrocession; he had tried to insert in the treaty an article pledging the First Consul to use his good offices to obtain the Floridas for the United States; and in his midnight dispatch to Madison, with the prospect of acquiring Louisiana before him, he had urged the advisability of exchanging this province for the more desirable Floridas. Livingston therefore could not, and did not, say that Spain intended to cede the Floridas as a part of Louisiana, but that she had inadvertently done so and that Bonaparte might have claimed West Florida, if he had been shrewd enough to see his opportunity. The United States was in no way prevented from pressing this claim because the First Consul had not done so. The fact that France had in 1763 actually dismembered her colonial empire and that Louisiana as ceded to Spain extended only to the Iberville, was given no weight in Livingston's deductions.

Having the will to believe, Jefferson and Madison became converts to Livingston's faith. Madison wrote at once that in view of these developments no proposal to exchange Louisiana for the Floridas should be entertained; the President declared himself satisfied that "our right to the Perdido is substantial and can be opposed by a quibble on form only"; and John Randolph, duly coached by the Administration, flatly declared in the House of Representatives that "We have not only obtained the command of the mouth of the Mississippi, but of the Mobile, with its widely extended branches; and there is not now a single stream of note rising within the United States and falling into the Gulf of Mexico which is not entirely our own, the Appalachicola excepted." From this moment to the end of his administration, the acquisition of West Florida became a sort of obsession with Jefferson. His pursuit of this phantom claim involved American diplomats in strange adventures and at times deflected the whole course of domestic politics.

The first luckless minister to engage in this baffling quest was James Monroe, who had just been appointed Minister to the Court of St. James. He was instructed to take up the threads of diplomacy at Madrid where they were getting badly tangled in the hands of Charles Pinckney, who was a better politician than a diplomat. "Your inquiries may also be directed," wrote Madison, "to the question whether any, and how much, of what passes for West Florida be fairly included in the territory ceded to us by France." Before leaving Paris on this mission, Monroe made an effort to secure the good offices of the Emperor, but he found Talleyrand cold and cynical as ever. He was given to understand that it was all a question of money; if the United States were willing to pay the price, the Emperor could doubtless have the negotiations transferred to Paris and put the deal through. A loan of seventy million livres to Spain, which would be passed over at once to France, would probably put the United States into possession of the coveted territory. As an honest man Monroe shrank from this sort of jobbery; besides, he could hardly offer to buy a territory which his Government asserted it had already bought with Louisiana. With the knowledge that he was defying Napoleon, or at least his ministers, he started for Madrid to play a lone hand in what he must have known was a desperate game.

The conduct of the Administration during the next few months was hardly calculated to smooth Monroe's path. In the following February (1804) President Jefferson put his signature to an act which was designed to give effect to the laws of the United States in the newly acquired territory. The fourth section of this so-called Mobile Act included explicitly within the revenue district of Mississippi all the navigable waters lying within the United States and emptying into the Gulf east of the Mississippi--an extraordinary provision indeed, since unless the Floridas were a part of the United States there were no rivers within the limits of the United States emptying into the Gulf east of the Mississippi. The eleventh section was even more remarkable since it gave the President authority to erect Mobile Bay and River into a separate revenue district and to designate a port of entry.

This cool appropriation of Spanish territory was too much for the excitable Spanish Minister, Don Carlos Martinez Yrujo, who burst into Madison's office one morning with a copy of the act in his hand and with angry protests on his lips. He had been on excellent terms with Madison and had enjoyed Jefferson's friendship and hospitality at Monticello; but he was the accredited representative of His Catholic Majesty and bound to defend his sovereignty. He fairly overwhelmed the timid Madison with reproaches that could never be forgiven or forgotten; and from this moment he was persona non grata in the Department of State.

Madison doubtless took Yrujo's reproaches more to heart just because he felt himself in a false position. The Administration had allowed the transfer of Louisiana to be made in the full knowledge that Laussat had been instructed to claim Louisiana as far as the Rio Bravo on the west but only as far as the Iberville on the east. Laussat had finally admitted as much confidentially to the American commissioners. Yet the Administration had not protested. And now it was acting on the assumption that it might dispose of the Gulf littoral, the West Florida coast, as it pleased. Madison was bound to admit in his heart of hearts that Yrujo had reason to be angry. A few weeks later the President relieved the tense situation, though at the price of an obvious evasion, by issuing a proclamation which declared all the shores and waters "lying within the boundaries of the United States"[*] to be a revenue district with Fort Stoddert as the port of entry. But the mischief had been done and no constructive interpretation of the act by the President could efface the impression first made upon the mind of Yrujo. Congress had meant to appropriate West Florida and the President had suffered the bill to become law.

[* The italics are President Jefferson's.]

Nor was Pinckney's conduct at Madrid likely to make Monroe's mission easier. Two years before, in 1802, he had negotiated a convention by which Spain agreed to pay indemnity for depredations committed by her cruisers in the late war between France and the United States. This convention had been ratified somewhat tardily by the Senate and now waited on the pleasure of the Spanish Government. Pinckney was instructed to press for the ratification by Spain, which was taken for granted; but he was explicitly warned to leave the matter of the Florida claims to Monroe. When he presented the demands of his Government to Cevallos, the Foreign Minister, he was met in turn with a demand for explanations. What, pray, did his Government mean by this act? To Pinckney's astonishment, he was confronted with a copy of the Mobile Act, which Yrujo had forwarded. The South Carolinian replied, in a tone that was not calculated to soothe ruffled feelings, that he had already been advised that West Florida was included in the Louisiana purchase and had so reported to Cevallos. He urged that the two subjects be kept separate and begged His Excellency to have confidence in the honor and justice of the United States. Delays followed until Cevallos finally, declared sharply that the treaty would be ratified only on several conditions, one of which was that the Mobile Act should be revoked. Pinckney then threw discretion to the winds and announced that he would ask for his passports; but his bluster did not change Spanish policy, and he dared not carry out his threat.

It was under these circumstances that Monroe arrived in Madrid on his difficult mission. He was charged with the delicate task of persuading a Government whose pride had been touched to the quick to ratify the claims convention, to agree to a commission to adjudicate other claims which it had refused to recognize, to yield West Florida as a part of the Louisiana purchase, and to accept two million dollars for the rest of Florida east of the Perdido River. In preparing these extraordinary instructions, the Secretary of State labored under the hallucination that Spain, on the verge of war with England, would pay handsomely for the friendship of the United States, quite forgetting that the real master of Spain was at Paris.

The story of Monroe's five weary months in Spain may be briefly told. He was in the unstrategic position of one who asks for everything and can concede nothing. Only one consideration could probably have forced the Spanish Government to yield, and that was fear. Spain had now declared war upon England and might reasonably be supposed to prefer a solid accommodation with the United States, as Madison intimated, rather than add to the number of her foes. But Cevallos exhibited no signs of fear; on the contrary he professed an amiable willingness to discuss every point at great length. Every effort on the part of the American to reach a conclusion was adroitly eluded. It was a game in which the Spaniard had no equal. At last, when indubitable assurances came to Monroe from Paris that Napoleon would not suffer Spain to make the slightest concession either in the matter of spoliation claims or any other claims, and that, in the event of a break between the United States and Spain, he would surely take the part of Spain, Monroe abandoned the game and asked for his passports. Late in May he returned to Paris, where he joined with General Armstrong, who had succeeded Livingston, in urging upon the Administration the advisability of seizing Texas, leaving West Florida alone for the present.

Months of vacillation followed the failure of Monroe's mission. The President could not shake off his obsession, and yet he lacked the resolution to employ force to take either Texas, which he did not want but was entitled to, or West Florida which he ardently desired but whose title was in dispute. It was not until November of the following year (1805) that the Administration determined on a definite policy. In a meeting of the Cabinet "I proposed," Jefferson recorded in a memorandum, "we should address ourselves to France, informing her it was a last effort at amicable settlement with Spain and offer to her, or through her," a sum not to exceed five million dollars for the Floridas. The chief obstacle in the way of this programme was the uncertain mood of Congress, for a vote of credit was necessary and Congress might not take kindly to Napoleon as intermediary. Jefferson then set to work to draft a message which would "alarm the fears of Spain by a vigorous language, in order to induce her to join us in appealing to the interference of the Emperor."

The message sent to Congress alluded briefly to the negotiations with Spain and pointed out the unsatisfactory relations which still obtained. Spain had shown herself unwilling to adjust claims or the boundaries of Louisiana; her depredations on American commerce had been renewed; arbitrary duties and vexatious searches continued to obstruct American shipping on the Mobile; inroads had been made on American territory; Spanish officers and soldiers had seized the property of American citizens. It was hoped that Spain would view these injuries in their proper light; if not, then the United States "must join in the unprofitable contest of trying which party can do the other the most harm. Some of these injuries may perhaps admit a peaceable remedy. Where that is competent, it is always the most desirable. But some of them are of a nature to be met by force only, and all of them may lead to it."

Coming from the pen of a President who had declared that peace was his passion, these belligerent words caused some bewilderment but, on the whole, very considerable satisfaction in Republican circles, where the possibility of rupture had been freely discussed. The people of the Southwest took the President at his word and looked forward with enthusiasm to a war which would surely overthrow Spanish rule in the Floridas and yield the coveted lands along the Gulf of Mexico. The country awaited with eagerness those further details which the President had promised to set forth in another message. These were felt to be historic moments full of dramatic possibilities.

Three days later, behind closed doors, Congress listened to the special message which was to put the nation to the supreme test. Alas for those who had expected a trumpet call to battle. Never was a state paper better calculated to wither martial spirit. In dull fashion it recounted the events of Monroe's unlucky mission and announced the advance of Spanish forces in the Southwest, which, however, the President had not repelled, conceiving that "Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war." He had "barely instructed" our forces "to patrol the borders actually delivered to us." It soon dawned upon the dullest intelligence that the President had not the slightest intention to recommend a declaration of war. On the contrary, he was at pains to point out the path to peace. There was reason to believe that France was now disposed to lend her aid in effecting a settlement with Spain, and "not a moment should be lost in availing ourselves of it." "Formal war is not necessary, it is not probable it will follow; but the protection of our citizens, the spirit and honor of our country, require that force should be interposed to a certain degree. It will probably contribute to advance the object of peace."

After the warlike tone of the first message, this sounded like a retreat. It outraged the feelings of the war party. It was, to their minds, an anticlimax, a pusillanimous surrender. None was angrier than John Randolph of Virginia, hitherto the leader of the forces of the Administration in the House. He did not hesitate to express his disgust with "this double set of opinions and principles"; and his anger mounted when he learned that as Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means he was expected to propose and carry through an appropriation of two million dollars for the purchase of Florida. Further interviews with the President and the Secretary of State did not mollify him, for, according to his version of these conversations, he was informed that France would not permit Spain to adjust her differences with the United States, which had, therefore, the alternative of paying France handsomely or of facing a war with both France and Spain. Then Randolph broke loose from all restraint and swore by all his gods that he would not assume responsibility for "delivering the public purse to the first cut-throat that demanded it."

Randolph's opposition to the Florida programme was more than an unpleasant episode in Jefferson's administration; it proved to be the beginning of a revolt which was fatal to the President's diplomacy, for Randolph passed rapidly from passive to active opposition and fought the two-million dollar bill to the bitter end. When the House finally outvoted him and his faction, soon to be known as the "Quids," and the Senate had concurred, precious weeks had been lost. Yet Madison must bear some share of blame for the delay since, for some reason, never adequately explained, he did not send instructions to Armstrong until four weeks after the action of Congress. It was then too late to bait the master of Europe. Just what had happened Armstrong could not ascertain; but when Napoleon set out in October, 1806, on that fateful campaign which crushed Prussia at Jena and Auerstadt, the chance of acquiring Florida had passed.


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