Reading about the Louisiana Purchase can be confusing. The sign above refers to the Spanish Province of “Luisiana” from 1762-1803. But didn’t Jefferson purchase Louisiana from the French in 1803? From the settlement of several towns along the Mississippi and Missouri in the early 18th century until 1762 this area was controlled by the French. Even up near Omaha there are still French place names – suburbs of Omaha include Papillion and Bellevue.
The reason that Spain took control of Louisiana was the Seven Years War, which ended in 1762. I didn’t know much about it – but it is considered the first real World War. The main combatants were Britain and France, but many other countries including, Prussia, Portugal, several German states, Austria, Russia, Spain, and Sweden were involved. The big winner was Britain. If you ever wondered why Quebec eventually became under British rule – it was because of the Seven Years War. Britain also got Florida from Spain – but as compensation they made France give up Louisiana to Spain.
After Napoleon took power in 1799 he wanted to regain some of France’s lost empire. He negotiated a treaty with Spain that ceded Louisiana back to France among many other things. Then something unexpected happened – slaves on the Caribbean French island of Saint-Domingue decided that the natural law which led to the recent American and French Revolutions applied to them as well. In 1791 they took up arms against their masters. It took them 12 years – but they eventually formed the new country of Haiti – the only successful slave revolt ever in the Americas and the largest slave revolt since Sparticus in Roman times.
Napoleon decided that without the prosperous sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue that France’s control of the Mississippi was relatively useless. Which is why he sold such a vast tract of land for so little money.
Of course the US government still needed to control the land they had just bought. The main purpose of Lewis and Clark was to see exactly what it is that Jefferson had bought – especially up the Missouri River. Things became even more tenuous – again for a very unexpected reason. Aaron Burr was Jefferson’s Vice President in his first term. Burr is possibly the most complex character of any of our founding fathers. He solidified his bona fides within the new republic as an officer in the continental army. He was not only a politician, but he also started the Bank of Manhattan – which became Manhattan Chase. He was the first politician to use the social group of Tammany Hall in New York.
He was also known as saying anything to get what he wanted. He would lie, bribe and steal to get what he wanted. So those of you who are shocked by our current politics – don’t be – dirty politics have deep roots in America. Jefferson never trusted Burr and made it clear that he wasn’t going to support him for another term. So Burr ran for Governor of New York. By that time he had made so many enemies that he lost that election as well. Angry and frustrated he thrashed out at his opponents. One person who had been especially vocal against him was Alexander Hamilton. It being the early 19th century Burr felt the only way to defend his honor was in a duel. Yea – politicians used to shoot guns at each other. Again – our politics don’t seem so crazy in comparison do they?
Burr ended up killing Hamilton in the duel. He skipped town, but once he realized that he wasn’t going to be charged with anything he pretty much went on like nothing had happened. What came next was REALLY crazy. Burr realized that the US grasp on territory west of the Mississippi was pretty weak. Our country was less than 30 years old. We simply didn’t have the resources to control this vast new land. So, he decided to concoct a plan to split off this land and become its new leader.
To recap – Thomas Jefferson was dealing with twice the land that he started with when he was inaugurated. In that new land were Spanish people who controlled the land for longer than the U.S. had been a country and who weren’t even told of the secret deal with Napoleon until the Louisiana Purchase was almost completed. They were more than a little angry, and many people – including Burr thought that war with Spain was inevitable. Then there were the French in this area. Many of them didn’t speak English. They were used to being left alone. They weren’t exactly happy about paying taxes to the American government. Then there were the Native Americans. The travels of Lewis and Clark showed that it was difficulty to know what to expect – peace would have to be gained tribe by tribe. There were also a lot of nervous slaveholders. They were scared that what had happened in Haiti could happen in Louisiana. It turned out that they weren’t wrong to be on edge. In 1811 the largest slave revolt in American history occurred 30 miles from New Orleans. And finally there was Burr. Jefferson’s former Vice President – who was concocting a plan to rip away that new land from the US and form a new country. He even had eyes on taking over parts of Mexico.
Well, lucky for Jefferson, a few of Burr’s coconspirators got cold feet. He was tracked down and put on trial. His first trial was at Washington, Mississippi – where a brand new college had been built. Here are some pics of the campus below. The two large oaks are called the “Burr Oaks.” Although legend has it that his trial was beneath those oaks – it was actually held in a building that has since been demolished.
Believe it or not Burr got away with it. He ended up going on trial three times for treason. He was never convicted. He lived until 1836 – dying at the age of 80 years old.
Tomorrow - the man whose legacy is still debated today. He is on the $20 bill, but he might not be on for long.