Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Louisiana, the eighteenth admitted to the United States, ratified the U.S. Constitution April 30, 1812 just before the start of the War of 1812. The current Louisiana State Constitution in use was adopted in 1975.

Louisiana was one of the flashpoints in the European struggle for empire in North America throughout the eighteenth century. It soon became one of the key points in the expansion of the United States both in terms of domestic sectional tensions and American foreign policy in the new nation.

The French owned the Louisiana Territory through the French and Indian War in the middle of the eighteenth century. The British made incursions into the Great Lakes area and erected a series of forts. The defeated French ceded the territory to the victorious British at the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and Spain gained possession of the territory around New Orleans. Carlos III wanted the territory as a base from which to safeguard treasure fleets coming from Mexican silver mines.

New Orleans was an area steeped in diversity and a rich exchange of different cultures that more or less mingled easily. The area from New Orleans to Baton Rouge grew quickly through end of the century, more than quadrupling from about 4,000 free persons and 5,000 enslaved persons to 19,000 free persons and 24,000 enslaved. Likewise, commerce expanded along the Mississippi.

Spain allowed the Americans to trade on the Mississippi during the Revolutionary War. However, after the war, Spanish officials feared that the new nation was expanding rapidly and moving westward to the Mississippi. Those fears were justified as American settlers flooded the frontier now that the old 1763 Proclamation Line that had banned their settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains was negated by victory in the American Revolution. Kentucky became a state in 1792 followed by Tennessee four years later. Southern slaveowners brought their slaves to lands in what is now Alabama and Mississippi especially to grow cotton. As a result, Spain clamped down and restricted American trade on the Mississippi to the outrage of southern planters and statesmen.

Many of the founders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson envisioned a growing empire of liberty in the West. They made personal investments in western lands and schemes to build canals. One of their guiding principles was to link the original thirteen colonies to the Americans on the frontier. Washington and others were profoundly concerned that the settlers would lose their attachment to republican principles and to the United States. Instead, they would be drawn to the monarchical empires in the West and switch their allegiance.

Part of the reason for the land ordinances of the 1780s was to provide for the orderly settlement of western lands. In 1784, the Congress voted down a Jeffersonian provision for the exclusion of slavery in the entire West—a provision that would have fundamentally altered the character of settlement in Louisiana. But, there was an even larger concern that caused sectional friction in the new nation.

In 1784, the Spanish formally closed the Mississippi to American trade again (though despite the official restrictions, the Spanish still traded with American smugglers in New Orleans). Southerners were outraged, thought northerners were more concerned about fishing rights in Newfoundland. John Jay of New York began negotiating with Spanish minister Don Diego de Gardoqui for the free navigation of the Mississippi. In August 1786, Congress erupted in fierce debates over Jay’s negotiations when southerners discovered Jay was going to give up navigation rights for 25 years. Spain eventually made a few territorial concessions in modern-day Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama because of the presence of American settlers but refused to budge on the question of the Mississippi.

The issue was finally settled in the fall of 1795 with Europe in flames due to the wars of the French Revolution. Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina negotiated Pinckney’s Treaty which won additional territory in Spanish Florida and more importantly secured the American right of free navigation of the Mississippi and New Orleans to trade.

When Spain ceded the Louisiana Territory to France in 1800, Americans were concerned about Napoleonic designs in North America. However, the continuing wars in Europe and the French failure to suppress a slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) led Napoleon to consider selling the territory to the United States. President Jefferson dispatched New Yorker Robert Livingston and Virginian James Monroe to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans as a critically-important port.

The shocked diplomats discovered that Napoleon was offering the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States at a paltry $15 million, or three cents an acre. While the purchase exceeded their instructions, they knew that it was an offer too good to be refused. Jefferson was torn because his scruples about a strict reading of the Constitution gave him pause, but he eventually decided that it was for the country and could be reasonably justified under the treaty-making power.

In 1804, the president sent the Corps of Discovery under Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the lands of the purchase, map the area, record scientific observations, and establish friendly relations with the Native Americans. The purchase and exploration of the territory had hardly been completed when American settlers and their slaves moved into the area.

Louisiana quickly entered the Union as a slave state in 1812. The strategically-important port was the site of Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming victory over the British in 1815 during the War of 1812. By the time of the Civil War, Louisiana joined the Confederacy, and control of the Mississippi and New Orleans became a key theater of the war. Louisiana played a very important, if often underappreciated, role in the struggle for empire in North America and the history of the early republic.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow for the Bill of Rights Institute and a Fellow for Constituting America. He is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.

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