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The Wellspring of American Empire

James M. Banner Jr., a historian in Washington, D.C., is co-director of the History News Service.

Not since the Spanish and British empires has a nation so bestrode the world as the United States does today. The collapse of the Soviet system, the superiority of American arms and the strength of the American economy have created a new American imperium.

But empires, like trees, have many roots, some of them ancient and deep. And the taproot of American worldwide dominance sprouted two centuries ago this week when the administration of Thomas Jefferson sealed with France the agreement that set the U.S. on its way to becoming a continental nation: the Louisiana Purchase. Rarely has that extraordinary act had as much resonance as it does today.

As so often has been the case, European distress bred American opportunity. Napoleon’s France needed cash for its martial ventures on the Continent, and its vast but unsettled domains in the North American West, including New Orleans, could no longer be defended against encroaching American settlers.

Skillfully negotiating with their French counterparts, Jefferson’s emissaries in Paris, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, shook the huge, ripe Louisiana plum off its French tree. Jefferson overcame his constitutional scruples and agreed to the deal: $15 million for much of what would become the great interior territory of the United States. “An Empire for Liberty,” he called it.

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Rarely has such fruit been harvested so easily and cheaply -- no war, no conquest, little debt. And rarely has such fruit brought so many alloyed legacies.

The benefits of the Purchase were recognized immediately and realized quickly. The size of the infant republic, already in 1803 the largest in the world, doubled with few pen strokes and the exchange of modest funds. If the example of its young government and its unprecedented social ways weren’t already distracting the governments of other nations, its greatly augmented size was enough to make the United States a force to reckon with.

But the huge territory that fell to the United States was not just the symbol of future strength. Those acres, whose exploration Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began that same year, were to yield agricultural and mineral bounty beyond the dreams of men. The roots of American economic might, planted earlier, suddenly reached deep and far.

Yet with bounty came aspiration and responsibility, both deeply stained. The spread of European settlement set in motion the extermination of the Indian tribes. And the new lands to the west released slavery to travel beyond the Mississippi River. The Louisiana Purchase bequeathed to us the racism, inequality, bad faith and shame that are with us still.

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More to the point today, the acquisition of the vast Louisiana domains embedded in Americans’ imagination a dream of missionary empire. The Purchase vastly strengthened an American disposition to claim for itself what it wished and gave it the muscle to do so.

In the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. served notice that the entire Western Hemisphere was off-limits to further foreign settlement and under a kind of American protectorate.

By the late 1840s, war had taken from Mexican possession the huge territories of Texas, the Southwest and California. By then, Americans were speaking of their “manifest destiny” to straddle the entire continent and then some.

Goethe once remarked that the New World had it better than the Old. On the evidence of the Louisiana Purchase, he might more accurately have said that we have always had it easier -- an inland empire for virtually nothing, and then the rest for little blood or money. Today, we reap the harvest of such comparatively easy triumphs. Jefferson’s empire for liberty, like all others, has always threatened to become a different kind of empire.

Ease is always the breeding ground of prideful acts, and imperial vision has always given way to rot. The empire of ancient Rome, Napoleon’s France, Britain’s world-circling rule and successive 20th century efforts of the Kaiser, Hitler and Stalin to extend German and Soviet might all came to naught after causing immeasurable misery and death.

If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence gave Americans a noble and enduring way to think of themselves, the Louisiana Purchase encouraged them to realize that self-image in lesser, sometimes baser, forms. The great historian of that generation, David Ramsey, comparing the Purchase with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, wrote that “the acquisition of Louisiana is the greatest political blessing ever conferred on these states.”

Already, 200 years ago, the hint of presumptuousness was in the air.


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