It's a boon to the state and to the nation that Louisiana tourism officials, the arts and entertainment community, the hospitality industry, and others are drawing attention to the 200-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. History buffs aren't the only ones who should be charged up about the bicentennial of the transaction that doubled the size of the fledgling United States. As some local historians point out, we all should know -- and care -- about this critical event in world history that occurred in a quiet room in New Orleans.
The United States at the time "didn't have any room to expand," says Edie Ambrose, assistant professor of history at Xavier University. "We were crouched on the Eastern seaboard. Once we had the Purchase, it became possible to expand all the way to the Pacific. Here we are in this great country that spans two oceans, and the key to that was the Louisiana Purchase."
In the early 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson had grave concerns about the United States' continued ability to use the Mississippi River as a conduit of American trade. Since the mid-1700s, the nation had permission from Spain -- which then owned the Louisiana Territory -- to navigate the river and maintain economic interests in New Orleans. But when France acquired the land from Spain in the early 1800s, Jefferson realized French control of New Orleans could jeopardize America's economy and security. "There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy," he wrote. "It is New Orleans."
Jefferson began preparing for military conflict in anticipation of losing access to New Orleans, but he also sent Robert Livingston and later James Monroe to Paris to buy New Orleans and West Florida from Napoleon Bonaparte. Jefferson soon received the remarkable news that Napoleon had abandoned his plans to revive the French empire in the Louisiana Territory and was instead offering to sell the entire tract of land -- all 820,000-plus square miles of it -- to the United States.
"It's important for us to celebrate [the Louisiana Purchase] and remember it, because it was not some divine act of nature that made it happen," says Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. "It was the astute diplomacy of Thomas Jefferson.
"Often in this country, we vacuously talk about great presidents ... but in the Louisiana Purchase we really get to see how Thomas Jefferson's vision of 'an empire of liberty,' as he called it, came to fruition," Brinkley says. "And it tells you how important who the commander-in-chief is at any time in our nation's history. Most political leaders in Jefferson's era would not have had the chutzpah to dispatch Robert Livingston to Paris to negotiate the purchase of the Port of New Orleans, and ... end up doubling the size of the country with one stroke of the pen."
The land became all or part of 15 states, shaped the physical and social landscape of our nation, and played a major role in defining the culture of Louisiana as we know it today. "It definitely meant a very different culture coming in as the dominant government force, and that required a lot of adaptation and accommodation and change," Ambrose says. The influence of American traditions on the already ethnically blended societies in Louisiana thus created a culturally unique area.
The ramifications of the Louisiana Purchase reverberated for generations, Brinkley says. "The concept of what our country was about changed dramatically in 1803 because it led to the westward expansion movement, which was the dominant theme of that century."
Louisiana Purchase activities also will highlight lesser-known aspects of that time in history, says Chuck Siler, curator of education at the Louisiana State Museum. One lecture planned at the museum is "about the western expansion of African Americans and the ongoing hardships produced in large part by our government, which sought to suppress their ability to be full citizens," Siler explains. "But they were there as outlaws, cowpunchers, scouts, soldiers, township founders, hoteliers and explorers. My own interest was piqued years ago when I discovered that the African-American presence was considerable and important."
Learning more about the Louisiana Purchase can be a simple yet profound act of national pride at a time when many Americans are redefining the meaning of patriotism. "If not for the Louisiana Purchase," Brinkley says, "the western border of our country would be the Mississippi River. All that land west would be a different country."
We congratulate all who promote and celebrate this pivotal event in our nation's history.