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The Nation's Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America

The Nation's Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America

by Peter J. KastorPeter J. Kastor
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In 1803 the United States purchased Louisiana from France. This seemingly simple acquisition brought with it an enormous new territory as well as the country’s first large population of nonnaturalized Americans—Native Americans, African Americans, and Francophone residents. What would become of those people dominated national affairs in the years that followed. This book chronicles that contentious period from 1803 to 1821, years during which people proposed numerous visions of the future for Louisiana and the United States.

The Louisiana Purchase proved to be the crucible of American nationhood, Peter Kastor argues. The incorporation of Louisiana was among the most important tasks for a generation of federal policymakers. It also transformed the way people defined what it meant to be an American.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300194616
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/12/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Nation's Crucible


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10119-8

Chapter One


Pierre Clement Laussat was a newcomer, and his sojourn was not long. He reached North America in March 1803, dispatched by Napoleon Bonaparte to assume the office of prefect for Louisiana. The product of a wealthy family, Laussat had nonetheless weathered the French Revolution almost unscathed and had enjoyed midlevel appointments under both royalists and revolutionaries.

Once in Louisiana, Laussat ensconced himself in New Orleans, for almost a century the center of European government in Louisiana. While colonial governors enjoyed their own residence, they shared their workplace with administrative, judicial, and military personnel. Throughout the eighteenth century a variety of ramshackle structures had been the center of colonial governance in Louisiana. In 1795 the Spanish began work on a new administrative headquarters called the Hotel de Ville. The building housed the Cabildo, the city's municipal government, from which the building eventually acquired its informal title. Although the Cabildo served primarily as a home to city administration, it also provided a focal point for power throughout the colony.

In the summer of 1803 came news that France had sold Louisiana to the United States, and would resume direct authority only to hand over the territory to its new owner. Enter Pierre Clement Laussat, who faced the difficult task of explaining this turn of events to the residents of Louisiana. He chose to treat the Louisiana Purchase as if it had been written exclusively with their interests in mind. Laussat explained that "the epoch will soon arrive, in which you will choose for yourselves a form of government; which while it will be conformable to the sacred principles of the social compact of the federal union, will be adapted to your manners, to your necessities, to your climate, to your customs, soil and local circumstances."

Laussat saw an active role for the Louisianians, and he wanted to minimize any local resistance to the transfer. He need not have worried. Louisianians grasped at incorporation with a zeal that was as likely to alarm Americans as it was to please them. Laussat nonetheless appreciated the question posed by the Louisiana Purchase: How could the Louisianians become Americans? For his part, Laussat proposed a smooth process in which Louisianians accepted their new nationality while the United States respected local culture. He had indeed captured the goal of many Louisianians.

Finding a place for the residents of Louisiana, first in European empires and then in the United States, came in the wake of a lengthy debate as Americans, Louisianians (whether of European, African, or combined descent), and Indians attempted to establish what constituted membership in a nation. This debate happened on both sides of the Mississippi River, two facets of a continental movement to reform colonial relationships that involved peoples of all backgrounds. All these people had fundamentally pragmatic means for defining what might separate or divide the peoples of North America. Indeed, this question of how people in the Americas would be bound to one another and to the governments that ruled them connected the United States to Louisiana long before the Louisiana Purchase.

Though operating at a time when localism framed the way most people understood the world - before the ideologies, technologies, and politics that created modern nationalism - residents of North American frontiers and people concerned with the fate of those frontiers consistently considered the world in terms that wedded the local to the national and the transatlantic. Without acting in concert, people in the United States and Louisiana attacked what they saw as the worst vestiges of their imperial pasts. Motivated by highly pragmatic goals, these people sought larger communities of interest. Whether they wanted reform within imperial systems or rejected colonial rule altogether, they sought forms of association that would serve highly practical tasks ranging from individual opportunity to national liberty.

Nations and Citizens

Throughout the ferment of the British imperial crisis, the American Revolution, and the first years of the independence, people in what became the United States struggled to establish a common basis for their existence as a nation. By 1800 advocates of union had established a nationalist philosophy that sought to reconcile the goal of unity with the reality of distinctiveness. Meanwhile new arrivals and frontier settlers concluded that nationhood was the only viable definition of individual and national identity, for nationhood was the one system that delivered the specific benefits that immigrants and frontiers settlers considered most important.

These issues had their roots in the 1760s, when irate British colonists in North America discovered that their claims about power and authority, participation and exclusion, representation and government found support in the protean concepts of nationalism. Contemporary European arguments that nations embodied distinct peoples conformed with the political arguments of Americans, who charged that British policy imposed unnatural distinctions within the extended British nation. When the colonists eventually rejected their status within the British empire, they placed the same nationalist theories at the center of their own self-creation.

In this context, the Declaration of Independence was more than a statement of jurisdictional and political autonomy. It had to be in order to account for the jarring shift from shrill claims of British citizenship to the proclamation of independent nationhood. Opening with a discussion of the need "for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them to another," the Declaration asserted that the residents of the thirteen colonies were indeed distinct from the people of the British Isles. Political jurisdiction needed to reflect that social reality. Jefferson's assertion was somewhat hyperbolic. It was hardly the first time he wrote in such terms, and it was certainly not the last. Yet Jefferson was not alone. Other advocates of independence throughout the British colonies made the same argument that national boundaries had to be coterminous with distinctive peoples.

Two assumptions in the Declaration underscored these principles. First, the Declaration charged that British rule became null once the foundation of British nationhood collapsed ("one people" separated from "another"). Second, the Declaration projected a unity onto the American colonies ("one people"). But nationhood was an intellectual aspiration rather than a reality in a collection of independent-minded state legislatures, separatist schemes, cultural diversity, vast geographic distances, and people who were more likely to identify themselves by localities or by states. The self-styled Americans had to lay claim to their own national identity if they were to achieve not only independence from Britain but unity among themselves.

Much of the argument for nationhood was in direct response to the very pragmatic problems that some saw in a loose association of polities and individuals. The concept of nation - a collection of peoples bound by some level of sameness - would provide vital ammunition for union - a political structure - during the Federalists' successful bid for the Constitution. A nationalist constitutional order could not exist without a nationalist intellectual framework.

In the end, the nationalist principles that rationalized independence from Great Britain proved equally effective in refuting antifederalism. In the absence of the ethnic, historic, religious, or linguistic foundations that European nationalists used to fashion national communities, Americans emphasized the political principles of the Revolution and the attachment of individual citizens. That attachment might take the form of personal allegiance to states or to the national polity, or (most often) attachment to republican government. This consensus remained in place despite the fact that Americans disagreed radically about what "republican" actually meant. Nationhood proved all the more attractive in the United States because, in the absence of a king, national principles provided the unifying identity without which people could not believe a nation actually existed.

This vision of an American national community does not mean that the American Revolution and the federal structure drew their inspiration exclusively from principles of nationalism. It does mean, however, that principles of nationality dovetailed nicely with other concerns, and many advocates of a permanent union among the newly independent states drew from those principles with growing frequency.

Such a vision was intellectually consistent for Americans at the same time that it was practically feasible given the diversity of their world. It also constituted a crossroads between two different foundations of nationhood. The concept of American nationality combined principles of the Enlightenment inherited from the eighteenth century with notions of affection and sentimental attachment that eventually became more pronounced in the nationalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

People who did not share the political values at the foundation of American nationality were, by definition, foreigners. This principle was readily apparent in the status of Loyalists, nonwhites, and women. After initially assaulting Loyalists as traitors by virtue of their opposition to the new regime, American legislatures and courts eventually classified them as aliens because of their attachment to a foreign nation, namely Great Britain. By claiming that Indians or people of African descent were incapable of appreciating the most basic concepts that all citizens had to understand, whites could uphold their own notions of nationhood. Every person was either an equal citizen or an alien. There could be no middle ground. But the neat rules of citizenship begin to break down when it came to matters of gender. Although women derived their citizenship from male heads of households, the problems of female attachment became the subject of public scrutiny during that first test of nationhood, the American Revolution, when husbands and wives chose different sides.

Americans turned considerations of independence, states' rights, Loyalism, and slavery into considerations of their definition as a nation. Despite the political sources of American nationhood, at no time were suffrage and citizenship one and the same. This does not mean that Americans failed to appreciate the power of voting or that they failed to demand suffrage. Indeed, stripping free people of color from access to suffrage was a crucial step in the process by which state legislatures made clear that freedom would not mean membership in the national community for African Americans. Given such limitations on the voting population, people sought other means to prove their membership in the national community.

This system was at once conveniently satisfying and fraught with tensions. Slaves and free people of color became exactly the sort of permanent aliens that white revolutionaries hoped to avoid through the expulsion of Loyalists and Indians. The persistence of slavery, African-American exclusion, and female coverture did not undermine the notion of equal citizenship for white men. To the contrary, citizenship itself rationalized inequality. The white men who crafted the state and federal constitutions had exactly the intellectual tools they needed to conceive of a world in which inequality within the national community did not in fact exist. Differentiation might be present in the form of divergent state constitutions and a diverse white population, but inequality was not.

For all the ability of white men in the United States to believe in a single national community, legal and constitutional structures nonetheless sustained a bifurcated system of citizenship that was at once uniform and diffuse. Not only did whites belong to two political communities at once - one federal and one state - but the federal Constitution referred to citizens without defining them. Only in the Bill of Rights did American legislators begin to define what political rights unified all Americans and, in turn, helped to determine who was foreign.

State governments addressed these issues with varying clarity and concern. The federal government would tackle the challenges of nationhood most consistently in response to the reality of expansion geographically on the periphery through westward migration and demographically at the center through immigration that occurred primarily in large cities. By the 1790s both forms of expansion proved critical to the discussion of nationhood. Territorial policy and naturalization law therefore served the same function by nationalizing places as well as people. The Naturalization Acts of 1790, 1795, 1798, and 1802 all upheld the principle that a foreigner could not become a citizen until he understood the principles, liberties, and responsibilities that formed the political basis of American nationality. Territorial policy served a similar role, providing for a probationary period during which institutions of republicanism took root in new polities. Once the probationary period ended, both new citizens and new polities entered the national community as equals. Jurisdictional equality was no less dangerous to the viability of the union than individual equality.

When Federalist lawmakers attempted during the 1790s to extend the naturalization of immigrants or to extend territorial rule, they drew from their own assumption that loyalty was mercurial, that allegiance was suspect, and that political resistance was tantamount to treason. The Jeffersonian opposition responded that this policy would only undermine nationhood by fostering resentment and, inevitably, separatism. They proposed instead a policy that would stimulate attachment by promoting equality. They argued that by making the state apparatus stronger, the Federalists only made the nation weaker. Meanwhile, territorial residents and naturalizing aliens believed that both parties waited too long. Their complaints only reaffirmed the commonality that joined Federalists and Republicans. Despite their radically different visions of individual adaptability and group development, policymakers shared a belief in the necessity of a homogeneous society with a uniform republican outlook, even as they disagreed on the very definition of republicanism.

Debates over naturalization and territorial expansion during the 1790s helped distill vital principles that had been brewing among the Jeffersonian Republicans.


Excerpted from The Nation's Crucible by PETER J. KASTOR Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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