Catching Up: Origins, I

Catching Up: a new category to explain things I’ve done in the year (+) before I had the brilliant idea to start this blog. This post is the first of a few that will explain how I originally got involved with my topic.

Like most of the best moments of my life, this one took place on the softball field, the summer of 2007, after I’d just finished my first year of grad school.

I was chatting with Michael Gordin, a now-tenured (congratulations, Michael) then-junior faculty member in the History of Science, who taught me in History 500, and who has written a couple cool books about the origins of the nuclear arms race. As I explained to Michael, I’d become interested in the broad question of why the United States expanded: why the U.S. didn’t remain confined east of the Appalachians, while the western territories remained in the hands of European colonial powers, Indian nations, and/or become new independent settler republics. Any of those outcomes were very real possibility, and I’d become convinced that the continent-wide superpower that emerged after 1850 was not a predetermined or even the most likely outcome from the perspective of the generation that lived through Revolution and Constitution.

And Michael asked a very logical, straightforward question: “That’s all about 1803, right?” In other words, it’s all about the Louisiana Purchase, in which the US doubled its land mass for $12.5 million in the diplomatic deal of all time with cash-strapped Napoleonic France. In other words, there’s no real mystery about why the US became a continental power: it was because of the fortunate accident of the Louisiana Purchase.

And I was crestfallen: how simple it seemed, and how empty and simple my fascinating question sounded, in light of Michael’s obvious reaction.

But as I thought about it more, I started to think … No. It was not, in fact, all about 1803. The movement to attach Louisiana, and thus the West, to the new nation, was a project that began well before Robert R. Livingston arrived in Paris in spring ’03 and started making cash offers. And, even more importantly, it was not a process that was finalized in any meaningful way by the signing of the Louisiana Treaty. In a way, that was not the end of the process, but only the beginning.

The agreement that gave the U.S. a vast (and vaguely defined) chunk of the North American interior was the dubious, hasty covenant of two Revolutionary states, seen as illegitimate by the crowned heads of Britain, Spain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. It not only had not been agreed to, but was vigorously objected to, by the actual power occupying Louisiana: Spain. It took no account or recognizance whatsoever of the Indian population that was, in fact, the only population on most of the territory’s square miles. Nor did it ask the consent of the only major concentration of European-descended inhabitants of the territory, the French-speaking, Catholic Spanish subjects of New Orleans and its immediate hinterland.

Attaching this territory and this population to the revolutionary republic that was the United States was not the product of a few pen strokes in Paris, but the work of thousands of people over several decades. It involved varying degrees of coercion, violence, persuasion, and diplomacy, and a considerable degree of yielding to powerful local interests. (In fact it can much better be understood in terms of co-opting and cooperating with local elites than in terms of Washington “ruling” a distant colony.) The Battle of New Orleans, on January 8th, 1815, was a major watershed event in the story; but the process was not really complete until 1820, when the Senate ratified the Transcontinental Treaty resolving the western border of Louisiana and giving the Floridas to the United States.

My dissertation won’t tell this entire story: only the New Orleans part of it, how the process of attachment to the U.S. intersected with the simultaneous process of the growth of a great commercial city. But the larger story will always be in the background, providing a frame and context for the local phenomena I’ll be looking at.

And for these ideas I thank Michael (who I’m sure has no recollection of this incident), and that pleasant June day on the softball field.

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