Creating a Frontier Society after the Louisiana Purchase

Britain's North American colonies won their independence on the battlefield, yet the permanent status of the Union of states was far from certain at the end of the eighteenth century. The consolidating empire-builders of Europe (including France) remained a tremendous threat to the states, particularly with British power once again expanding at French and Spanish expense. In October of 1800, a weakened Spain had ceded to France New Orleans and most of the territory claimed by Spain west of the Mississippi River. The prospect of the more powerful French in possession of the North American interior prompted Thomas Jefferson in April, 1802 to write to Robert Livingston, the Union's minister to France:

The cession of Louisiana and the Floridas by Spain to France, works most sorely on the United States. ... There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce, and contain more than half of our inhabitants. ...

Jefferson did not really fear the power of Napoleon; rather, he was deeply concerned that French control over New Orleans would force the states into an accommodation with Britain. Livingston was instructed by Jefferson to do whatever he could to convince the French government that holding onto New Orleans would prove more dangerous to France than ceding the territory to the Union. Rather unexpectedly in the Spring of 1803, the French foreign minister, Talleyrand, advised Livingston that all of Louisiana could be purchased for $12 million. Napoleon's ambitions were focused elsewhere, and he had already lost a large force while attempting to subdue the rebellious African-Haitians led by Toussaint l'Ouverture.

For the indigenous tribes west of the Mississippi, the withdrawal of Spanish and French claims in favor of the land-hungry people already pouring into the frontier regions of the Union sealed their fate. Almost immediately upon the news of the Louisiana purchase , influential land speculators petitioned Congress for grants in the newly-acquired territory. Settlers would not be far behind. Less than a century would pass before the surrender of Tatanka Yotanka and his Sioux warriors brought the entire continent under European-American control. This was, nonetheless, a century characterized by the excitement of conquest and by both brutality and compassion on both sides. Unfortunately, the transnational element present among the advancing European-Americans was far too weak to materially influence the actions taken by others during this crucial period.

Had Thomas Jefferson not sent Lewis and Clark to explore the vast North American interior, another or later president surely would have. Even the presence of a just system of land tenure probably would not have materially slowed the westward expansion. Land hunger was accompanied by the desire to create a frontier society freed of the corruptions that already characterized the Eastern states. Without really understanding the differences, people sought freedom beyond the reaches of the State, rather than the liberty only the enforcement of just positive law can secure. For more than a century, several generations of people of all ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds were destined to struggle in the formation of a pluralistic society.

As had occurred repeatedly during the first 200 years of European settlement in North America, the expedition of Lewis and Clark that began in 1804 from St. Louis opened the interior to another generation of anarchistic fur trappers and frontiersmen. And, although Jefferson seemed genuinely hopeful the tribes would "become one" with the European-Americans, the amount of time for this to occur peacefully vanished with the Louisiana Purchase. The semi-nomadic and warrior-dominated tribes of North America were destined to fight their way toward extinction in the face of the onslaught of settlers, speculators, industrial-landlords and militarists who crossed by Mississippi River in the tens of thousands or ventured eastward from the cities taking root along the California coast.