The challenges faced by today’s U.S. government officials in Iraq are plentiful. Having ejected the government of Saddam Hussein, U.S. representatives must now spearhead the organization of a new system led by Iraqis to meet the needs of their country’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic population.
This effort comes at the bicentennial of America’s first effort to govern foreign peoples. Two hundred years ago — with the end of negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase in Paris on April 30, 1803 — a fledgling U.S. government faced similar circumstances and even greater challenges, according to Peter J. Kastor, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
The magnitude of the Louisiana Purchase was a surprise to U.S. officials, said Kastor, who is editor of The Louisiana Purchase: Emergence of an American Nation, and author of the forthcoming book An Apprenticeship to Liberty: The Louisiana Purchase, the Struggle for Nationhood, and the Creation of America, 1803-1821.
President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison instructed Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe — their diplomatic team in Paris — to seek only New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in an effort to eliminate foreign control of trade on the Mississippi River and reinforce national security.
Instead, Napoleon Bonaparte granted all of France’s North American holdings to the United States for the sum of $11.5 million and the forgiveness of a $3.5 million French debt.
Although territorial boundaries were rather sketchy, the Louisiana Purchase included a vast domain west of the Mississippi River that more than doubled the size of the United States and included all or portions of 14 current states.
More important to American policy-makers, however, was Louisiana’s population, consisting of white Louisianans of predominantly French ancestry, Indians, slaves and free people of color, said Kastor.
“All of these people looked like potential enemies,” said Kastor. “Federal officials feared a slave revolt or an Indian war, but they were equally worried that whites had been corrupted by European colonialism and Roman Catholicism or that they might remain loyal to European powers.
“Since federal officials believed the people of the Louisiana Purchase were not inculcated with a republican government, they worried that the region could spin out of control or that local residents would invite the Europeans back into power,” continued Kastor. “This was the biggest challenge in policy-making during Jefferson’s term in office. There was a sense that the acquisition of so much land was premature for what the United States could handle.”
The solution, developed during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, was the political and economic incorporation of Louisiana’s white residents and a government that would preserve slavery and establish federal dominance over Indians.
Kastor outlined the administration’s strategy toward white Louisianians as follows: “We’ll naturalize them; they’ll be able to freely observe their religious beliefs; and, in time, they’ll become a state equal to all other states.” The United States had first developed this approach when dealing with the territories east of the Mississippi, but this was the first time the federal government was forced to adapt that plan to a large existing population of people with questionable allegiances and political cultures.
According to Kastor, it was not so much a magnanimous policy as a pragmatic one that sought to preserve the union at a time when the United States lacked the ability to do so by force.
What American officials did not know was that white residents of Louisiana would welcome this plan because it promised greater opportunities than they had known as residents of a European colony while guaranteeing racial supremacy. “Louisianans proved their loyalty to the United States and showed that cultural differences can be contained in an American nation,” said Kastor.
‘Vision of empire’
While the Louisiana Purchase may be most remembered for the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1804 to 1806, Kastor said that Americans believed the challenge of governing the Purchase was far more important.
Lewis and Clark’s “Voyage of Discovery” — putting in at the Missouri River and journeying to the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River — never would have occurred had the Louisiana Purchase agreement not been signed in the first place, according to Kastor.
Before the Purchase, Spanish officials had rejected the American appeals to send an expedition up the Missouri. The Louisiana Purchase also made the Lewis and Clark expedition truly important on a national scale, according to Kastor, who said that Americans eagerly sought cartographic information to fix territorial boundaries and a description of the people who the United States now had to govern.
“Many Americans considered their strategy in Louisiana so successful that it established the model for the way Americans thought about expansion and empire, both at home and abroad,” said Kastor.
“And that vision of empire became so deeply embedded in American culture that it continues to shape American policy today,” continued Kastor. The current administration’s approach to governing the Iraqi people echoes concepts first introduced after the Louisiana Purchase.
“In his first official message to the Iraqi people, President Bush emphasized that the Iraqis will be free to practice their religion under a government that they will choose and that they will enter into a community of nations equal to all nations,” said Kastor, who also serves as assistant director of American Culture Studies at Washington University.
“President Bush could have been reading from the remarks to Louisiana’s residents from William C.C. Claiborne,” said Kastor, referring to the American commissioner who oversaw the transfer of Louisiana to the United States in 1803. Claiborne later served as territorial governor and then as the first elected governor of the State of Louisiana in 1812.
“In Iraq, the challenges are very similar,” Kastor continued, “and the solution that the administration has publicly discussed is the same.”