April 29, 2003


565 Million Acres, Riv Vu: It is useful to see the Louisiana Purchase as a real estate deal that signified a new kind of society where land could be owned by anyone. (Andro Linklater, 4/28/03, NY Times)
By 1803 Napoleon wanted to raise money for war with Britain, and Jefferson was prepared to pay for control of France's territory around the mouth of the Mississippi in order to guarantee free use of the river.

The American minister in Paris, Robert Livingston, had already approached the French about such a limited purchase. (Livingston, who owned some 130,000 acres in upstate New York, was himself very familiar with the American real estate market.) But a critical shift occurred on April 11, 1803, when he went to meet Talleyrand in his offices in the Rue du Bac.

Writing James Madison that evening, Livingston reported that Talleyrand had suddenly asked whether "we wished to have the whole of Louisiana." Surprised and playing for time, Livingston at first denied any interest, but Talleyrand persisted, "What would you give for the whole?" Livingston came back with an opening bid of about $3.75 million, which Talleyrand dismissed as too low. But both men knew the game being played.

Talleyrand told Livingston to consider the proposition and return with a better price, and as the maneuvering continued over the days ahead, Livingston recorded Talleyrand's promise to "give me a certificate that I was the most importunate [negotiator] he had yet met with."

With the participation of James Monroe, who arrived in Paris the next day as the American "envoy extraordinary," and the French treasury minister, Francois Barbi-Marbois, agreement was reached just 18 days later for the sale of France's possessions in North America--some 565 million acres--for about $15 million, or less than 3 cents an acre. [...]

Looking at the Louisiana Purchase as a property transaction rather than a work of diplomacy helps to explain another anomaly. Many Americans feared the new land would make the nation too big to govern and, given the prevailing view that government was authority exercised from above over an unruly populace, they had good reason for their fears. But Louisiana was to witness the development of a new kind of society.

Under Spain and France, the province had been a near-feudal domain, ruled by appointees from Europe, with the land sold only to those approved by the governor. In the United States, however, land could be owned by whoever could afford it. Since 1785, all federal land west of the Appalachians had, at Jefferson's urging, been measured out in one-mile-square sections for sale as real estate, and this grid of squares now extended into the Louisiana Purchase.

For the first time in history, land, the primary source of wealth production, could be owned by anyone: speculators, settlers, even squatters. "Power," said John Adams, with ice-cold accuracy, "always follows property." In the Old World property was distributed in a hierarchical manner with the powerful few owning most; but as America spread westward, more than one billion acres of public land, including most of the Louisiana Purchase, would pass into private hands. Power still followed property, but now it was spread democratically, and the nation it created possessed innate stability, because each property-owning citizen had a vested interest in a law-abiding society.

In his marvelous recent book, Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy, Mr. Linklater not only expounds upon the ideas he raises here, but two others that seem quite profound. The first, and it's really the main focus of the book, is how the seemingly simple act of measuring American territory into regular-sized lots created an impetus for ownership and an ease of transaction that dramatically affected the development and character of the nation. (continued here) Posted by Orrin Judd at April 29, 2003 9:09 AM
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