The Hors D'Oeuvres of History

The current information blitz about the Louisiana Purchase could leave out the tastiest bits of American history.


In our customary feast-or-famine mode, we are striving mightily to overcome a couple of centuries of historical neglect by a blitzkrieg of stuff dealing with the Louisiana Purchase. A vast exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art, lesser exhibits at lesser museums, and a genuine television special every four hours or so are only some of the ways we are redressing our collective ignorance of any American history that took place before the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Sadly, such cram courses come and go without any true attempt to enlighten us on the minutiae that is needed to fill in our shallow understanding of our city, state and nation. (Not to mention of such foreign areas as France, Spain, Haiti and the Red River.)

Fear not. An attempt at such minutiae follows. You may stop reading at any point. None of this will be on the exam. Now, let's do hors d'oeuvres, not entrees.

By the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon Bonaparte had already tasted of immortality and liked it. Gen. Joachim Murat scolded him, "You're showing all Europe how much you value what each one of us lacks -- blue blood! ... Well, I can tell you that your dynasty is always going to look parvenu to other monarchs."

The Big Little Corsican thought about developing Louisiana, primarily as a breadbasket for Santo Domingo, though he changed his mind after dispatching Laussat as governor. It's widely held that the failure of the French to crush the slave rebellion started by Toussaint L'Ouverture caused the change of mind.

The papers of Robert Livingston probably didn't play too large a role. Livingston was President Jefferson's top negotiator. He wrote a 12,000-word essay on why France shouldn't be in Louisiana -- including this heresy: French cognac couldn't compete with Kentucky peach brandy, "which, with age, is superior to the best brandy of France."

The ruler of France had already won a reputation as a military genius. OK, OK, Napoleon was a fighter. But was he a lover? Well, he often made boorish remarks to ladies, like this one to Madam de Stael: "You evidently nursed all your children yourself, Madame." But another lady had just the retort when the Emperor asked if she still fancied men. "Yes," she replied unabashedly. "When they are polite."

Perhaps because of this answer, Napoleon once wrote, "Women these days require restraint. They go where they like, do what they like. It is not French to give women the upper hand. They have too much of it already."

Maybe that's why he showed up three hours late to his own wedding to Josephine. She wore a white muslin dress with a French tricolor sash and a medallion -- gift of the groom -- that was inscribed, "To Destiny." On the wedding certificate, Josephine took four years off her age.

Napoleon would have been a poor guide to New Orleans. He gobbled his food. Once, because he couldn't help himself, he boasted to Josephine that he could flip an omelette better than she could. It landed on the floor.

Later, he divorced Josephine for not producing an heir and, even later, she died before him. He was informed by his doctor, who opined that she had died of a broken heart. Napoleon seemed to like this notion and murmured, "Ah, sweet Josephine! She really did love me, didn't she?"

He was a keener observer of affairs of state than of affairs of the heart. He realized that the Louisiana Purchase would be a powerful addition to the United States: "Perhaps it will be objected that the Americans may be found too powerful for Europe in two or three centuries. But my foresight does not embrace such remote fears."

Such fears were hopes to Thomas Jefferson, and not remote ones, either. But it must be granted that the Sage of Monticello didn't exactly see the Louisiana Purchase in quite the same way as most Americans.

For Jefferson, the reason for the purchase was agrarian expansion, pure and simple. In fact, when he spoke of "the people" what he meant was the people who worked the land. "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people," he once wrote.

Maybe not a surprising attitude for a man who didn't see a town until he was almost 18. He was abnormally shy and troubled by a slight speech defect. This may have played a role in one prominent historian's declaration that "not once did he deliver an exciting speech."

He disliked power and hated publicity. He was thin-skinned to criticism. "I find the pain of a little censure, even when it is unfounded, is more acute than the pleasure of much praise," he admitted to a friend.

His sworn enemy Alexander Hamilton thought that Jefferson's reputation for radical thought was exaggerated. "He is as likely as any man to temporize -- to calculate when will promote his reputation and advantage and the probable result of such a temper will be the preservation of systems, though originally opposed."

In his personal life, he was a spendthrift, entertaining with a lavishness he couldn't bear, borrowing to fund his generosity to beggars and troubling his final years by cosigning for a struggling neighbor. How did he spot such a bargain as the Louisiana Purchase?

Hard to say, because a decade later, the Virginian was complaining, "Our enemy has indeed the consolation of Satan on removing our first parents from Paradise; from a peaceful and agrarian nation he makes us a military and manufacturing one."

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was the French foreign minister who negotiated the sale of Louisiana with the American representatives Robert Livingston and James Monroe, then congratulated them on making a good deal. And if there was one thing that Talleyrand understood, it was the art of the deal.

He was of noble blood, though he said his parents lost all interest in him after a childhood climbing accident left him lame. (Talleyrand was disowned by his parents; some historians have said that his club foot was congenital and not caused by a fall.) He was a reluctant receiver of Holy Orders and was appointed the Bishop of Autun, a post he later resigned.

Talleyrand was named foreign minister under both the Directory and Bonaparte. He was lazy, vain (powdered hair, satin breeches) and completely corrupt. One woman wrote that on meeting him, she thought, "Nature gave you the choice between snake and tiger, and you choose to be an anaconda!"

The anaconda once observed that Napoleon "was intoxicated with himself." Of course, he was; he regularly got letters like this one, from the likes of Talleyrand:

"Now there is peace, peace a la Bonaparte ... The Italian may squeal a bit, but that it is of no consequence. Farewell, General and Peacemaker! My regards, admiration, respect, thanks -- words fail me, the list could go on forever."

On the day he abdicated, Napoleon observed that Talleyrand had already contrived to be appointed president of the provisional government. If he had only hanged two men -- and one was Talleyrand -- Napoleon declared, "I would be on the throne today."

Talleyrand was later reappointed foreign minister under the restored monarchy. In his declining years, he was made ambassador to England. It is reported that the British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston took huge delight in keeping Old Tally waiting in his outer office.

A friend and neighbor of Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis' family coat of arms included the motto: "Omne Solum Forti Patria Est" or "All Earth Is the Country of a Brave Man."

His father died during the Revolutionary War, and he was raised by his mother, who cultivated herbal remedies, rode horses and killed deer. At 18, Lewis took over the family plantation, but, as Jefferson noted, the boy liked to "ramble." He quit the farm for the army, and Jefferson had him named presidential secretary. As such, he copied and gave to Congress Jefferson's first State of the Union speech.

While grooming Lewis for his exploration of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson ordered that he bring along two corn grinders to teach the Indians he'd meet how to make grits.

Lewis killed and stuffed (taxidermy lessons from the President) badger and coyote, animals new to Americans. But he thought the Indians exaggerated the prowess of the grizzly bear. Thought so until his party killed one estimated at 600 pounds, who absorbed 10 bullets, half in his lungs, before swimming to a sandbar and then taking 20 roaring minutes to die. Lewis wrote, "It has staggered the resolution of several ... Others however seem keen for action with the bear; I expect these gentlemen will give us some amusement shortly as they begin now to copulate." We should assume Capt. Lewis meant the bears.

After his famous expedition with William Clark, Lewis was named territorial governor. He began to pile up debts, including monies spent for gifts to the Indians for which the government did not reimburse him. He began to drink heavily, take pills and walk wildly.

Finally, at Grinder's Inn, Tenn., he shot himself in the head and side and slashed himself with his razor. "I am no coward, but I am so strong, it is so hard to die," he told bystanders.

He finally did die on Oct. 11, 1809. He was 35.

Born a slave in Santo Domingo, Haiti, on All Saints' Day 1744, Toussaint L'Ouverture suffered one case of ill treatment. Walking back from mass, he was thrashed by a white person for having the impudence to read the Bible. L'Ouverture refused to permit the bloodstains to be cleaned from his coat and at the start of the insurrection stabbed his former attacker to death.

But his prodigious memory could handle kindnesses as well. His master had taught him to read and, after the man had fled Santo Domingo for the United States, L'Ouverture continued to send him the revenues produced by his plantation. "Fortune has changed my position, but not my heart," he wrote.

He was 5 feet 2 inches and ugly, but such a superb horseman he was nicknamed "the Centaur of the Savannah." He had not confidants but loved and was loved by children and gave dramatic salutes and yielded the road to the elderly.

The French, hoping to send him on far-off military adventures, twice proposed he lead an army to liberate the slaves of Jamaica and the southern United States. He turned down the proposals, but proposed that he and a thousand soldiers be turned loose on African countries to abolish the slave trade and win the nations for France.

'Tis a small world, after all. Napoleon's empress Josephine had inherited a Santo Domingo plantation from her late first husband. L'Ouverture had ordered the plantation worked at government expense and the revenues sent to Josephine.

In return, Josephine was attentive to L'Ouverture and his family. When his son Isaac was a student in France, Josephine often invited the boy to her palace in Malmaison, and he responded by dedicating several poems to her.

And where in all of this did the original inhabitants of the Louisiana territory fit? Well, Thomas Jefferson had a plan. All Indians living east of the Mississippi River could be moved west of it. He proposed to Congress that they settle on small farms.

"Two measures are deemed expedient," the redheaded president wrote. "First, to encourage them to abandon hunting ... Secondly, to multiply trading house among them ... leading them thus to agriculture, to manufacture and to civilization."

How far away from all this were the Indians under Jefferson's consideration? The number of tribes in the state alone discourages an easy answer, but let's take one. The Choctaw were a large tribe, usually allied with the French.

The Choctaw used the stretched skin and head of a deer as a decoy to get close to a herd. They carried the spoils of a hunt back to camp only when it was impossible to send their wives after them. Sometimes, they drugged the fish in a pool with buckeye or berries or dragged the water with a fence-type device made of brush fastened together with creepers. They mixed sunflower seeds with their corn meal when making bread.

For smoking, they mixed tobacco with the leaves of sumac and sweetgum. All treaties and inter-tribal agreements were sealed by the smoking of a calumet.

They were known as "flat-heads" among other tribes because of their custom of flattening their foreheads by means of a small bag of sand.

Children nursed until they themselves didn't want to do it any more. Choctaw mothers were not allowed to strike their sons, but their brothers might be asked to enforce discipline. Children were assembled morning and evening to listen to the legends of their people, and the endurance of boys was sometimes tested by their steadfastness under the stings of yellowjackets.

Mental or nervous diseases were unknown, and deformities were rare. Doctors were of both sexes, but nobody was successful combating the diseases introduced by the settlers. Especially pernicious were the effects of "Okahumma" or "red water." Whiskey.

At the end, they placed their dead on scaffolds. After a time, a "Buzzard Man" buried the flesh and cleaned the bones before returning them to the family in a hamper. At intervals, the people of the village gathered to carry the hampers to a selected spot, where they were buried and a mound raised over them.

After the territory became part of the United States, white immigration pressured the Choctaws to move beyond the Mississippi. At the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830), the tribe agreed to emigrate to southern Oklahoma, where they set up a small republic modeled on ... the United States.

Back in Louisiana, the Old Regulars' headquarters on Poydras would come to be called the Choctaw Club by the end of the 19th century and members of that big-city political machine came to be called "Choctaws."

Ah, now those were some tales of savagery.


Add a comment