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Getting the Kinks Out

Long before there were fiber optic cables and T-1 lines, there were rivers. For much of the early history of the United States, the big "hose" of American commerce was the Mississippi River. Control of the area west of the Appalachians was critical to the American Founders. In negotiating peace with Britain after the Revolutionary War, American diplomat John Jay proposed that both Britain and America would share freedom of navigation and trade on the Mississippi.

Although British control gave the new nation full rights to the eastern bank of that river, the Western shore and the opening into the Gulf of Mexico were controlled by the Spanish, who received the territory from France after the American Revolution. Spain "had few nationals in the colony, which was in any case underpopulated and weak. Her North American policy was defensive, her weapons two: her Indian allies and her ability to keep closed to trade the mouth of the Mississippi, which she controlled," according to historian James Thomas Flexner. "The Indians were to keep American settlements as far upriver as possible and to prevent any expeditions from floating down (either as freebooters or with the approval of a state or the federal government) to capture Louisiana and open the Mississippi by force. The tribes also contributed to Spanish prosperity by selling their furs to traders from Louisiana."1

Spain had little interest in helping American residents along the Ohio River and a great deal of interest in agitating the Indians. "His Most Catholic Majesty in Madrid was less generous in granting [George] Washington's countrymen use of the broad, vital Mississippi River, and the president was understandably concerned," wrote Washington's biographer, Richard Norton Smith. "Let imperial Spain choke off access to the arterial waterway and more than American commerce would suffer. American unity would be affected as well, especially among Westerners of fluctuating loyalties, for whom the government in New York held credibility in direct proportion to its sanction of their territorial ambitions." Washington realized that the future of the country depended on the connections which they shared - foremost of which was commerce.2

Even before Washington became President, he engaged in a curious diplomatic game with Spain, according to historian Flexner: "The origins of the drama were, on the one hand, Washington's desire to secure from Spain, although such export was forbidden, a high-born jackass; and, on the other hand, the desire of the King of Spain to keep, through his possession of Louisiana, American frontiersmen from using the Mississippi as a trading outlet to the world. The Spanish foreign office decided that it would be advantageous to sweeten the disposition of the most influential American, and the King personally made Washington a present of two unprocurable jackasses."3 One jackass died on the trip and the other proved uninterested in mating with a mare. Washington had to use a bait and switch technique to get the jackass sexually aroused before replacing the female ass with a female horse.

Life didn't get easier once George Washington became President. When Spain made life difficult for Kentucky residents, Washington was presented with a dilemma, according to biographer Flexner. "Washington expressed anxiety lest Kentucky 'force us either to support them in their hostilities against Spain or disavow and denounce them. War at this moment with Spain would not be war with Spain alone. The lopping off of Kentucky from the Union is dreadful to contemplate, even if it should not attack itself to some other power."4 The future of the United States depended on western growth and western growth depended on keeping the frontier open to trade and at peace with Indian tribes.

The treaty that Washington signed with England in 1795 presented a political problem at home but a diplomatic opportunity with Spain. Flexner wrote: `"Having withdrawn from her alliance with England against France, Spain was afraid that the Jay Treaty would be followed by an alliance between England and the United States that would overwhelm her North American possessions. Conciliation seemed called for."5 The resulting Treaty of San Lorenzo was one of the most notable accomplishments of Washington's second term. The treaty, according to historian Richard Norton Smith, "opened the entire Mississippi River to American navigation, permitted Yankee goods to be exported out of New Orleans tax free, and confirmed U.S. claims to sovereignty over an area extending as far south as the thirty-first parallel."6 (Thomas Jefferson had turned down Washington's request to come out of retirement at Monticello to negotiate the treaty himself.)

The problem did not come to a head for a decade when Jefferson himself was President. "Jefferson never lost sight of his first priority: to secure for the United States unhampered navigation of the Mississippi River," wrote Jefferson biographer Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., "Eager to use the threat of war to pressure Spain for concessions, he secretly dispatched David Humphreys to Madrid with instructions for William Carmichael to bring up the navigation of the Mississippi with the Spanish foreign ministers. Carmichael should 'impress him thoroughly with the necessity of an early and even an immediate settlement of this matter,' Jefferson said. It should be made clear that the United States was not interested in a negotiation unless Spain was prepared 'in the first opening of it, to yield the immediate and full enjoyment of that negotiation.' With this concession achieved at the outset, the United States would then press negotiations for the use of a port at the mouth of the Mississippi."7

Events in Europe moved faster than American diplomats. In 1802, the Spanish were forced by Napoleon to cede control of Louisiana to France - which France had ceded to Spain two decades earlier. In the shift in power, Spain's representative cut off access through New Orleans to farmers in Kentucky and other western states. Jefferson biographer Cunningham, wrote: "On October 18, 1802, in violation of the treaty of 1795 with the United States, the Spanish official suspended the right of deposit at New Orleans without providing, as the treaty required, an alternative place for American goods coming down the Mississippi River to be deposited while awaiting ocean transport. Jefferson learned of this in late November and was led to believe by the Spanish minister in Washington and statements from the governor of Louisiana that the intendant at New Orleans had acted without authority, though it is known today that orders had come from Madrid."8 President Jefferson's Federalist opponents screamed for war. Instead, Jefferson commissioned fellow Virginian James Monroe to be his special representative to negotiate with the French for American trade access through New Orleans and for the sale of Florida by Spain.

Historian Joseph J. Ellis, a critical observer of Jefferson, strongly praised the President's vision in approaching the Louisiana Purchase: "Although he himself had never been west of the Shenandoah Valley, Jefferson's proprietary attitude toward the Mississippi Valley and beyond was long-standing. In the 1780s, when rumors spread that John Jay was negotiating the surrender of American navigation rights on the Mississippi to Spain, both Jefferson and Madison expressed outrage. They consistently described the Mississippi as the major artery of the American body politic, 'the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigable rives of the Atlantic, formed into one stream."9

Jefferson exercised full presidential prerogatives over negotiations regarding the Mississippi and New Orleans - issuing directions personally to the U.S. Minister to France, Robert Livingston rather than through Secretary of State James Madison. According to Jefferson biographer Claude G. Bowers, "The instructions Monroe carried with him to Paris merely put in concrete phrasing the conclusions reached as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe sat about the table in the former's study during those gloomy February days. The object of the negotiations was 'to procure by just and satisfactory arrangements a cession to the United States of New Orleans, and of West and East Florida, or as much thereof as the actual proprietor can e prevailed upon to part with.' They were to be conducted on the theory that France preferred our friendship and neutrality to our enmity and opposition, but she must be convinced that friendship and peace with us must be precarious until the Mississippi shall be made the boundary between the United States and Louisiana. The American envoys were to bear in mind the advantages of the moment - 'the instability of peace in Europe, the attitude taken by Great Britain, the languishing state of the French finances, and the necessity of either abandoning the West India islands or of sending thither vast armaments at great expense.' Napoleon must be disillusioned of his probable idea that only the possession of Louisiana by the French could prevent the Atlantic States from forming an alliance with Great Britain."10

War was in the air - on both sides of the Atlantic. Historian Ellis wrote: "During the winter and spring of 1803, while the outcome of the Monroe mission remained up in the air, Jefferson's management of the prospective crisis was deft and shrewd. He saw to it that du Pont de Nemours, an old French friend, was provided information about America's deadly serious intentions that could be leaked in the proper corridors at Versailles. When the Spanish official still governing New Orleans abruptly closed the port to American commerce, Jefferson came under considerable pressure to launch a unilateral military expedition to seize both the city and the Floridas, thereby abandoning diplomacy in favor of war with both Spain and France. [Alexander] Hamilton, writing as Pericles, endorsed the military solution, arguing that 'in emergency like the present, energy is wisdom.' Despite an authorization from Congress empowering the president to raise eighty thousand volunteers for a military campaign, Jefferson remained calm. Even if the ongoing negotiations in Paris failed, he explained - and of course they did not - outright war was both unwise and unnecessary. Time and demography were on the American side, justifying a patient policy 'till we have planted such a population on the Mississippi as will be able to do their own business, without the necessity of marching men from the shores of the Atlantic 15000 or 2000 miles thither....'"11

Although Monroe's instructions were based on the diplomatic and military conflicts between France and Britain, they did not anticipate the immediacy of war or the degree of France's willingness to unload its large and probably undefendable American possessions. The American Minister to France, Robert Livingston of New York, quickly deduced from public comments made by Napoleon to the British minister that renewed war was virtually certain and that Napoleon would be prepared to sell what he could not defend against the British Navy. While Napoleon's foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, was focused on empire in North America, Napoleon himself was focused on empire in Europe. Louisiana was only a useful bargaining chip which might help finance France's military ambitions.

Napoleon did not entrust negotiations with Monroe and Livingston to Talleyrand. Instead, he chose his more trustworthy and more friendly minister of Finance, Francois Marbois, who had served in America as a young diplomat and married a young American woman. Napoleon told his finance minister: "I can scarcely say that I cede it to them for it is not yet in our possession. If, however, I leave the least time to our enemies, I shall only transmit an empty title to those Republicans whose friendship I seek. They ask of me only one town in Louisiana, but I already consider the colony as entirely lost. And it appears to me that in the hands of this growing power [the United States] it will be more useful to the policy, and even the commerce, of France than if I should attempt to keep it."

When Marbois first asked Livingston whether the United States would like all of Louisiana, Livingston first said "no." Marbois told Livingston of instructions he had been given by Napoleon: "Well, you have the charge of the treasury; let them give you one hundred million of francs, and pay their own claims, and take the whole country."12 The American representatives had no authority to negotiate for the whole territory - much less commit their country to such a huge debt. Marbois suggested that 60 million francs might be acceptable - especially if the United States also forgave another 20 million francs in French indebtedness to America. Marbois told Livingston: "But you know the temper of a youthful conqueror; everything he does is rapid as lightning; we have only to speak to him as an opportunity presents itself, perhaps in a crowd, when he bears no contradiction. When I am alone with him, I can speak more freely, and he attends; but this opportunity seldom happens and is always accidental. Try, then, if you cannot come on to my mark. Consider the extent of the country, the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi, and the importance of having no neighbors to dispute you, no war to dread."13

In addition to the opposition of Talleyrand, another French kink appeared in the hose. Napoleon's brother, Lucien Bonaparte, highly objected to the sale of Louisiana, since he had arranged the cession of the territory personally with Spain. Joined by a third brother, Joseph, Lucien confronted Napoleon in his bath. Napoleon brushed aside their objections as he splashed them with perfumed bath water. Questions of cost were not so easily brushed aside. Napoleon insisted on 60 million francs and the incorporation of Louisiana residents into the United States. Back in the United States, Jefferson and Madison suspected that negotiations would go badly and drafted new instructions for Monroe to negotiate with Britain if necessary. Napoleon wanted to head off such an alliance and told the American representatives at a Louvre reception: "You, the Americans, did brilliant things in your war with England...you will do the same again."

In Spain, a further kink arose when the Spanish government objected to the sale - claiming that the cession to France had only be granted on condition that it would be returned to Span rather than given to any other country. As a result, Napoleon counseled Monroe to forget for the moment about negotiating with Spain over Florida. Monroe tried to press the subject by asking "would it not be better for the United States to have the Floridas than for them to fall into the lap of the British."14 Back in the United States, a further series of kinks were developed by opponents of President Jefferson:

  • Massachusetts Senator John Quincy Adams didn't oppose the purchase, but thought it required a constitutional amendment - impractical under the time constraints under which the Jefferson Administration was operating. Even the President Jefferson thought such an amendment would be required but his own Cabinet opposed the idea.
  • Some Federalist opponents of Jefferson's government insisted that the new territory would be turned into a new Western confederacy.
  • There were some bipartisan complaints about the purchase price of 15 million dollars.

After the House of Representatives voted to fund the purchase, President Jefferson quickly delegated American troops to take over the new territory. "Impressed with American determination abetted by Napoleon's resolve, Spain rather surlily yielded New Orleans and Louisiana to France. On December 20, 1803, in ceremonies at New Orleans, the French tricolor was lowered and another red, white and blue ensign, the flag of the United States, was raised amid thunderous cheers," wrote Jefferson biographer Alf J. Mapp, Jr..15 The lessons of the Louisiana Purchase for getting the kinks out of a diplomatic problem include:

  • Take advantage of luck. "The immediate cause of Napoleon's decision to abandon his dreams of a French empire in America was the disastrous failure of a twenty-five-thousand-man expeditionary force headed by Charles Leclerc, Napoleon's brother-in-law, that had been dispatched to Santo Domingo to suppress the slave insurrection there under the charismatic leadership of a black named Toussaint L'Ouverture," wrote historian Ellis. "The virtual extinction of the French expeditionary force, which had been scheduled to proceed to New Orleans after dispatching the blacks of Santo Domingo, was the immediate cause of Napoleon's decision to cut his losses in the Western Hemisphere." Jefferson had sought to help Napoleon in putting down the Haiti rebellion; the failure of this initiative led to the success of the Louisiana Purchase.
  • Evaluate whether laws help or hurt. Jefferson, like John Quincy Adams, thought a constitutional amendment was necessary to authorize the purchase. But, he realized that time issues were so critical that the deal would be destroyed by a constitutional amendment. The process would have injected more kinks in the hose, according to Ellis - including debate "above slavery and the slave trade, Indian lands, Spanish land claims and a host of other jurisdictional issues - - that might have put the entire purchase at risk."16 Jefferson himself noted: "It is incumbent on those who accept great charges...to risk themselves on great occasions." Jefferson maintained that "to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written laws, would be to lose the law itself."17
  • Keep your eye on the end of the hose. Jefferson was focused on the West - which he thought was the key to America's future. According to historian Ellis, "What Frederick Jackson Turner later called a safety valve was for Jefferson more like a self-renewing engine that drove the American republic forward."18
  • Do the research. Jefferson did not have the luxury of doing due-diligence before he bought Louisiana, so he sent his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to evaluate his purchase after the fact. Spain and France remained worried that the U.S. might find in the uncharted territory some version of the long-sought Northwest passage from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans.

In the Civil War, the Mississippi once again became the centerpiece of American policy. Winfield Scott, who was the Union's commanding general at the beginning of the Civil War, conceived the "Anaconda Plan" which would slowly squeeze the South into submission - largely through control of the Mississippi River. Although the Union took New Orleans and gained control of most of the river's path in early 1862, full control depended on taking the Confederate fortress overlooking the river at Vicksburg, Mississippi. General Ulysses S. Grant tried many strategies to force the surrender of the Confederate enclave. One unsuccessful tactic was to dig a large canal across a bend in the river. Had the canal been successful, it would have allowed river traffic to bypass Vicksburg. The canal cut failed as did less inventive efforts - all except the siege of the city. The Confederates surrendered on July 4, 1863 - a day after the Union victory at Gettysburg. Hearing of the Vicksburg surrender, President Abraham Lincoln said, "The Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea."

Once the United States extended clear across the continent, it coveted free water access from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans across the isthmus of Panama. Thomas Jefferson had dreamed of a Panama Canal back in 1878, writing a friend in Spain: "I have been told that the cutting through the isthmus of Panama, which the world has so often wished and supposed practical, has at times been thought of by the Government of Spain and that they once proceeded so far as to have a survey and examination made of the ground, but that the result was either impracticable or of too great difficulty."19

But it was gold that prompted renewed interest in the mid-1800s. "Panama became a focus of U.S. interest during the California gold rush, when railroads were built across its narrow isthmus to speed miners and goods to the Pacific coast, avoiding the long sea journey around Cape Horn. Even then it was clear that a canal would be better than a railroad, and an 1850 treaty between England and the United States assured both equal power over a future waterway," wrote Peter Winn in Americas.20 But neither the U.S. or Britain took the initiative - allowing France to move in.

With the approval of the Colombian government, which then controlled Panama, French engineers tried to build a canal, starting in 1878. The failure of the project became a major political scandal. Historian J. Hampden Jackson wrote: "The Panama Canal Company floundered in the swamps of Panama but new shares were floated to keep the enterprise afloat. French politicians were paid off to keep the secret. The conspiracy of silence was observed until early in 1892, but then the truth about the Panama scandal began to leak out in every gutter of Paris."21

When the French effort collapsed in political, financial and corruption problems, Republicans in the United States took up the enterprise - encouraging Congress to buy out the French concession in Panama. But the Colombian government turned truculent and rejected the Hay-HerrĂ¡n Treaty which would have awarded a canal zone lease to the U.S. for a hundred-year period. Other tactics were necessary to remove the diplomatic kink. In 1903, the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged Panamanians to declare their independence from Colombia. The agent of encouragement was the U.S.S. Nashville, which discouraged Colombia from interfering in the Panama rebellion. U.S. policy was clear - it wanted a government with whom it could reach an agreement to build its own canal. Almost immediately, Frenchman Philippe Bunau-Varilla, was dispatched from Panama to Washington to negotiate the canal zone lease. The new Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was duly approved by both nations. Thus, the political kinks in the hose were finally removed. Only engineering and medical kinks remained.

In the next decade, Americans learned several important lessons about how to eliminate these kinks. Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, Bob Cullen noted: "The Americans had corrected two fundamental flaws in the French plan. They understood, as the French had not, that the mosquito was responsible for spreading diseases like malaria and yellow fever. By controlling mosquitoes, they made the country a more tolerable place to work. Second, they abandoned the idea of a sea-level canal. Instead, they dammed the principal river in the canal's path, the Chagres [River] creating a body of water, Gatun Lake, 85 feet above sea level, then dug a channel, the Gaillard Cut, through a mountain ridge. They used the spoil from the cut to fill in lowlands along the route and built a series of three lock chambers on each end to raise incoming ships to lake level and lower them again to sea level before exiting to the ocean."22 By 1914, the canal was in operation.

But there were many other challenges that President Roosevelt had to overcome. According to historian Alfred D. Chandler, Jr:, "He had to create and staff an entirely new administrative organization which had to perform an unprecedented job. This organization had to be responsible for digging, dredging, and constructing locks and dams on a huge scale. It had to provide for the regular and systematic flow of supplies and materials from the United States over 2,000 miles of water to the Isthmus. It had to recruit a laboring force of skilled and unskilled labor, to transport the force to Panama, and then to house and feed these men. The care of their health required a large medical staff to fight yellow fever and other tropical diseases. Furthermore, this administrative unit had to govern the Canal Zone and handle relations between the Americans and the Panamanians. Finally, the organization had to operate under pressures from Congress, labor officials, the press, and the American public."23

Such kinks are common in public policy. The speed which Roosevelt acted was not. "TR understood that every foreseeable threat looming over this vast public works project would be exacerbated with the passage of time. It would not be completed during his term of office under any scenario," wrote James M. Strock in Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership. "Through the many twists and turns of this unprecedented undertaking, Roosevelt was constant in his method for getting the best from his team: He defined the mission; he hired the best available personnel; he delegated authority from his office and centralized it in the hands of an accountable subordinate; he backed and protected the accountable subordinate's team with every appropriate tool at his disposal."24

Two different waterways. Two different sets of foreign and domestic problems. But in both cases America had the leadership to remove the kinks that stood in the way of economic progress. In 1999, the United States turned over control of the Canal to Panama. That government began to plan the removal of a new set of kinks - the need to widen the Canal to accommodate supertankers. Kinks are a recurring historical obstacle.

  1. James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man, p. 251.
  2. Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch, p. 23.
  3. James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man, p. 192.
  4. James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man, p. 314.
  5. James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man, p. 343.
  6. Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch, p. 258.
  7. Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, p. 146.
  8. Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, p. 260.
  9. Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, p. 205.
  10. Claude G. Bowers, Jefferson in Power, p. 189.
  11. Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, p. 206-207.
  12. Claude G. Bowers, Jefferson in Power, p.195.
  13. Claude G. Bowers, Jefferson in Power, p. 196.
  14. Claude G. Bowers, Jefferson in Power, p. 205.
  15. Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim, p.
  16. Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, p. 211.
  17. Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, p. 208.
  18. Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, p. 212.
  19. Claude G. Bowers, The Young Jefferson, p. 425.
  20. Peter Winn, Americas, p. 450.
  21. J. Hampden Jackson, Clemenceau and the Third Republic,
  22. Bob Cullen, "A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama Rise," p. 47-48.
  23. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., "Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal: A Study in Administration," Appendix I to Letters of Theodore Roosevelt.
  24. James M. Strock in Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership, p. 147.
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