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A Fabulous Real Estate Bargain

Paul A. Fabry

NEW ORLEANS – A Louisiana oil man recently received an elaborate invitation to an event this month commemorating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. The oil man, who happens to own a sprawling complex on Red Mountain, commented: “I could have bought half of the United States from Napoleon for what I paid to build the family digs in Aspen.”

Indeed, the deal with Napoleon Bonaparte has been described as the greatest real estate deal in history. In 1803, the United States paid France $15 million for the Louisiana Territory – 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. The vaguely defined lands stretched from here to the Rocky Mountains and up to the Canadian border. Thirteen states were carved from the rich territory. The deal nearly doubled the size of the United States, instantly making it one of the largest nations in the world.

The Baton Rouge oil man, proud of his family’s French-sounding name, is not alone in profiting from the oil wells on these lands. Without Napoleon’s need for cash, however, the lands would have remained a rich colony of France.

Today, few speak French in Nouvelle Orleans, Lafayette, Baton Rouge or other Gallic-sounding cities of Louisiana. But the bicentennial is a major event in the traditionally Francophile and Cajun areas.

Napoleon’s New World vision

Historians give lectures and museums feature exhibits about the unrealized vision of Napoleon’s Western Empire, based on the recapture of Louisiana from Spain. The emperor’s control over this vast territory would have halted the westward expansion of the upstart United States and would have supplied the empire and French colonies in the West Indies with goods. Or so it was envisioned.

Toward that end, Napoleon signed a secret treaty with Spain in 1800. Things were to be settled in a strange backroom arrangement, whereby the son-in-law of Spain’s king was to get a suitable kingdom in return for Louisiana, which would go to the French. Just like family inheritances are settled today by clever lawyers.

But there was a hitch. The 12-year revolt of impoverished slaves and free blacks in the important French colony of Saint-Domingue surprisingly succeeded. The defeat of Napoleon’s troops in his richest colony, today the desperately poor nation of Haiti, was a key step that led to his need for cash.

The defeated army, headed by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Le Clerc, was weakened by yellow fever and returned to France instead of going to defend Louisiana, apparently a less important frontier at the time. It was felt that the New World empire should be put up for sale, as it was threatening to disintegrate (oil was not yet an item or a cause to fight for).

One cannot escape the thought that from Haiti to Vietnam, combined with their centuries of adventures in Africa, the French have paid a high price in colonies, armies and friends for their imperial ambitions. No wonder Monsieur Chirac is reluctant to get his country and Europe involved in a distant war and nation-building effort in Iraq.

How the deal was done

Sailing vessels down the Mississippi was probably just as important in the early 19th century as it is today to keep goods moving, not only to Central and South America but to Europe as well. Thus, the area near New Orleans had to be acquired by Napoleon, primarily to guarantee such rights and secure the free transfer of goods. But more pressing issues faced the emperor in the Old World.

The vital geographic position of New Orleans at the mouth of the river was well understood by President Thomas Jefferson, his advisors and the increasing number of American settlers and merchants. Jefferson also knew about the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France. There were competent spies operating in Paris, Madrid, as well as Washington in those days.

Purchase the city from France? A ridiculous idea, Paris felt, and Napoleon initially refused to talk about it.

Jefferson decided to send James Monroe to secure the best possible deal in Paris. But just a few days before the envoy arrived in the French capital, Napoleon made an offer. Buy not only the crown jewel of the colony, New Orleans, but all of Louisiana.

Compared to the haggling that go with most big real estate deals, it was a relatively easy negotiation. Perhaps faster than the transfer of a huge Aspen property, a deal was struck by envoys Monroe and Livingston for a total price of $15 million. On July 18, 1803, General Horatio Gates rightfully could tell President Jefferson: “Let the Land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a song.”

The bicentennial celebrations

The singing has continued ever since. Inherited from the French, eating, drinking, carnival parades and Gallic spirit remain valued ingredients of New Orleans life even today. Neither war preparations, security concerns, nor the busy events leading up to Mardi Gras on March 4 diminished the preparations for the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. On March 15 the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra will introduce an original work by Robert Kapilow entitled “03: This New, Immense, Unbounded World.” And traditional jazz bands will play all over town.

The incorporation of the midcontinental region into the young United States is being remembered with a series of exhibits, art shows, musical events and walking tours. In the narrow streets, New Orleans shows its heritage and connection with France by flying the tricolor from public buildings and private balconies. A friendly barker on Rue Bourbon reminds visitors of the important things: “Come inside and let the bon temps rouler!” After all, the culinary temptations must not be neglected in a French city.

The Vieux Carre, the old section of New Orleans, still has streets such as Burgundy, Esplanade, Chartres, Dauphine, Toulouse and Bienville, recalling its French legacy. One only has to walk down Royal Street to see windows with paintings and statues of Napoleon and Jefferson, find some of the best French antiques in America and excellent modern galleries lined up along the 14 blocks of 19th-century buildings.

The Historic New Orleans Collection (www.hnoc.org ) is at 533 Royal Street, and through June 7, shows the fascinating timeline of the Louisiana Purchase that begins in 1493. In that year, Pope Alexander VI divided up the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal. Around this time, the territory in North America became labeled as Louisiana.

With explorers, colonizers and armies moving in and out over the next three centuries, the story of the Louisiana Purchase remained inextricably bound to the treaties negotiated by the European powers. The fascinating exhibits of the Historic New Orleans Collection feature the portraits of the characters involved and the incorrect old maps that helped define the treaties.

The next-door gallery in an 18th-century house focuses on “Napoleon’s Eyewitness,” the activities of his chief colonial officer and the result of the treaties. Perhaps more than ever, the question of agreements, diplomatic deals and international treaties are in the forefront of today’s news. A visitor to the collection remarked: “There are so many more players on the stage of the United Nations these days than Napoleon and Jefferson had to deal with two centuries ago, although it seems there was much more at stake then.”

Europe’s New World interest was enhanced by Hernando de Soto’s explorations in the 16th century. The stage for colonization was finally set when La Salle claimed the Mississippi River valley for France in 1682. The French effort continued through the mid-18th century when, as a result of military losses to the British, Louisiana was secretly (and temporarily) ceded to Spain. Then came the defeat in Haiti and the fire sale of the territory.

A large exhibit, “Jefferson’s America and Napoleon’s France,” opens at the Museum of Art (www.noma.org) at the City Park of New Orleans on April 12, with objects from the Louvre, the Chateau of Versailles and other great French historical depositories. Napoleon’s decorated weaponry and Jefferson’s red leather easy chair will be near the paintings and artifacts on loan from Washington and Paris.

Of course, the Cabildo, a colonial state museum at the center of noisy French Quarter action, is a must-see during the bicentennial. This building, where the property transfer took place, is on one side of the Saint Louis Cathedral, with the Presbytere, the nearly identical classicist building on the other side. In front, clowns, beggars and tourists from all over the world gather daily, before going on to – what else? – eat and drink in one of the hundreds of restaurants and bars. Locals still credit (or blame) the French for the madness of carnival, the loud music, the Napoleonic Code and the crumbling houses. For the fine cuisine, however, a unique French legacy in this town, everybody is grateful.

Paul and Elizabeth Fabry are New Orleans-based travel writers, but spend the best winter and summer months at their old West End cottage in Aspen.


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