I try to offer travel opportunities in my articles to “Get Out of Town” that might be enjoyable and also have some historical interest. But given the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to stay at home, last month I suggested virtual tours as an alternative until we can travel again.
There are a number of virtual tours to choose from, and I noted Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello specifically. I also mentioned that I would provide some thoughts on Jefferson as a contradiction for this column. So, instead of the typical travel thoughts, this month I will focus on Jefferson.
The number of books, articles and information on Jefferson is staggering. Anyone who studies Jefferson will note his brilliance, but also his contradictions. He was one of the most famous of our Founding Fathers, author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president. He wrote the Declaration of Independence (with some later edits by his fellow committee members and Congress) that we are endowed with unalienable rights, among these are, “... Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, over his life, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves and very likely fathered children with one of them, his late wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. Very briefly, Jefferson recognizes the evil of slavery, but ultimately never does anything about it. And he benefited at Monticello because of it. This has to be one of the most frustrating things ever in American history about a historical figure.
One of Jefferson's most famous accomplishments was the Louisiana Purchase from France. In 1803, with the help of his negotiators in Paris, Jefferson was able to roughly double the size of the country at a cost of about four cents an acre. Why would France give up so much? The answer is most interesting.
What is now Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) was France’s most valuable colony in the latter part of the 1700s. This value came from the efforts of almost half a million slaves, mainly on sugar plantations. The French Revolution came along in 1789 and by 1791 the slaves in Saint-Domingue had enough of their brutalization. Motivated by the ideals espoused by the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity) they revolted and, amazingly, led by an ex-slave named Toussaint L’Ouverture, defeated French, British, and Spanish invasion efforts.
The last of the French efforts were directed Napoleon Bonaparte. After the French Revolution, Napoleon, in power since November 1799, wanted to re-establish slavery and reap the riches from Saint-Domingue. In 1802 he sent his brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, and a sizable military force to invade. After vicious fighting and sickness decimated his troops, Leclerc died of yellow fever and his forces were defeated.
Estimates are that the French lost 37,000 troops in battle and another 20,000 from yellow fever, along with significant budget reverses. Haitian losses are estimated at almost 200,000. The French leave and in 1804 Saint-Domingue declares independence. According to Andrew Roberts in “Napoleon, A Life,” Napoleon admitted the folly of his Saint-Domingue policy, saying it was the greatest error in government he ever committed. (While a bit dated, see “The Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James for a description of L’Ouverture and the revolution.)
Jefferson viewed the situation with alarm as he was concerned the slave revolt in Saint Domingue might spread to the southern states in the United States. But, to the States' advantage, with the losses the French suffered — both in manpower and money — and the necessity of resources for wars against Great Britain and Russian, the French were no longer able to sustain anything in North America. When Jefferson asks about New Orleans they offer up everything in what is now the central U.S. (The French representative, Talleyrand, can’t even tell the Americans exactly what is included.) After the purchase was completed Jefferson sent out Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery (1804-1806). Under orders from Gen. James Wilkinson, another exploration group was sent out in 1806-1807.
You might have heard of who led that expedition: Zebulon Pike.
Doug McCormick is retired from the Air Force after spending 21 years as a space operator. He spent 14 years as a defense contractor supporting Air Force Space Command. He is now a tour guide and has started his own business, American History Tours, LLC, specializing in taking people to see locations associated with significant American history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.