“There is nothing which binds one country or one State to another but interest,” George Washington very sensibly said in 1785; and then he admitted that, at that time, the “interest” of the settlers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio lay not with the United States, but with Spain: “Without this cement the Western inhabitants can have no predilection for us.”
New Orleans is the focal point of the Mississippi Valley. It might not look it, but that’s actually a very grand statement; to appreciate it, let’s consider just what “Mississippi Valley” means: the Mississippi Valley is the entire United States between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, except for those parts which have direct access to the shores of either the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico. (The Rio Grande is the only significant river system, other than the Mississippi, that does so.) It includes parts of four of the original thirteen colonies (Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia) and parts of states that weren’t admitted to the Union until 1890. It includes the traditional domains of Eastern woodland nations like the Delaware and Iroquois, and of the prairie horse warriors like the Sioux and Comanche. It includes territory that mapmakers have assigned to France, Britain, Spain, Mexico and independent Texas. All pointed at the same destination.
A majority of moving water in North America flows through New Orleans just before reaching the sea. That means that the Crescent City is one of the world’s biggest and most important transport hubs even today, when we have the ability to move people and cargo by air or along interstate highways. But during the first three generations of American independence, before railroads and for the most part even before steamboats? Then, the only way for Western farmers to get their product to their Atlantic and European markets—the only way to get the entire produce of America between the Appalachians and the Rockies to where it needed to go—was to float it on flatboats, downstream to New Orleans.
If you’ve got wheat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that you’re looking to sell, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive at New Orleans. If you’ve got long-staple cotton in Huntsville, Alabama, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to pass through Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois, and eventually arrive at New Orleans. If you’ve got beef in Billings, Montana, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive in New Orleans. If you’re in St. Paul, Minnesota, and you’ve got … I have no idea. Frozen tears, probably. If you’re in St. Paul and you’ve got frozen tears, you’re going to float them downstream on a flatboat, and they’re going to arrive in New Orleans.
We can easily see, then, New Orleans’s vital economic importance, but we might not immediately realise that this also made New Orleans the must crucial strategic point in North America. After all, both New Orleans and the entire, vast Mississippi Valley have been comfortably American (apart from a single, intense period in the 1860s) for over two hundred years. But for half a century between 1763 and 1815, four different countries looked to make themselves the dominant power in the Mississippi Valley, and they all chose to do so by trying to fly their flag over New Orleans.
This is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said that, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy.” And this was the world James Wilkinson saw when he arrived in Kentucky in the 1780s. One power, Spain, held the right bank of the Mississippi, while an army of colonists from another, the United States, were quickly filling up the left bank, settling along the shores of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. But it was Spain, not the Americans, who held New Orleans, and that time they held it very securely. Interest therefore dictated that the American Western settlers would be reasonably drawn toward Spain, not the United States they had left behind on the other side of the Appalachians.
Wilkinson could see that because of that, the borders as they stood in the 1780s were destined to change in very short order. He decided to work toward seeing to it that Spain would come out on top, because he thought they were the better bet. But he was far from the only one who figured that the United States was going to come out the loser in the contest for ownership of most of North America. A major Revolutionary War hero, a state governor, a US senator, a Vice President of the United States, and even a future President: all of them flirted, more or less seriously, with abandoning the United States and establishing the independence of the Transappalachian states, either entirely on their own terms or in conjunction with one of three different European powers.
Those are holders of great offices, and efforts like this continued into the 1790s and early 1800s, long after the Constitution and the federal government had been established and the United States seemed like it would be more than a transitory curiosity. For so many men like this to have pursued such a goal, on independent occasions, makes it clear that we can’t just dismiss them as traitors to their country, as we could if it were just Wilkinson and his thirty years of Spanish espionage we were worried about. Something else was at play here. For these men, their concept of country obviously allowed that the United States simply had no claim on them once they were west of the Appalachians.
So next time I’m going to survey all these other would-be nationbuilders in the Mississippi Valley.