Saturday, February 13, 2010

All Praise the Beloved Sausage (The First Miracle in New Orleans)

On December 20, 1803 the French tricolor was lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised in New Orleans, marking the official transfer of the Louisiana Territory from France to America. 

The Louisiana Purchase, a 909,000-square-mile region that doubled the size of the United States, cost just $15M, making it arguably the greatest real estate deal in history.  Conceived in early 1803 by Jefferson, the deal was signed in April and approved in October.

Whoosh.  Done.  Easy.  Why can’t government act like that today?  Healthcare.  Taxes.  The Deficit.  Global warming.  Global cooling.  TARP funds.  Bailouts.  Innovation.  Space exporation.  Just give us a little of that ol’ Louisiana Purchase magic.  See it.  Do it. Voila--good for the whole country!

But wait.  There’s an old saying (back when people used to eat luncheon meat) that advised against watching the sausage being made.  So, at the risk of a little blood and guts, here’s some sausage-making worth remembering.

The French had been ceded the Louisiana Territory by the Spanish in 1801, causing great heartburn in Washington, not to mention with residents of New Orleans who were Spanish one day, French the next, and still trying to deal with the strange “Kaintuck” rivermen that had begun arriving en masse aboard their flatboats over the prior decade. 

Suddenly, Jefferson knew, a powerful, belligerent nation could choke-off America’s access to the Gulf. 

Meanwhile, Napoleon was dancing with his own demons, reconsidering the cost of a strategic presence in the Gulf after having lost thousands of troops in Santo Domingo to slave revolts and disease.

When Jefferson sent Monroe and Livingston to Paris to gently inquire if the Louisiana Territory, or at least New Orleans, might one day be for sale, Monroe was stunned by the French response.  Not only were they interested in selling the city, they wanted to be rid of the whole très désagréable mess--at a rock-bottom price.
 
Monroe and his party were flabbergasted and, while they had no legal authority, accepted and signed a cession document anyway.  In other words, the deal was too good to worry about anything so pedestrian as the law.

The French were operating on a similar concept, as their sale of the Louisiana Territory violated the 1800 Treaty of San Ildefonso; neither Great Britain nor Spain would recognize the legality of the transfer.

Not to worry.  What’s a little bending of the Constitution and disregard of international law when the terms are so good?  A few hairs in the sausage never killed anyone (that we can prove, anyway).

A windfall (less than $.03 per acre) like this would, Monroe knew, be greeted with wild adulation back home.  In fact, the deal created an inferno when news broke in Washington, D.C.  Many Federalists opposed the purchase on the grounds that a country twice the size would be ungovernable and disintegrate.  Others opposed the deal over some of its fine print.  Jefferson himself believed the work of Monroe’s diplomatic group exceeded his Presidential authority and that the purchase would require a constitutional amendment. 

Good.  Back on track.  We’re going to do this right, by the book.  Give and take.  Making the sausage.

But almost immediately the pragmatic Jefferson appeared.  After all, he argued, the “laws of self-preservation overrule the laws of obligations.”  (Cool.  I’m using that line the next time I overstep my authority.)  Jefferson was worried that Napoleon might not be in power much longer, and did not want to miss out on the lopsidedness of the deal.  

Not long after, enough of the Senate was swayed as well.  In the end, the Purchase was approved 24-7.

Said another way, 29% of America’s elected officials would have voided the Louisiana Purchase—on what seemed like very sound legal and governance grounds. 

That’s how we get things done around this joint, I’m afraid (and most of the other joints I know about).  Only when all the ugliness of sausage-making is done, when the sausage survives a generation of two, when the sausage eventually becomes our tried-and-true, “beloved sausage” do we forget how messy it all was.  And then we remember only what true geniuses we really are.

Think about the auto industry.  The Japanese Miracle.  The Brooklyn Bridge.  The beginnings of our national parks.  Women’s suffrage.  American healthcare. The career of Steve Jobs.   The last product you brought to market.  The last happy, successful child you raised.

All praise the beloved sausage.