Louisiana's 200-Year Bargain

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2003

While shuffling my belle around a Lafayette, La., dance hall and hearing the Cajun accordion band singing in French, it dawned on me: No wonder the French are so fascinated with the American West -- they used to own it.

But when President Thomas Jefferson instructed his envoys James Monroe and Robert Livingston to buy New Orleans from France in 1803, Napoleon was in a selling mood. For $15 million he not only sold us the city that would become famous for Mardi Gras, Dixieland jazz and "Girls Gone Wild," he unloaded more than 800,000 square miles that became all or part of 15 states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana and the Dakotas. The American West was not won, it was bought.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of this real estate bargain known as the Louisiana Purchase, the state is letting the good times roll. There are special exhibits, events and reenactments all year long. From alligators to zydeco, Louisiana is letting loose.

Louisiana is reveling in "the creation of our nation," says Donna Durand of the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

And what does the year-long commemoration mean to her state? "Tourism," she says. "Dollars."

Then she adds, "And we have always felt that tie with France and wanted to extend that. We have a large Spanish population, too. It's also a celebration of that."

The whole thing began in New Orleans. And you should, too. After morning cafe au lait and beignets at the timeless Cafe du Monde, step across Jackson Square to the Cabildo. On the way, you're liable to pass portrait artists, palm readers and performers such as the magician who marks off his area with squirted water, then makes a pair of white birds disappear before your very eyes.

There's something magical about tracing the history of the Louisiana Purchase, too. By inking the deal, the fledgling United States -- which had taken 27 years to spread to the Mississippi River -- nearly doubled its size overnight.

The Cabildo is a brick giant with great windows and archways built in the late 18th century as the seat of the Spanish municipal government in New Orleans. You can stand in the elegant Sala Capitular, or Capital Room, and see where the papers for the massive land transfer were signed. You can also join the hour-long Louisiana Purchase tour, led by the Friends of the Cabildo, that begins around the corner at the 1850 House, a museum in the Lower Pontalba Building If you're lucky, you'll get someone funny and fanciful like Aline Conley, who says she's old enough to have children but not old enough to have grandchildren. She can tell you anecdotes about Napoleon, such as the time he was in the bathtub arguing with his brothers over whether to sell the land to America. They counseled him not to, believing that the purchase would give the United States too much power. He splashed them with water, Conley says.

Conley and others will show you around part of the French Quarter, with emphasis on the Place d'Armes and the buildings around the square.

New Orleans is a relic-revering city where the dead are always with us. Check out Napoleon's death mask on the second floor of the Cabildo. Ask yourself: How could someone so small conquer a world so big? And don't miss the long, dark lock of Andrew Jackson's hair.

The liaison between the two countries is explored in an exhibit titled "Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France," opening at the New Orleans Museum of Art on April 12. Paintings, papers and artifacts -- such as the emperor's shiny gold throne and Jefferson's big easy chair -- from museums all over the world, including the Louvre, Versailles, Monticello and Washington's National Gallery of Art, will be featured.

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