Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Survey: The Early (French) Republic

If the Constitution aimed to secure inequality in the United States, how did average people respond?  Many turned to evangelical religion, as I will demonstrate in a future post.  Many also moved west.  According to Edmund S. Morgan, tensions generated by class differences in Virginia encouraged founders like Thomas Jefferson to encourage westward expansion.  This, most scholars argue, led directly to white/Indian conflict.  However, Native Americans were not the only inhabitants of the American West at the time.  As Jay Gitlin demonstrates in Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion (New Haven Yale University Press, 2009)   much of North America's "wilderness" was not only occupied by Indians but also French colonials, a point that has “never found a place in American history textbooks." (BF, p. 2)  According to Gitlin, “the French plugged Indian producers and consumers into an international market economy.  Merchants such as Pierre Laclede and August Chouteau facilitated exchange and encouraged regional development from a pioneering urban base." (BF, p. 15)  The basis for this exchange was fur, and the French conducted business with “deerskin currency,” or “bucks," a point noted in James Neal Primm's Lion of the Valley: St. Louis Missouri, 1764-1980 (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1998).  With this currency they bought “silks, linens, and lace … fancy bonnets and shoes."  Merchants labored up the Mississippi from New Orleans, averaged 10 miles a day, bringing “silver, iron, and copper ware, mirrors, clothing, blankets, and Iberian wines.”  Members of a frontier bourgeoisie, the Chouteaus had more in common with elites in New Orleans and Paris than the frontier-people of North America.   The Chouteaus also enjoyed a different relationship with Indians, arguably a more equal one.  According to historian James Primm, “[T]wenty-three Indian tribes regularly … received presents at [St. Louis],” Laclede’s company presenting “annual gifts of blankets, mirrors, vermilion, awls, knives, guns, powder and ball, corn, tobacco, cloth, and other commodities, including brandy at times, to the tribes.”  Laclede himself “ceremoniously gave elaborate large and small medals, fancy plumed military hats, and even uniform jackets to the chiefs – usually distributed according to rank.”  Once the Louisiana Purchase was made, however, Jefferson moved quickly to stifle this trade, in part by forbidding the French from providing Indians with firearms in exchange for fur.  "The trade which is carried on with the savage nations," wrote the French citizens of St. Louis in 1803, "is founded entirely on fur peltries, and almost all are unable to procure them except by means of firearms." (Letter from Merchants of St. Louis, 1803, Territorial Papers of the United States).  Put simply, if the West was to be a safety valve for class tensions in the East, then Indians had to be disarmed. Whatever the right to bear arms meant, it did not necessarily mean the right to trade them.