- Historic Sites
We Banked On Them
Why Americans should mourn the death of a British financial institution
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
Barings had to overcome numerous difficulties to fulfill the contradictory instructions and often risked loss by acting on its own rather than waiting for further instructions from Washington. But when the job was done, Rufus King, the American minister in London, wrote Francis Baring congratulating him “on the liberal and skilfull manner in which you have assisted Col. Humphreys in a very critical operation. I have written to the Secretary of the Treasury … of my conviction that the United States will entertain a proper sense of your Services in this Business.”
At the same time, Barings was also securing muskets and cannon for the United States, to help in the developing “Quasi War” with France. In all it delivered nearly 10,000 muskets and 330 cannon, advancing £45,000—no small sum at the end of the eighteenth century—for the purpose. But it was in securing Louisiana for the United States that Barings was nearly indispensable to American interests. At heart Louisiana was a geopolitical as well as a domestic political problem for Thomas Jefferson’s administration, which came to power in 1801. The trans-Appalachian West was growing by leaps and bounds by the turn of the nineteenth century, and much of Jefferson’s political support came from there. But the settlers, blocked by the mountains, were dependent on the Mississippi River and its tributaries to reach Eastern and world markets.
The Mississippi then formed the country’s western border, but New Orleans and the river’s mouth were in the hands of the Spanish. Fortunately Spain was now a Great Power in name only, quite unable to threaten American interests seriously. It allowed the United States to maintain a depot in New Orleans where cargoes could be transshipped without paying Spanish customs duties.
The ever more ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte, however, forced Spain to cede Louisiana to France in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. News of this cession soon leaked out, of course, and Jefferson was appalled by the idea of a French army on his back doorstep. The British lion, purring smoothly, offered to conquer Louisiana for the United States and turn it over when peace with France was achieved. But Jefferson, needless to say, didn’t want a British army any more than he wanted a French one. He moved to buy the east bank of the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, sending James Monroe to help the American minister to France, Robert Livingston. negotiate.
In the final deal for the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon trusted Barings’s paper over that of the United States.
Napoleon quickly realized that Louisiana couldn’t be defended against a British attack, and desperate for money as always, he offered to sell the whole territory. No one knew the precise boundaries at the time. Still, at an asking price of $15 million, no one doubted that it was a fantastic bargain. But as former New York Mayor David Dinkins once said, “If they’re selling elephants two for a quarter, that’s a great bargain, but only if you have a quarter and need two elephants.”
The Federalists thought that the answer to both conditions was no. “We are to give money of which we have too little for land of which we already have too much,” the Columbian Centinel , of Boston, complained. And certainly the money, while trivial on a per-acre basis, was huge on an absolute one. Today the U.S. government spends $15 million every five minutes around the clock. But in 1803 the total expenditures for the year were half that, $7,852,000.
Again, the United States needed a banker, one with vast resources. And it had one. Alexander Baring was with Monroe and Livingston throughout the negotiations with the French government and was largely responsible, at least according to his father, for getting the price as low as it was. Even for Barings it was a very large commitment of capital. “We all tremble about the magnitude of the American account,” Francis Baring confessed, and he limited Barings’s part in the deal to 60 percent. Henry Hope and company, another major merchant bank, took the other 40 percent.
In the final deal, Napoleon trusted Barings’s paper over that of the United States. He sold Louisiana to Baring Brothers and Hope for 52 million francs, 6 million payable in the first month and 2 million a month thereafter. Barings in turn turned title over to the United States in exchange for $11,250,000 in 6 percent bonds (the other $3,750,000 was covered by private American claims against France). No wonder that a few years later the French prime minister ruefully acknowledged, “There are six great powers Jn Europe: England, France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Baring Brothers.”
Now, suddenly, Barings is gone. The history of capitalism has lost a living example, and the United States has lost an old friend.