At the beginning of his climactic volume Francis Parkman says, “The most momentous and far-reaching question ever brought to issue on this continent was: Shall France remain here or shall she not?” No, not quite. The most momentous and far-reaching question ever brought to issue on this continent was, “whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” Yet there was another question that linked these two together, a question which the continent itself asked – and was to answer. It was: Are there geographical units here to which political units must correspond? It was asked so quietly that down to today many have never realized that it was asked at all, though by the time Canada surrendered many had heard it. None knew the answer then for more than half the continent remained unknown.
Men had to get about answering it in conditions that had changed altogether: the issue that Parkman phrased had turned the world upside down. Unquestionably, of the changed conditions the most important was that the English colonies had become, though not yet a nation, a people of themselves, an imperial people. Whether the Americans had completed ,or were just completing their separateness counts less than that they had entered on an imperial expansion. As both a dream and a fact the American Empire was born before the United States.
It was important too that the colonies no longer had an enemy at the north to fear, to fight, or in any way to take into account. But the thing more immediately important was one part of the peace settlement [of the French and Indian War]. In the distribution and rearrangement of lands conquered during the war Cuba, which had become British, was restored to Spain, who paid Florida for that redemption. Canada became British except for two minute specks off the coast of Newfoundland, St. Pierre and Miquelon. So did everything that lay east of the Mississippi River, except some 2800 square miles which included the mouth of the river and the town of New Orleans. This master key to the continent, this portal to the heartland, had been secretly ceded to Spain before the final peace treaty was written. With it Spain had also acquired everything west of the Mississippi and south of Canada that had been French.
From then on that was Louisiana: North America south of Canada, west of the Mississippi as far as its drainage might extend, but not including what had been Spanish territory before the cession. That was Louisiana; Louisiana was now Spanish. It comprised an entirely new pattern of forces, which would exert a constantly increasing torque. And nobody knew how far west Louisiana extended.