Even among residents of Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico is something many of us don’t think about unless an approaching hurricane forces us to look toward the sea. Here in the offseason for tropical storms, the Gulf doesn’t, for the most part, attract much public attention.
That’s why the timing of “The Gulf of Mexico,” John S. Sledge’s new book about the world’s 10th largest body of water, is so welcome. It recently arrived during the holiday season, offering a reminder that the Gulf is something useful to think about at any time of year.
“Incredibly, despite recent high-profile events like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico remains underappreciated by many in the United States,” Sledge tells readers. “This is all the more surprising given that this country gets a quarter of its natural gas and one-sixth of its oil from the Gulf, claims fourteen of the basin’s nineteen major ports, harvests 1.4 billion pounds of seafood annually from its waters (20 percent of the total U.S. commercial fishery), and logs over twenty million recreational fishing trips a year, and its five Gulf coastal states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) boast surging beach tourism and overall growth rates two and a half times the national average.”
Sledge points out that the Gulf of Mexico is largely absent from American history books. He quotes historian Jack E. Davis, who’s also written about the Gulf, who laments that despite its enormous contributions to the nation, the Gulf basin has been “wholly excluded from the central narrative of the American experience.”
But as Sledge also points out, Thomas Jefferson realized the strategic importance of the Gulf of Mexico to a fledgling American nation. He was particularly focused on that great jewel of the Gulf, New Orleans. He grieved when Napoleon Bonaparte secured the region from Spain in 1800. “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy,” Jefferson observed. “It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-fifths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half of our inhabitants.”
Three years later, through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans came under American control.
The Gulf of Mexico and its neighboring communities are still critically important to the nation and the globe. Whoever is elected president in 2020 should heed Thomas Jefferson’s recognition of how crucial our part of the world is to America’s destiny.