The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the Louisiana territory (828,000 square miles) by the United States from France in 1803. The U.S. paid fifty million francs ($11,250,000 USD) and a cancellation of debts worth eighteen million francs ($3,750,000 USD) for a total of sixty-eight million francs ($15,000,000 USD) which averages to approximately four cents per acre. Adjusting for inflation, the modern financial equivalent spent for the Purchase of the Louisiana territory is approximately ($236 million in 2014 U.S. dollars which averages to less than forty-two cents per acre).
The Louisiana territory included land from fifteen present U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The territory contained land that forms Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska; the area of Minnesota that is west of the Mississippi River; a large portion of North Dakota; a large portion of South Dakota; the northeastern section ofNew Mexico; the northern portion of Texas; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (plus New Orleans); and small portions of land that form the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Throughout the second half of the 18th century, Louisiana was a pawn on the chessboard of European politics. It was originally claimed by Spain but subsequently settled by the French, who established the colony as part of New France. Following French defeat in the Seven Years’ War, Spain gained control of the territory. As the lands was being gradually settled by United Statesmigrants, many Americans, including Jefferson, assumed that the territory would be acquired “piece by piece.” The risk of another power taking it from a weakened Spain made a “profound reconsideration” of this policy necessary.”
The city of New Orleans controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River because of its location; other ports were established, but only New Orleans had direct access from the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans was already important for shipping agricultural goods to and from the parts of the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains. Pinckney’s Treaty, signed with Spain on October 27, 1795, gave American merchants “right of deposit” in New Orleans, granting them use of the port to store goods for export. Americans used this right to transport products such as flour, tobacco, pork, bacon, lard, feathers, cider, butter, and cheese. The treaty also recognized American rights to navigate the entire Mississippi, which had become vital to the growing trade of the western territories.
In 1798 Spain revoked this treaty, prohibiting American use of New Orleans, and greatly upsetting the Americans. In 1801, Spanish Governor Don Juan Manuel de Salcedo took over from the Marquess of Casa Calvo, and restored the U.S. right to deposit goods. Napoleon Bonaparte had gained Louisiana for French ownership from Spain in 1800 under the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. But the treaty was kept secret. Louisiana remained nominally under Spanish control, until a transfer of power to France on November 30, 1803, just three weeks before the formal cession to the United States on December 20, 1803. Another ceremony was held in St. Louis a few months later, in part because during winter conditions the news of the New Orleans formalities did not reachUpper Louisiana. The March 9–10, 1804, event is remembered as Three Flags Day.
James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston had traveled to Paris to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans in 1802. Their interest was only in gaining control of New Orleans and its environs; they did not anticipate the much larger acquisition which would follow. The Louisiana Purchase was by far the largest territorial gain in U.S. history. Stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, the purchase doubled the size of the United States. Before 1803, Louisiana had been under Spanish control for forty years. Although Spain aided the rebels in theAmerican Revolutionary War, the Spanish didn’t want the Americans to settle in their territory.
Although the purchase was thought of by some as unjust and unconstitutional, Jefferson believed there was no evidence of unconstitutional actions taking place during the purchase of what became fifteen states. In hindsight, the Louisiana Purchase could be considered one of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest contributions to the United States. On April 18, 1802, Jefferson penned a letter to Robert Livingston. It was an intentional exhortation to make this supposedly mild diplomat strongly warn the French of their perilous course. The letter began:
“The cession of Louisiana and the Floridas by Spain to France works most sorely on the U.S. On this subject the Secretary of State has written to you fully. Yet I cannot forbear recurring to it personally, so deep is the impression it makes in my mind. It completely reverses all the political relations of the U.S. and will form a new epoch in our political course. Of all nations of any consideration France is the one which hitherto has offered the fewest points on which we could have any conflict of right, and the most points of a communion of interests. From these causes we have ever looked to her as our natural friend, as one with which we never could have an occasion of difference. Her growth therefore we viewed as our own, her misfortunes ours. There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths 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 our inhabitants. France placing herself in that door assumes to us the attitude of defiance. Spain might have retained it quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there, so that her possession of the place would be hardly felt by us, and it would not perhaps be very long before some circumstance might arise which might make the cession of it to us the price of something of more worth to her. Not so can it ever be in the hands of France. The impetuosity of her temper, the energy and restlessness of her character, placed in a point of eternal friction with us…”
Jefferson’s letter went on with the same heat to a much quoted passage about “the day that France takes possession of New Orleans.” Not only did he say that day would be a low point in France’s history, for it would seal America’s marriage with the British fleet and nation, but he added, astonishingly, that it would start a massive shipbuilding program.
While the sale of the territory by Spain back to France in 1800 went largely unnoticed, fear of an eventual French invasion spread nationwide when, in 1801, Napoleon sent a military force to secure New Orleans. Southerners feared that Napoleon would free all the slaves in Louisiana, which could trigger slave uprisings elsewhere. Though Jefferson urged moderation, Federalists sought to use this against Jefferson and called for hostilities against France. Undercutting them, Jefferson took up the banner and threatened an alliance with Britain, although relations were uneasy in that direction. In 1801 Jefferson supported France in its plan to take back Saint-Domingue, then under control of Toussaint Louverture after a slave rebellion.
Jefferson sent Livingston to Paris in 1801 after discovering the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France under the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. Livingston was authorized to purchase New Orleans.
In January 1802, France sent General Leclerc to Saint-Domingue to re-establish slavery, which had been abolished in law and in the constitution of the French Republic of 1795—both in France and its colonies—to reduce the rights of free people of color and take back control of the island from Toussaint Louverture, who had maintained St. Domingue as French against invasion by the Spanish and British empires. Before the Revolution, France had derived enormous wealth from St. Domingue at the cost of the lives and freedom of the slaves. Napoleon wanted its revenues and productivity for France restored. Alarmed over the French actions and its intention to re-establish an empire in North America, Jefferson declared neutrality in relation to theCaribbean, refusing credit and other assistance to the French, but allowing war contraband to get through to the rebels to prevent France from regaining a foothold.
In November 1803, France withdrew its 7,000 surviving troops from Saint-Domingue (more than two-thirds of its troops died there) and gave up its ambitions in the Western Hemisphere. In 1804 Haiti declared its independence; but, fearing a slave revolt at home, Jefferson and the US Congress refused to recognize the new republic, the second in the Western Hemisphere, and imposed a trade embargo against it. This, together with later claims by France to reconquer Haiti, encouraged by Britain, made it more difficult for Haiti to recover after ten years of wars.
In 1803, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a French nobleman, began to help negotiate with France at the request of Jefferson. Du Pont was living in the United States at the time and had close ties to Jefferson as well as the prominent politicians in France. He engaged in back-channel diplomacy with Napoleon on Jefferson’s behalf during a visit to France and originated the idea of the much larger Louisiana Purchase as a way to defuse potential conflict between the United States and Napoleon over North America.
Jefferson disliked the idea of purchasing Louisiana from France, as that could imply that France had a right to be in Louisiana. Jefferson had concerns that a U.S. President did not have the constitutional authority to make such a deal. He also thought that to do so would erode states’ rights by increasing federal executive power. On the other hand, he was aware of the potential threat that France could be in that region and was prepared to go to war to prevent a strong French presence there.
Throughout this time, Jefferson had up-to-date intelligence on Napoleon’s military activities and intentions in North America. Part of his evolving strategy involved giving du Pont some information that was withheld from Livingston. Some sources claim he also gave intentionally conflicting instructions to the two. Desperate to avoid possible war with France, Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris in 1802 to negotiate a settlement, with instructions to go to Londonto negotiate an alliance if the talks in Paris failed. Spain procrastinated until late 1802 in executing the treaty to transfer Louisiana to France, which allowed American hostility to build. Also, Spain’s refusal to cede Florida to France meant that Louisiana would be indefensible. Monroe had been formally expelled from France on his last diplomatic mission, and the choice to send him again conveyed a sense of seriousness.
Napoleon needed peace with Great Britain to implement the Treaty of San Ildefonso and take possession of Louisiana. Otherwise, Louisiana would be an easy prey for Britain or even for the United States. But in early 1803, continuing war between France and Britain seemed unavoidable. On March 11, 1803, Napoleon began preparing to invade Britain. A slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (present-day Republic of Haiti) had been followed by the first French general emancipation of slaves in 1793-94. This led to years of war against the Spanish and British empires, which sought to conquer St. Domingue and re-enslave the emancipated population. An expeditionary force under Napoleon’s brother-in-law Charles Leclerc in January 1802, supplemented by 20,000 troops over the next 21 months, had tried to reconquer the territory and re-establish slavery. But yellow fever and the fierce resistance of black, mulatto, and white revolutionaries destroyed the French army. This was the culmination of the only successful slave revolt in history, and Napoleon withdrew the surviving French troops in November 1803. In 1804 Haiti became the first independent black-majority state in the New World.
As Napoleon had failed to re-enslave the emancipated population of Haiti, he abandoned his plans to rebuild France’s New World empire. Without sufficient revenues from sugar colonies in the Caribbean, Louisiana had little value to him. Spain had not yet completed the transfer of Louisiana to France, and war between France and Britain was imminent. Out of anger against Spain and the unique opportunity to sell something that was useless and not truly his yet, Napoleon decided to sell the entire territory. Although the foreign minister Talleyrand opposed the plan, on April 10, 1803, Napoleon told the Treasury Minister François de Barbé-Marbois that he was considering selling the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States. On April 11, 1803, just days before Monroe’s arrival, Barbé-Marbois offered Livingston all of Louisiana for $15 million, equivalent to about $233 million in 2011 dollars.
The American representatives were prepared to pay up to $10 million for New Orleans and its environs, but were dumbfounded when the vastly larger territory was offered for $15 million. Jefferson had authorized Livingston only to purchase New Orleans. However, Livingston was certain that the United States would accept the offer. The Americans thought that Napoleon might withdraw the offer at any time, preventing the United States from acquiring New Orleans, so they agreed and signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on April 30, 1803. On July 4, 1803, the treaty reached Washington, D.C.. The Louisiana Territory was vast, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to Rupert’s Land in the north, and from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. Acquiring the territory would double the size of the United States, at a sum of less than 3 cents per acre.
The American government used $3 million in gold as a down payment, and issued bonds for the balance to pay France for the purchase. Earlier that year, Francis Baring and Company of London had become the U.S. government’s official banking agent in London. Because of this favored position, the US asked the Baring firm to handle the transaction. Francis Baring’s son Alexander was in Paris at the time and helped in the negotiations. Another Baring advantage was a close relationship with Hope and Company of Amsterdam. The two banking houses worked together to facilitate and underwrite the Purchase. Because Napoleon wanted to receive his money as quickly as possible, the two firms received the American bonds and shipped the gold to France. Napoleon used the money to finance his planned invasion of England, which never took place.