Thomas Jefferson's greatest achievements was the Louisiana Purchase, in which the
United States acquired 828,800 square miles of the French territory Louisiane in 1803. Encompassing all or part of 14 current U.S. states, the
land included all of present-day
Nebraska, parts of Minnesota that were west of the
Mississippi River, most of
North Dakota, nearly all of
South Dakota, northeastern
New Mexico, portions of
Colorado east of the Continental
Divide, and Louisiana west of the
Mississippi River. Today, the land
included in the purchase comprises approximately 23% of the territory of
the United States.
At the end of the French and Indian Wars
in 1763, France lost all of its possessions in North America, dashing
hopes of a colonial empire. This empire was centered on the Caribbean
island of Santo Domingo and its lucrative cash crop of sugar.
The United States in 1803-04, courtesy
territory called Louisiana, extending from New Orleans up the
Missouri River to modern-day
Montana, was intended as a granary for this empire
and produced flour, salt, lumber, and food for the sugar islands. By
the terms of the 1763 Treaty of Fontainbleau, however, Louisiana west
Mississippi River was ceded to Spain, while the victorious
British received the eastern portion of the huge colony.
When the United States won its independence from Great Britain in
1783, one of its major concerns was having a European power on its
western boundary, and the need for unrestricted access to the
Mississippi River. As American settlers pushed west, they found that
the Appalachian Mountains provided a barrier to shipping goods
eastward. The easiest way to ship produce was to build a flatboat and
float down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the port of New Orleans,
from which goods could be put on ocean-going vessels. The problem with
this route was that the Spanish owned both sides of the Mississippi
In 1795 the United States negotiated the Pinckney Treaty with Spain,
which provided the right of navigation on the river and the right of
deposit of U.S. goods at the port of New Orleans. The treaty was to
remain in effect for three years, with the possibility of renewal. By
1802, U.S. farmers, businessmen, trappers and lumbermen were bringing
over $1 million worth of produce through New Orleans each year.
Spanish officials were becoming concerned, as U.S. settlement moved
closer to their territory. Spain was eager to divest itself of
Louisiana, which was a drain on its financial resources. On October 1,
1800, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, concluded the Treaty
of San Ildefonso with Spain, which returned Louisiana to French
ownership in exchange for a Spanish kingdom in Italy.
Napoleon's ambitions in Louisiana involved the creation of a new
empire centered on the Caribbean sugar trade. By terms of the Treaty
of Ameins of 1800, Great Britain returned ownership of the islands of
Martinique and Guadaloupe to the French. Napoleon looked upon
Louisiana as a depot for these sugar islands, and as a buffer to U.S.
settlement. In October of 1801 he sent a large military force to
retake the important island of Santo Domingo, lost in a slave revolt
in the 1790s.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was disturbed
by Napoleon's plans to re-establish French colonies in America. With the
possession of New Orleans, Napoleon could close the Mississippi River
to U.S. commerce at any time.
Jefferson authorized Robert R. Livingston, U.S. Minister to France, to
negotiate for the purchase for up to $2 million of the City of New
Orleans, portions of the east bank of the Mississippi River,
and free navigation of the river for U.S. commerce.
An official transfer of Louisiana to French ownership had not yet taken
place, and Napoleon's deal with the Spanish was a poorly kept secret on
the frontier. On October 18, 1802, however, a strange thing happened. Juan
Ventura Moralis, Acting Intendant of Louisiana, made public the intention
of Spain to revoke the right of deposit at New Orleans for all cargo from
the United States.
President Thomas Jefferson, by Henry R. Robinson
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closure of this vital port to the United States caused anger and
consternation, and commerce in the west was virtually blockaded.
Historians believe that the revocation of the right of deposit was
prompted by abuses of the Americans, particularly smuggling, and not by
French intrigues as was believed at the time.
President Jefferson ignored public
pressure for war with France, and appointed James Monroe special envoy to
Napoleon, to assist in obtaining New Orleans for the United States.
Jefferson boosted the authorized expenditure of funds to $10 million.
Meanwhile, Napoleon's plans in the Caribbean were being frustrated by
Toussaint L'Ouverture, his army of former slaves, and yellow fever. During
ten months of fierce fighting on Santo Domingo, France lost over 40,000
soldiers. Without Santo Domingo Napoleon's colonial ambitions for a French
empire were foiled in North America. Louisiana would be useless as a
granary without sugar islanders to feed. Napoleon also considered the
temper of the United States, where sentiment was growing against France
and stronger ties with Great Britain were being considered. Spain's
refusal to sell Florida was the last straw, and Napoleon turned his
attention once more to Europe; the sale of the now-useless Louisiana would
supply needed funds to wage war there. Napoleon directed his ministers,
Talleyrand and Barbe-Marbois, to offer the entire Louisiana territory to
the United States - and quickly.
April 11, 1803, Talleyrand asked Robert Livingston how much the United
States was prepared to pay for Louisiana. Livingston was confused, as
his instructions only covered the purchase of New Orleans and the
immediate area, not the entire Louisiana territory. James Monroe
agreed with Livingston that Napoleon might withdraw this offer at any
for approval from President Jefferson might take months, so Livingston and
Monroe decided to open negotiations immediately. By April 30, they closed
a deal for the purchase of the entire 828,000 square mile Louisiana
territory for 60 million Francs (approximately $15 million). Part of this
sum was used to forgive debts owed by France to the United States. The
payment was made in United States bonds, which Napoleon sold at face value
to the Dutch firm of Hope and Company, and the British banking house of
Baring, at a discount of 87 1/2 per each $100 unit. As a result, Napoleon
received only $8,831,250 in cash for Louisiana. Dutiful banker Alexander
Baring conferred with Marbois in Paris, shuttled to the United States to
pick up the bonds, took them to Britain, and returned to France with the
money - and Napoleon used these funds to wage war against Baring's own
When news of the purchase reached the United States, President Jefferson
was surprised. He had authorized the expenditure of $10 million for a port
city, and instead received treaties committing the government to spend $15
million on a land package which would double the size of the country.
Jefferson's political opponents in the Federalist Party argued that the
Louisiana purchase was a worthless desert, and that the Constitution did
not provide for the acquisition of new land or negotiating treaties
without the consent of the Senate. What really worried the opposition was
the new states which would inevitably be carved from the Louisiana
territory, strengthening Western and Southern interests in Congress, and
further reducing the influence of New England Federalists in national
affairs. President Jefferson was an enthusiastic supporter of westward
expansion, and held firm in his support for the treaty. Despite Federalist
objections, the U.S. Senate ratified the Louisiana treaty on October 20,
A transfer ceremony was held in New Orleans on November 29, 1803. Since
the Louisiana territory had never officially been turned over to the
French, the Spanish took down their flag, and the French raised theirs.
The following day, General James Wilkinson accepted possession of New
Orleans for the United States. A similar ceremony was held in St. Louis on
March 9, 1804, when a French tricolor was raised near the river, replacing
the Spanish national flag. The following day, Captain Amos Stoddard of the
First U.S. Artillery marched his troops into town and ran the stars and
stripes up the fort's flagpole. The Louisiana territory was officially
transferred to the United States government, represented by
The Louisiana Territory, purchased for less than 5 cents an acre, was one
of Thomas Jefferson's greatest contributions to his country. Louisiana
doubled the size of the United States literally overnight, without a war
or the loss of a single American life, and set a precedent for the
purchase of territory. It opened the way for the eventual expansion of the
United States across the continent to the Pacific, and its consequent rise
to the status of world power. International affairs in the Caribbean and
Napoleon's hunger for cash to support his war efforts were the background
for a glorious achievement of Thomas Jefferson's presidency, new lands and
new opportunities for the nation.
of America, updated December, 2016.
The Lewis & Clark Journal of Discovery, National Park Service
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