How the Louisiana Purchase Changed the World

When Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, he altered the shape of a nation and the course of history

The Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of the United States and the cost of about four cents an acre was a breathtaking bargain. (The Granger Collection, New York)
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UNDERSTANDABLY, Pierre Clément de Laussat was saddened by this unexpected turn of events. Having arrived in New Orleans from Paris with his wife and three daughters just nine months earlier, in March 1803, the cultivated, worldly French functionary had expected to reign for six or eight years as colonial prefect over the vast territory of Louisiana, which was to be France’s North American empire.The prospect had been all the more pleasing because the territory’s capital, New Orleans, he had noted with approval,was a city with “a great deal of social life, elegance and goodbreeding.” He also had liked the fact that the city had “all sortsof masters—dancing, music, art, and fencing,” and that even though there were “no book shops or libraries,” books could be ordered from France.

But almost before Laussat had learned to appreciate a good gumbo and the relaxed Creole pace of life, Napoléon Bonaparte had abruptly decided to sell the territory to the United States. This left Laussat with little to do but officiate when, on a sunny December 20, 1803, the French tricolor was slowly lowered in New Orleans’ main square, the Placed’Armes, and the American flag was raised. After William C.C. Claiborne and Gen. James Wilkinson, the new commissioners of the territory, officially took possession of it in the name of the United States, assuring all residents that their property, rights and religion would be respected, celebratory salvos boomed from the forts around the city. Americans cried “Huzzah!” and waved their hats, while French and Spanish residents sulked in glum silence. Laussat, standing on the balcony of the town hall, burst into tears.

The Louisiana Purchase, made 200 years ago this month, nearly doubled the size of the United States. By any measure, it was one of the most colossal land transactions in history, involving an area larger than today’s France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and the British Isles combined. All or parts of 15 Western states would eventually be carved from its nearly 830,000 square miles, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. And the price, $15 million, or about four cents an acre, was a breathtaking bargain.“Let the Land rejoice,” Gen. Horatio Gates, a prominent New York state legislator, told President Thomas Jefferson when details of the deal reached Washington, D.C. “For you have bought Louisiana for a song.”

Rich in gold, silver and other ores, as well as huge forestsand endless lands for grazing and farming, the new acquisitionwould make America immensely wealthy. Or, as Jeffersonput it in his usual understated way, “The fertility of thecountry, its climate and extent, promise in due season importantaids to our treasury, an ample provision for our posterity,and a wide-spread field for the blessings of freedom.”

American historians today are more outspoken in theirenthusiasm for the acquisition. “With the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, this is one of the threethings that created the modern United States,” says DouglasBrinkley, director of the EisenhowerCenter for AmericanStudies in New Orleans and coauthor with the late StephenE. Ambrose of The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation.Charles A. Cerami, author of Jefferson’s Great Gamble, agrees.“If we had not made this purchase, it would have pinched offthe possibility of our becoming a continental power,” he says.“That, in turn, would have meant our ideas on freedom anddemocracy would have carried less weight with the rest ofthe world. This was the key to our international influence.”

The bicentennial is being celebrated with yearlong activitiesin many of the states fashioned from the territory. Butthe focal point of the celebrations is Louisiana itself. Themost ambitious event opens this month at the New OrleansMuseum of Art. “Jefferson’s America & Napoléon’s France”(April 12-August 31), an unprecedented exhibition of paintings,sculptures, decorative arts, memorabilia and rare documents,presents a dazzling look at the arts and leading figuresof the two countries at this pivotal time in history. “What wewanted to do was enrich people’s understanding of the significanceof this moment,” says Gail Feigenbaum, lead curatorof the show. “It’s about more than just a humdinger of a realestate deal. What kind of world were Jefferson and Napoléonliving and working in? We also show that our political and culturalrelationship with France was extraordinarily rich at thetime, a spirited interchange that altered the shape of themodern world.”

The “Louisiana territory” was born on April 9, 1682, whenthe French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur (Lord) de La Salle,erected a cross and column near the mouth of the Mississippiand solemnly read a declaration to a group of bemused Indians.He took possession of the whole MississippiRiverbasin, he avowed, in the name of “the most high, mighty, invincibleand victorious Prince, Louis the Great, by Grace ofGod king of France and Navarre, 14th of that name.” And itwas in honor of Louis XIVthat he named the land Louisiana.

In 1718, French explorer Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur deBienville, founded a settlement near the site of La Salle’sproclamation, and named it la Nouvelle Orléans for Philippe,Duke of Orléans and Regent of France. By the time of theLouisiana Purchase, its population of whites, slaves ofAfrican origin and “free persons of color” was about 8,000.Apicturesque assemblage of French and Spanish colonial architectureand Creole cottages, New Orleans boasted a thrivingeconomy based largely on agricultural exports.

For more than a century after La Salle took possession ofit, the LouisianaTerritory, with its scattered French, Spanish,Acadian and German settlements, along with those ofNative Americans and American-born frontiersmen, wastraded among European royalty at their whim. The Frenchwere fascinated by America—which they often symbolizedin paintings and drawings as a befeathered Noble Savagestanding beside an alligator—but they could not decidewhether it was a new Eden or, as the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon declared, a primitive place fit onlyfor degenerate life-forms. But the official view was summedup by Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, whom Louis XIVnamed governor of the territory in 1710: “The people are aheap of the dregs of Canada,” he sniffed in a 42-page reportto the king written soon after he arrived. The soldiers therewere untrained and undisciplined, he lamented, and thewhole colony was “not worth a straw at the present time.”Concluding that the area was valueless, Louis XV gave theterritory to his Bourbon cousin Charles III of Spain in 1763.But in 1800, the region again changed hands, when Napoléonnegotiated the clandestine Treaty of San Ildefonso withSpain’s Charles IV. The treaty called for the return of the vastterritory to France in exchange for the small kingdom ofEtruria in northern Italy, which Charles wanted for hisdaughter Louisetta.

When Jefferson heard rumors of Napoléon’s secret deal,he immediately saw the threat to America’s Western settlementsand its vital outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. If the dealwas allowed to stand, he declared, “it would be impossiblethat France and the United States can continue long asfriends.”Relations had been relaxed with Spain while it heldNew Orleans, but Jefferson suspected that Napoléon wantedto close the Mississippi to American use. This must havebeen a wrenching moment for Jefferson, who had long beena Francophile. Twelve years before, he had returned from afive-year stint as American minister to Paris, shipping home86 cases of furnishings and books he had picked up there.


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