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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The crunch came for Jefferson in October 1802. Spain’sKing Charles IV finally got around to signing the royal decreeofficially transferring the territory to France, and on October16, the Spanish administrator in New Orleans, JuanVentura Morales, who had agreed to administer the colonyuntil his French replacement, Laussat, could arrive, arbitrarilyended the American right to deposit cargo in the cityduty-free. He argued that the three-year term of the 1795treaty that had granted America this right and free passagethrough Spanish territory on the Mississippi had expired.Morales’ proclamation meant that American merchandisecould no longer be stored in New Orleans warehouses. As aresult, trappers’ pelts, agricultural produce and finishedgoods risked exposure and theft on open wharfs while awaitingshipment to the East Coast and beyond. The entire economyof America’s Western territories was in jeopardy. “Thedifficulties and risks . . . are incalculable,” warned the U.S.vice-consul in New Orleans, Williams E. Hulings, in a dispatchto Secretary of State James Madison.

As Jefferson had written in April 1802 to the U.S. ministerin Paris, Robert R. Livingston, it was crucial that the port ofNew Orleans remain open and free for American commerce,particularly the goods coming down the Mississippi River.“There is on the globe one single spot,” Jefferson wrote, “thepossessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It isNew Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighthsof our territory must pass to market.” Jefferson’s concern wasmore than commercial. “He had a vision of America as anempire of liberty,” says Douglas Brinkley. “And he saw theMississippi River not as the western edge of the country, butas the great spine that would hold the continent together.”

As it was, frontiersmen, infuriated by the abrogation ofthe right of deposit of their goods, threatened to seize NewOrleans by force. The idea was taken up by lawmakers suchas Senator James Ross of Pennsylvania, who drafted a resolutioncalling on Jefferson to form a 50,000-man army totake the city. The press joined the fray. The United States hadthe right, thundered the New York Evening Post, “to regulatethe future destiny of North America,” while the CharlestonCourier advocated “taking possession of the port . . . byforce of arms.” As Secretary of State James Madison explained,“The Mississippi is to them everything. It is theHudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigablerivers of the Atlantic States, formed into one stream.”

With Congress and a vociferous press calling for action,Jefferson faced the nation’s most serious crisis since theAmerican Revolution. “Peace is our passion,” he declared,and expressed the concern that hotheaded members of theopposition Federalist Party might “force us into war.” He hadalready instructed Livingston in early 1802 to approachNapoléon’s foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand,to try to prevent the cession of the territory to France, if thishad not already occurred, or, if the deal was done, to try topurchase New Orleans. In his initial meeting with Napoléonafter taking up his Paris post in 1801, Livingston had beenwarned about Old World ways. “You have come to a very corruptworld,” Napoléon told him frankly, adding roguishlythatTalleyrand was the right man to explain what he meantby corruption.

A wily political survivor who held high offices under theFrench Revolution, and later under Napoléon’s empire andthe restored Bourbon monarchy, Talleyrand had spent theyears 1792 to 1794 in exile in America after being denouncedby the revolutionary National Convention, and had conceiveda virulent contempt for Americans. “Refinement,” hedeclared, “does not exist” in the United States.As Napoléon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand customarilydemanded outrageous bribes for diplomatic results. Despitea clubfoot and what contemporaries called his “dead eyes,”he could be charming and witty when he wanted—whichhelped camouflage his basic negotiating tactic of delay. “Thelack of instructions and the necessity of consulting one’s governmentare always legitimate excuses in order to obtain delaysin political affairs,” he once wrote. When Livingstontried to discuss the territory, Talleyrand simply denied thatthere was any treaty between France and Spain. “There neverwas a government in which less could be done by negotiationthan here,” a frustrated Livingston wrote to Madison onSeptember 1, 1802. “There is no people, no legislature, nocounselors. One man is everything.”

But Livingston, although an inexperienced diplomat,tried to keep himself informed about the country to whichhe was ambassador. In March 1802, he warned Madison thatFrance intended to “have a leading interest in the politics ofour western country” and was preparing to send 5,000 to7,000 troops from its Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue(now Haiti) to occupy New Orleans. But Napoléon’s troopsin Saint Domingue were being decimated by a revolution andan outbreak of yellow fever. In June, Napoléon ordered Gen.Claude Victor to set out for New Orleans from the FrenchcontrolledNetherlands. But by the time Victor assembledenough men and ships in January 1803, ice blocked the Dutchport, making it impossible for him to set sail.

That same month Jefferson asked James Monroe, a formermember of Congress and former governor of Virginia,to join Livingston in Paris as minister extraordinary with discretionary powers to spend $9,375,000 to secure New Orleansand parts of the Floridas (to consolidate the U.S. positionin the southeastern part of the continent). In financialstraits at the time, Monroe sold his china and furniture toraise travel funds, asked a neighbor to manage his properties,and sailed for France on March 8, 1803, with Jefferson’s partingadmonition ringing in his ears: “The future destinies ofthis republic” depended on his success.

By the time Monroe arrived in Paris on April 12, the situationhad, unknown to him, radically altered: Napoléon hadsuddenly decided to sell the entire LouisianaTerritory to theUnited States. He had always seen Saint Domingue, with apopulation of more than 500,000, producing enough sugar,coffee, indigo, cotton and cocoa to fill some 700 ships a year,as France’s most important holding in the Western Hemisphere.The LouisianaTerritory, in Napoléon’s view, was usefulmainly as a granary for Saint Domingue. With the colonyin danger of being lost, the territory was less useful. Then,too, Napoléon was gearing up for another campaign againstBritain and needed funds for that.

Napoléon’s brothers Joseph and Lucien had gone to seehim at the TuileriesPalace on April 7, determined to convincehim not to sell the territory. For one thing, they considered itfoolish to voluntarily give up an important French holdingon the American continent. For another, Britain had unofficiallyoffered Joseph a bribe of £100,000 to persuadeNapoléon not to let the Americans have Louisiana. ButNapoléon’s mind was already made up. The First Consul happenedto be sitting in his bath when his brothers arrived.“Gentlemen,” he announced, “think what you please aboutit. I have decided to sell Louisiana to the Americans.” Tomake his point to his astonished brothers, Napoléon abruptlystood up, then dropped back into the tub, drenchingJoseph. Amanservant slumped to the floor in a faint.

French historians point out that Napoléon had severalreasons for this decision. “He probably concluded that, followingAmerican independence, France couldn’t hope tomaintain a colony on the American continent,” says Jean Tulard,one of France’s foremost Napoléon scholars. “Frenchpolicy makers had felt for some time that France’s possessionsin the Antilles would inevitably be ‘contaminated’ byAmerica’s idea of freedom and would eventually take theirown independence. By the sale, Napoléon hoped to create ahuge country in the Western Hemisphere to serve as a counterweightto Britain and maybe make trouble for it.”


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