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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On April 11, when Livingston called on Talleyrand forwhat he thought was yet another futile attempt to deal, theforeign minister, after the de rigueur small talk, suddenlyasked whether the United States would perchance wish tobuy the whole of the LouisianaTerritory. In fact, Talleyrandwas intruding on a deal that Napoléon had assigned to theFrench finance minister, François de Barbé-Marbois. The latterknew America well, having spent some years in Philadelphiain the late 1700s as French ambassador to the UnitedStates, where he got to know Washington, Jefferson, Livingstonand Monroe. Barbé-Marbois received his orders onApril 11, 1803, when Napoléon summoned him. “I renounceLouisiana,” Napoléon told him. “It is not only New Orleansthat I will cede, it is the whole colony without reservation. Irenounce it with the greatest regret. . . . I require a greatdeal of money for this war [with Britain]. ”

Thierry Lentz, a Napoléon historian and director of theFondation Napoléon in Paris, contends that, for Napoléon,“It was basically just a big real estate deal. He was in a hurryto get some money for the depleted French treasury, althoughthe relatively modest price shows that he was had inthat deal. But he did manage to sell something that he didn’treally have any control over—there were few French settlersand no French administration over the territory—except onpaper.” As for Jefferson, notes historian Cerami, “he actuallywasn’t out to make this big a purchase. The whole thing cameas a total surprise to him and his negotiating team in Paris, becauseit was, after all, Napoléon’s idea, not his.”

Showing up unexpectedly at the dinner party Livingstongave on April 12 for Monroe’s arrival, Barbé-Marbois discreetlyasked Livingston to meet him later that night at thetreasury office. There he confirmed Napoléon’s desire to sellthe territory for $22,500,000. Livingston replied that he“would be ready to purchase provided the sum was reducedto reasonable limits.” Then he rushed home and worked until3 a.m. writing a memorandum to Secretary of State Madison,concluding: “We shall do all we can to cheapen the purchase;but my present sentiment is that we shall buy.”

On April 15, Monroe and Livingston proposed $8 million.

At this, Barbé-Marbois pretended Napoléon had lost interest.But by April 27, he was saying that $15 million was as lowas Napoléon would go. Though the Americans then counteredwith $12.7 million, the deal was struck for $15 millionon April 29. The treaty was signed by Barbé-Marbois, Livingstonand Monroe on May 2 and backdated to April 30. Althoughthe purchase was undeniably a bargain, the price wasstill more than the young U.S. treasury could afford. But theresourceful Barbé-Marbois had an answer for that too. Hehad contacts at Britain’s Baring & Co. Bank, which agreed,along with several other banks, to make the actual purchaseand pay Napoléon cash. The bank then turned over ownershipof the LouisianaTerritory to the United States in returnfor bonds, which were repaid over 15 years at 6 percent interest,making the final purchase price around $27 million.Neither Livingston nor Monroe had been authorized tobuy all of the territory, or to spend $15 million—transatlanticmail took weeks, sometimes months, each way, so they hadno time to request and receive approval of the deal fromWashington. But an elated Livingston was aware that nearlydoubling the size of America would make it a major playeron the world scene one day, and he permitted himself someverbal euphoria: “We have lived long, but this is the noblestapril 2003 Smithsonianwork of our whole lives,” he said. “From this day the UnitedStates take their place among the powers of the first rank.”

It wasn’t until July 3 that news of the purchase reachedU.S. shores, just in time for Americans to celebrate it on IndependenceDay. AWashington newspaper, the National Intelligencer,reflecting how most citizens felt, referred to the“widespread joy of millions at an event which history willrecord among the most splendid in our annals.” Though wehave no historical evidence of how Jefferson felt about thepurchase, notes Cerami, reports from those in his circle likeMonroe refer to the president’s “great pleasure,” despite hisfear that the deal had gone beyond his constitutional powers.Not all Americans agreed, however. The BostonColumbian Centinel editorialized, “We are to give money ofwhich we have too little for land of which we already havetoo much.” And Congressman Joseph Quincy of Massachusettsso opposed the deal that he favored secession by theNortheastern states, “amicably if they can; violently if theymust.”

The favorable majority, however, easily prevailed and NewEngland remained in the Union. As for the ever-succinctThomas Jefferson, he wasted little time on rhetoric. “Theenlightened government of France saw, with just discernment,”he told Congress, with typical tact, on October 17,1803, “the importance to both nations of such liberal arrangementsas might best and permanently promote the peace,friendship, and interests of both.” But, excited by the commercialopportunities in the West, Jefferson, even before officialnotice of the treaty reached him, had already dispatchedMeriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to explore the territoryand the lands beyond. All the way to the Pacific.


“We have tried to capture the suspense and fascination of a story whose outcome is known, yet was not foreordained,” says Gail Feigenbaum, curator of the Jefferson-Napoléon show on view in New Orleans April 12 to August 31, “and to tell it through a rich variety of objects.” The variety includes three important documents: a copy of the treaty, which bears Jefferson’s signature; a document covering payment of claims by American citizens against France, signed by Napoléon; and the official report of transfer of the LouisianaTerritory signed by a bereaved prefect, Pierre de Laussat. The exhibition points up how intertwined the two nations were at the time. A seascape (see p. 3) portrays the Marquis de Lafayette’s ship La Victoire setting sail to carry him across the Atlantic in 1777 to fight in the American Revolution. (There is also a portrait of the marquis himself and a 1784 painting by French artist Jean Suau, Allegory of France Liberating America.) A mahogany and gilded bronze swan bed that belonged to the famous French beauty Juliette Récamier is also on display. Fashion-conscious American ladies reportedly imitated Récamier’s attire, but not her custom of receiving visitors in her bedroom. And John Trumbull’s huge painting The Signing of the Declaration of Independence documents the historic American event that so greatly impressed and influenced French revolutionary thinkers. It hangs not far from a color engraving of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was composed in 1789 by Lafayette with the advice of his American friend Thomas Jefferson.


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