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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

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.

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.”

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.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus