The story of the Louisiana Purchase by the United States is complicated and way in which the United States acquired Louisiana is complicated.
The Louisiana Purchase Agreement is made up of the Treaty of Cession and the two conventions regarding the financial aspects of the transaction.
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 French 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 of the Mississippi 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, having a European power on its western boundary was a major concern and the need for unrestricted access to the Mississippi River was evident. Pushing west, American settlers found that the Appalachian Mountains provided a formidable barrier to shipping goods east. Goods had to be to loaded onto a flatboat and float down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the port of New Orleans. The goods were then transferred to ocean-going vessels. An issue with this route was the Spanish ownership of both sides of the Mississippi below Natchez.
In 1795 the Pinckney Treaty was negotiated between the United States and Spain. Spain provided the right of use on the river and the right of deposit of goods at the port of New Orleans. The treaty was written to remain in effect for three years, with the potential option of renewal. By 1802, commerce had grown dramatically. Famer’s, trappers and lumbermen were passing over $1 million worth of goods through New Orleans each year. Spain became concerned of the increasing sprawl of U.S. settlement towards their territory. Eager to divest itself of Louisiana, which had become a significant drain on financial resources, Spain agreed to return Louisiana to France. On October 1, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, concluded the Treaty of San Ildefonso with Spain. Returning Louisiana to French ownership in exchange for a Spanish kingdom in Italy.
Napoleon’s planned to create an empire in Louisiana centered on the Caribbean sugar trade. The Treaty of Ameins of 1800, returned ownership of the of the islands of Martinique and Guadaloupe from Great Britain to the French. Napoleon regarded 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 island of Santo Domingo, lost previously in the 1790’s in a slave revolt.
President Thomas Jefferson was troubled by Napoleon’s plans to re-establish French colonies in North America. With the possession of the strategic Port of New Orleans, Napoleon could close the Mississippi to U.S. commerce at will. Jefferson authorized Robert R. Livingston, U.S. Minister to France, to negotiate for the purchase of the City of New Orleans, portions of the east bank of the Mississippi, and free navigation of the river for U.S. commerce. Allowing Livingston to spend up to $2 million.
An official transfer of Louisiana to French ownership had not yet taken place. On October 18, 1802, 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. The closure of this vital port to the United States caused anger and frustration. Commerce in the west was virtually blockaded. Historians believe that it was the abuse of the Americans, specifically smuggling, that caused the closure 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 raised the authorized expenditure of funds to $10 million.
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 colonial ambitions for France were unrealistic. 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.
On April 11, 1803, Talleyrand asked Robert Livingston what the United States was prepared to pay for Louisiana. Confused, as his instructions only covered the purchase of New Orleans and the immediate area, not the entire Louisiana territory, Livingston initially hesitated. In agreement with James Monroe that Napoleon might withdraw this offer at any moment. Livingston decided not to wait for approval from President Jefferson which might take months. Negotiations were opened immediately.
When offered the entire territory of Louisiana—an area larger than Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal combined—the American negotiators swiftly agreed to a price of $15 million.
Although President Thomas Jefferson was a strict interpreter of the Constitution who wondered if the U.S. Government was authorized to acquire new territory, he was also a visionary who dreamed of an “empire for liberty” that would stretch across the entire continent.
By April 30, a deal was closed for the purchase of the 828,000 square mile Louisiana territory for 60 million Francs (approximately $15 million). A portion 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 country!
When news of the purchase reached the United States, a surprised President Jefferson 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. The real concern of the opposition were 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 in the autumn of 1803.
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 Meriwether Lewis.
The Louisiana Territory, purchased for less than 5 cents an acre, was one of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest contributions. Louisiana doubled the size of the United States overnight. Most importantly, 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.