The Louisiana Purchase (French: Vente de la Louisiane "Sale of Louisiana") was the acquisition by the United States of America in 1803 of 828,000 square miles (2,140,000 km2) of France's claim to the territory of Louisiana. The U.S. paid 50 million francs ($11,250,000) plus cancellation of debts worth 18 million francs ($3,750,000), for a total sum of 15 million dollars (less than 3 cents per acre) for the Louisiana territory ($230 million in 2012 dollars, less than 42 cents per acre).
The Louisiana territory encompassed all or part of 15 present U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The land purchased contained all of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska; parts of Minnesota that were west of the Mississippi River; most of North Dakota; most of South Dakota; northeastern New Mexico; northern Texas; the portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River, including the city of New Orleans; and small portions of land that would eventually become part of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
France controlled this vast area from 1699 until 1762, the year it gave the territory to its ally Spain. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, France took back the territory in 1800 in the hope of building an empire in North America. A slave revolt in Haiti and an impending war with Britain, however, led France to abandon these plans and sell the entire territory to the United States, who had originally intended only to seek the purchase of New Orleans and its adjacent lands.
The purchase of the territory of Louisiana took place during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. At the time, the purchase faced domestic opposition because it was thought to be unconstitutional. Although he agreed that the U.S. Constitution did not contain provisions for acquiring territory, Jefferson decided to go ahead with the purchase anyway in order to remove France's presence in the region and to protect both U.S. trade access to the port of New Orleans and free passage on the Mississippi River.
Throughout the later half of the 18th century, Louisiana was a pawn on the chessboard of European politics. It was originally claimed by Spain, but also claimed by the French, who established most of the colonists as part of New France. Following the Seven Years War and French defeat by Great Britain, Spain gained control of the territory west of the Mississippi River. As the area was being gradually settled by United States migrants, many Americans, including Jefferson, assumed that it would be acquired "piece by piece." The risk of another power taking it from a weakened Spain would make "profound reconsideration" of this policy necessary.
The city of New Orleans controlled the Mississippi River due to its location; other locations for ports were attempted, but did not succeed. New Orleans was already important for shipping agricultural goods to and from the parts of the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains. Pinckney's Treaty, signed with Spain on October 27, 1795, gave American merchants "right of deposit" in New Orleans, granting them use of the port to store goods for export. Americans used this right to transport products such as flour, tobacco, pork, bacon, lard, feathers, cider, butter, and cheese. The treaty also recognized American rights to navigate the entire Mississippi River, which had become vital to the growing trade of the western territories.
In 1798 Spain revoked this treaty, prohibiting American use of New Orleans, and greatly upsetting the Americans. In 1801, Spanish Governor Don Juan Manuel de Salcedo took over from the Marquess of Casa Calvo, and restored the right to deposit goods from the United States. Napoleon Bonaparte had gained Louisiana for French ownership from Spain in 1800 under the Treaty of San Ildefonso, after being a Spanish colony since 1762. But the treaty was kept secret. Louisiana remained nominally under Spanish control until a transfer of power to France on November 30, 1803, just three weeks before the cession to the United States.
James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston traveled to Paris to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans in 1802. Their interest was only in gaining control of New Orleans and its environs; they did not anticipate the much larger purchase that would follow.
The Louisiana Purchase was by far the largest territorial gain in U.S. history, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The purchase doubled the size of the United States. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Louisiana had been under control of the Spanish since 1763. Although Spain was America’s ally in the Revolution, they didn’t want the Americans to settle on their land or territory. The Louisiana Purchase territory was home for many of the Cajuns after the British forced them to leave from their former home of Nova Scotia, Canada.
Although the purchase was thought of as unjust and unconstitutional, Jefferson believed there was no evidence of unconstitutional actions taking place during the purchase of what became fifteen states. In hindsight, the Louisiana Purchase could be considered one of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest contributions to the United States. On April 18, 1802, Jefferson penned a letter to Robert Livingston. It was an intentional exhortation to make this supposedly mild diplomat strongly warn the French of their perilous course. The letter began:
The cession of Louisiana and the Floridas by Spain to France works most sorely on the U.S. On this subject the Secretary of State has written to you fully. Yet I cannot forbear recurring to it personally, so deep is the impression it makes in my mind. It completely reverses all the political relations of the U.S. and will form a new epoch in our political course. Of all nations of any consideration France is the one which hitherto has offered the fewest points on which we could have any conflict of right, and the most points of a communion of interests. From these causes we have ever looked to her as our natural friend, as one with which we never could have an occasion of difference. Her growth therefore we viewed as our own, her misfortunes ours. There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants. France placing herself in that door assumes to us the attitude of defiance. Spain might have retained it quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there, so that her possession of the place would be hardly felt by us, and it would not perhaps be very long before some circumstance might arise which might make the cession of it to us the price of something of more worth to her. Not so can it ever be in the hands of France. The impetuosity of her temper, the energy and restlessness of her character, placed in a point of eternal friction with us...
Jefferson’s letter went on with the same heat to a much quoted passage about “the day that France takes possession of New Orleans.” Not only did he say that day would be a low point in France’s history, for it would seal America’s marriage with the British fleet and nation, but he added, astonishingly, that it would start a massive shipbuilding program.
While the sale of the territory by Spain back to France in 1800 went largely unnoticed, fear of an eventual French invasion spread nationwide when, in 1801, Napoleon sent a military force to secure New Orleans. Southerners feared that Napoleon would free all the slaves in Louisiana, which could trigger slave uprisings elsewhere. Though Jefferson urged moderation, Federalists sought to use this against Jefferson and called for hostilities against France. Undercutting them, Jefferson took up the banner and threatened an alliance with Britain, although relations were uneasy in that direction. In 1801 Jefferson supported France in its plan to take back Saint-Domingue, then under control of Toussaint Louverture after a slave rebellion.
Jefferson sent Livingston to Paris in 1801 after discovering the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France under the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. Livingston was authorized to purchase New Orleans.
In January 1802, France sent General LeClerc to Saint-Domingue to re-establish slavery, reduce the rights of free people of color and take back control of the island from slave rebels. This colony had been the wealthiest for France in the Caribbean, and Napoleon wanted its productivity restored. Alarmed about the French actions and its intention to re-establish empire in North America, Jefferson declared neutrality in relation to the Caribbean, refusing credit and other assistance to the French but allowing war contraband to get through to the rebels to prevent France from getting a foothold again.
In November 1803, France withdrew its 7,000 surviving troops from Saint-Domingue (more than two-thirds of its troops died there) and gave up its ambitions in the western hemisphere. In 1804 Haiti declared independence but, fearing a slave revolt at home, Jefferson and the US Congress refused to recognize the new republic, the second in the Western Hemisphere, and imposed a trade embargo against it. This made it difficult for the country to recover after the wars.
In 1803, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a French nobleman, began to help negotiate with France at the request of Jefferson. Du Pont was living in the United States at the time and had close ties to Jefferson as well as the prominent politicians in France. He engaged in back-channel diplomacy with Napoleon on Jefferson's behalf during a visit to France and originated the idea of the much larger Louisiana Purchase as a way to defuse potential conflict between the United States and Napoleon over North America.
Jefferson disliked the idea of purchasing Louisiana from France, as that could imply that France had a right to be in Louisiana. Jefferson believed that a U.S. President did not have the authority to make such a deal: it was not specified in the Constitution. He also thought that to do so would erode states' rights by increasing federal executive power. On the other hand, he was aware of the potential threat that France could be in that region and was prepared to go to war to prevent a strong French presence there.
Throughout this time, Jefferson had up-to-date intelligence on Napoleon's military activities and intentions in North America. Part of his evolving strategy involved giving du Pont some information that was withheld from Livingston. He also gave intentionally conflicting instructions to the two. Desperate to avoid possible war with France, Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris in 1802 to negotiate a settlement, with instructions to go to London to negotiate an alliance if the talks in Paris failed. Spain procrastinated until late 1802 in executing the treaty to transfer Louisiana to France, which allowed American hostility to build. Also, Spain's refusal to cede Florida to France meant that Louisiana would be indefensible. Monroe had been formally expelled from France on his last diplomatic mission, and the choice to send him again conveyed a sense of seriousness.
Napoleon needed peace with Great Britain to implement the Treaty of San Ildefonso and take possession of Louisiana. Otherwise, Louisiana would be an easy prey for Britain or even for the United States. But in early 1803, continuing war between France and Britain seemed unavoidable. On March 11, 1803, Napoleon began preparing to invade Britain.
A slave revolution in Saint-Domingue (present-day Republic of Haiti) over previous years had resulted in massacres of the planter class. An expeditionary force under Napoleon's brother-in-law Charles Leclerc in January 1802, supplemented by 20,000 troops over the next 21 months, had tried to re-conquer the territory and re-establish slavery. But yellow fever and the fierce resistance of black revolutionaries destroyed the French army in what became the only successful slave revolt in history, and it withdrew its surviving troops in November 1803. In 1804 Haiti became the first independent black state in the New World.
As Napoleon had failed to re-enslave Haiti, he abandoned his plans to rebuild France's New World empire. Without sufficient revenues from sugar colonies in the Caribbean, Louisiana had little value to him. Spain had not yet completed the transfer of Louisiana to France, and war between France and Britain was imminent. Out of anger against Spain and the unique opportunity to sell something that was useless and not truly his yet, Napoleon decided to sell the entire territory.
Although the foreign minister Talleyrand opposed the plan, on April 10, 1803, Napoleon told the Treasury Minister François de Barbé-Marbois that he was considering selling the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States. On April 11, 1803, just days before Monroe's arrival, Barbé-Marbois offered Livingston all of Louisiana for $15 million, equivalent to about $230 million in present-day values.
The American representatives were prepared to pay up to $10 million for New Orleans and its environs, but were dumbfounded when the vastly larger territory was offered for $15 million. Jefferson had authorized Livingston only to purchase New Orleans. However, Livingston was certain that the United States would accept the offer.
The Americans thought that Napoleon might withdraw the offer at any time, preventing the United States from acquiring New Orleans, so they agreed and signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on April 30, 1803. On July 4, 1803, the treaty reached Washington, D.C.. The Louisiana Territory was vast, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to Rupert's Land in the north, and from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. Acquiring the territory would double the size of the United States at a sum of less than 3 cents per acre.
The American purchase of the Louisiana territory was not accomplished without domestic opposition. Jefferson's philosophical consistency was in question because of his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Many people believed he, and other Jeffersonians such as James Madison, were being hypocritical by doing something they surely would have argued against with Alexander Hamilton. The Federalists strongly opposed the purchase, favoring close relations with Britain over closer ties to Napoleon, and were concerned that the United States had paid a large sum of money just to declare war on Spain.
Both Federalists and Jeffersonians were concerned about whether the purchase was unconstitutional. Many members of the United States House of Representatives opposed the purchase. Majority Leader John Randolph led the opposition. The House called for a vote to deny the request for the purchase, but it failed by two votes, 59–57. The Federalists even tried to prove the land belonged to Spain, not France, but available records proved otherwise.
The Federalists also feared that the political power of the Atlantic seaboard states would be threatened by the new citizens of the west, bringing about a clash of western farmers with the merchants and bankers of New England. There was concern that an increase in the number of slave-holding states created out of the new territory would exacerbate divisions between north and south as well. A group of northern Federalists led by Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering went so far as to explore the idea of a separate northern confederacy.
Another concern was whether it was proper to grant citizenship to the French, Spanish, and free black people living in New Orleans, as the treaty would dictate. Critics in Congress worried whether these "foreigners", unacquainted with democracy, could or should become citizens.
Most domestic objections were politically settled, overridden, or simply hushed up.[dubious ] One problem, however, was too important to argue down convincingly: Napoleon did not have the right to sell Louisiana to the United States.[dubious ] The sale violated the 1800 Third Treaty of San Ildefonso in several ways.[dubious ] Furthermore, France had promised Spain it would never sell or alienate Louisiana to a third party. Napoleon, Jefferson, Madison, and the members of Congress all knew this during the debates about the purchase in 1803.[dubious ] Spain protested strongly, and Madison made some attempt to justify the purchase to the Spanish government, but was unable to do so convincingly.[dubious ] So, he tried continuously until results had been proven remorsefully inadequate.
Spain's argument that Napoleon did not have a right to sell Louisiana was explicated by the historian Henry Adams, who wrote: "The sale of Louisiana to the United States was trebly invalid; if it were French property, Bonaparte could not constitutionally alienate it without the consent of the Chambers; if it were Spanish property, he could not alienate it at all; if Spain had a right of reclamation, his sale was worthless." The sale of course was not "worthless"—the US actually did take possession. Furthermore the Spanish prime minister had authorized the U.S. to negotiate with the French government "the acquisition of territories which may suit their interests." Spain turned the territory over to France in a ceremony in New Orleans on November 30, a month before France turned it over to American officials.
On Saturday, April 30, 1803, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed by Robert Livingston, James Monroe, and Barbé Marbois in Paris. Jefferson announced the treaty to the American people on July 4. After the signing of the Louisiana Purchase agreement in 1803, Livingston made this famous statement, "We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our whole lives...From this day the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank."
The United States Senate ratified the treaty with a vote of twenty-four to seven on October 20. The Senators who voted against the treaty were: Simeon Olcott and William Plumer of New Hampshire, William Wells and Samuel White of Delaware, James Hillhouse and Uriah Tracy of Connecticut, and Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts. On the following day, the Senate authorized President Jefferson to take possession of the territory and establish a temporary military government. In legislation enacted on October 31, Congress made temporary provisions for local civil government to continue as it had under French and Spanish rule and authorized the President to use military forces to maintain order. Plans were also set forth for several missions to explore and chart the territory, the most famous being the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
France turned New Orleans over on December 20, 1803 at The Cabildo. On March 10, 1804, a formal ceremony was conducted in St. Louis to transfer ownership of the territory from France to the United States.
Effective on October 1, 1804, the purchased territory was organized into the Territory of Orleans (most of which became the state of Louisiana) and the District of Louisiana, which was temporarily under the control of the governor and judges of the Indiana Territory.
A dispute immediately arose between Spain and the United States regarding the extent of Louisiana. The territory's boundaries had not been defined in the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau that ceded it from France to Spain, nor the 1800 Third Treaty of San Ildefonso ceding it back to France, nor the 1803 Louisiana Purchase agreement ceding it to the United States.
The United States claimed Louisiana included the entire western portion of the Mississippi River drainage basin to the crest of the Rocky Mountains and land extending southeast to the Rio Grande and West Florida. Spain insisted that Louisiana comprised no more than the western bank of the Mississippi River and the cities of New Orleans and St. Louis. The dispute was ultimately resolved by the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, with the United States gaining most of what it had claimed in the west.
The relatively narrow Louisiana of New Spain had been a special province under the jurisdiction of the Captaincy General of Cuba while the vast region to the west was in 1803 still considered part of the Commandancy General of the Provincias Internas. Louisiana had never been considered to be one of New Spain's internal provinces.
If the territory included all the tributaries of the Mississippi on its western bank, the northern reaches of the Purchase extended into the equally ill-defined British possession—Rupert's Land of British North America, now part of Canada. The Purchase originally extended just beyond the 50th parallel. However, the territory north of the 49th parallel (including the Milk River and Poplar River watersheds) was ceded to the UK in exchange for parts of the Red River Basin south of 49th parallel in the Anglo-American Convention of 1818.
The eastern boundary of the Louisiana purchase was the Mississippi River, from its source to the 31st parallel, although the source of the Mississippi was, at the time, unknown. The eastern boundary below the 31st parallel was unclear; the U.S. claimed the land as far as the Perdido River, and Spain claimed the border of its Florida Colony remained the Mississippi river. In early 1804, Congress passed the Mobile Act which recognized West Florida as being part of the United States. The Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain (1819) resolved the issue upon ratification in 1821. Today, the 31st parallel is the northern boundary of the western half of the Florida Panhandle, and the Perdido is the western boundary of Florida.
Because the western boundary was contested at the time of the Purchase, President Jefferson immediately began to organize three missions to explore and map the new territory. All three started from the Mississippi River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804) traveled up the Missouri River; the Red River Expedition (1806) explored the Red River basin; the Pike Expedition (1806) also started up the Missouri, but turned south to explore the Arkansas River watershed. The maps and journals of the explorers helped to define the boundaries during the negotiations leading to the Adams–Onís Treaty, which set the western boundary as follows: north up the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico to its intersection with the 32nd parallel, due north to the Red River, up the Red River to the 100th meridian, north to the Arkansas River, up the Arkansas River to its headwaters, due north to the 42nd parallel and due west to its previous boundary.
Governing the Louisiana Territory was more difficult than acquiring it. Its European peoples, of ethnic French, Spanish and Mexican descent, were largely Catholic; in addition, there was a large population of enslaved Africans made up of a high proportion of recent arrivals from Africa, as Spain had continued the international slave trade. This was particularly true of the area of the present-day state of Louisiana, which also contained a large number of free people of color. Both present-day Arkansas and Missouri also had some people holding slaves.
Some slaveholders feared that acquisition of the new territory might inspire American slaves to follow the example of those in Saint-Domingue and revolt. Southern slave-owners wanted the US to establish slavery laws in Louisiana, so they could be supported in taking their slaves to the new territory to undertake new agricultural developments, as well as to reduce the threat of future slave revolts.
The Louisiana Territory was broken into smaller portions for administration, and the territories passed slavery laws similar to those in the southern states but trying to encompass the preceding French and Spanish rule (for instance, Spain had prohibited slavery of Native Americans in 1769, but some slaves of mixed African-Native American descent were still being held in St. Louis when the US took over the Louisiana Territory). In a freedom suit that went from Missouri to the US Supreme Court, slavery of Native Americans was finally ended in 1836. The institutionalization of slavery under US territorial law in the Louisiana Territory contributed to the American Civil War a half century later. As states organized within the territory, the status of slavery in each state became a matter of contention in Congress, as southern states wanted slavery extended to the west, and northern states just as strongly opposed new states being admitted as slave states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was a temporary solution.
Asserting U.S. possession
After the early explorations, the U.S. government sought to establish control of the region, since trade along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers was still dominated by British and French traders from Canada and allied Indians, especially the Sauk and Fox. The United States adapted the former Spanish facility at Fort Bellefontaine as a fur trading post near St. Louis in 1804 for business with the Sauk and Fox. In 1808 two military forts with trading factories were built, Fort Osage along the Missouri River in western present-day Missouri and Fort Madison along the Upper Mississippi River in eastern present-day Iowa. With tensions increasing with Great Britain, in 1809 Fort Bellefontaine was converted to a US military fort, and used for that purpose until 1826.
During the War of 1812, Great Britain and allied Indians defeated U.S. forces in the Upper Mississippi; the US abandoned both Fort Osage and Fort Madison, as it did several U.S. forts built during the war, including Fort Johnson and Fort Shelby. After U.S. ownership of the region was confirmed in the Treaty of Ghent (1814), the U.S. built or expanded forts along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, including adding to Fort Bellefontaine, and constructing Fort Armstrong (1816) and Fort Edwards (1816) in Illinois, Fort Crawford (1816) in Prairie du Chien Wisconsin, Fort Snelling (1819) in Minnesota, and Fort Atkinson (1819) in Nebraska.
The American government used $3 million in gold as a down payment, and issued bonds for the balance to pay France for the purchase. Earlier that year, Francis Baring and Company of London had become the U.S. government's official banking agent in London. Because of this favored position, the US asked the Baring firm to handle the transaction. Francis Baring's son Alexander was in Paris at the time and helped in the negotiations. Another Baring advantage was a close relationship with Hope and Company of Amsterdam. The two banking houses worked together to facilitate and underwrite the Purchase. Because Napoleon wanted to receive his money as quickly as possible, the two firms received the American bonds and paid cash to France.
(The original sales document of the Louisiana Purchase was exhibited in the entrance hall of the Barings London offices until the bank's collapse in 1995. It is now held by ING Group, which purchased Barings. The original handwritten proclamation signed by President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, that informed the American public of the landmark deal of the Louisiana Purchase, was acquired in 1996 by Walter Scott Jr. of Omaha, Nebraska, who holds it in his private collection.)
Nature of sale
The historian James Loewen is among those who assert that the United States purchased only France's claim to the Louisiana Territory, as the land belonged to the tribes who inhabited the area. In his view, the US acquired the lands slowly throughout the nineteenth century by purchases from individual Native American tribes and by wars against them. The question is discussed at length in the article on Aboriginal title in the United States, as well as in articles on the American Indian Wars and the U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M'Intosh.
Despite issuing orders that the over 60 million francs were to be spent on the construction of five new canals in France, Bonaparte spent the whole amount on his planned invasion of the United Kingdom.
- Alaska Purchase
- Franco-American alliance
- List of French possessions and colonies
- Historic regions of the United States
- Territorial evolution of the United States
- Territories of Spain that encompassed land that was part of the Louisiana Purchase:
- Territory of France that encompassed land that was part of the Louisiana Purchase:
- Louisiane, 1682–1764 and 1803
- U.S. territories that encompassed land that was part of the Louisiana Purchase:
- Territory of Orleans, 1804–1812
- District of Louisiana, 1804–1805
- Territory of Louisiana, 1805–1812
- Territory of Missouri, 1812–1821
- Territory of Arkansas, 1819–1836
- Indian Territory, 1834–1907
- Territory of Iowa, 1838–1849
- Territory of Minnesota, 1849–1858
- Territory of New Mexico, 1850–1912
- Territory of Kansas, 1854–1861
- Territory of Nebraska, 1854–1867
- Territory of Colorado, 1861–1876
- Territory of Dakota, 1861–1889
- Territory of Montana, 1864–1889
- Territory of Wyoming, 1868–1890
- Territory of Oklahoma, 1890–1907
- U.S. states that encompass land that was part of the Louisiana Purchase:
- State of Louisiana, 1812
- State of Missouri, 1821
- State of Arkansas, 1836
- State of Texas, 1845
- State of Iowa, 1849
- State of Minnesota, 1858
- State of Kansas, 1861
- State of Nebraska, 1867
- State of Colorado, 1876
- State of North Dakota, 1889
- State of South Dakota, 1889
- State of Montana, 1889
- State of Wyoming, 1890
- State of Oklahoma, 1907
- State of New Mexico, 1912
- Territorial evolution of Canada
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- Case and Controversies in U.S. History, Page 42 Senator Pickering explains his opposition to the Louisiana Purchase, 1803.
- Booknotes interview with Jon Kukla on A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America, July 6, 2003.