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Thomas Jefferson

The Louisiana Purchase

The Presidency 1800-1808

1804-1809

The vast tract of territory ranging between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains that today makes up Americas heartland was originally populated by native tribes ranging from the Choctaw in the southeast to the Apache in the southwest to the Sioux in the northern plains. However, European exploration soon began to encroach on native lifeways, and the territory was grandiosely claimed for France in 1682 by explorer Robert Cavelier, who named it Louisiana after the reigning monarch, King Louis XIV. Thus, the French administered and populated the territory over the next century, living in a relative state of peace with the natives they had usurped.

French domination in the Americas suffered a blow during the Seven Years War, which was won decisively by Britain. Per the terms of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, France suffered to relinquish Florida to Britain on Spains behalf. As compensation, France transferred control of Louisiana to Spain, more or less allowing them to administer to it by proxy, as France was clearly the more powerful nation. After the Revolutionary War, per the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Britain begrudgingly returned control of Florida to Spain. Thus, a vague checkerboard of control along the Mississippi emerged, with American, French, Spanish, and even lingering British claims to various outposts along the river. Most puzzling of all was Florida, where all four nations felt they maintained a legitimate claim, not to mention the claims of the existing natives.

By 1800, after a confusing Revolutionary period of their own, France once again emerged as a world power under the formidable leadership of Napoleon, who had taken direction of the country in a coup mere months before (See the Napoleon SparkNote). Looking to firm up Frances foothold in the Americas, Napoleon arranged for the retrocession of Louisiana in exchange for a political favor to King Carlos IV of Spain. Per the terms of their agreement, Napoleon promised never to abandon the territory to a foreign interest, and to recognize Spanish claims to Florida.

To the United States, a Louisiana passively administered by Spain was an ideal situation, since this weaker sister of Europe was struggling enough to maintain existing claims, much less expand. France under Napoleon, however, was another story. Already looking to expand in Europe, it was clear to most American observers that Napoleon planned to take an active and aggressive role in the administration of Louisiana. Such a prospect did not bode well for United States interests, especially with regard to the emerging frontier.

Although Napoleon was poised to occupy New Orleans, in order to establish his foothold he first had to attend to a nagging problem in the Caribbean. A prominent outpost rich in natural resources and imported slave labor, the island of Hispanola was a crux of the European mercantile system. While the Spaniards maintained a tenuous hold over the eastern two-thirds of the island, the French had an even shakier hold on the western coast, known as Santo Domingo. A slave insurrection under the leadership of Toussaint LOuverture proved remarkably difficult to quell, even in the face of sizeable French reinforcements. From Napoleons perspective, control of Santo Domingo was crucial to his designs in the Western Hemisphere writ large.

At first glance, it would appear that the United States would best be served by supporting the insurrection, fought in the name of liberty from a colonial oppressor. However, the wild card of slavery must be considered, along with Jeffersons persistent Francophilia. Contrary to all stated values, the United States under President Jefferson agreed to assist France in helping to defeat the insurgent slaves, in hopes that such aid would help win Napoleons favor. Even in the face of these reinforcements, and despite the eventual capture and imprisonment of LOuverture, the force of the rebellion combined with the scourge of yellow fever proved insurmountable for the French forces. Thereafter, Napoleon was forced to reevaluate his strategy in the Western Hemisphere.

Even as Jefferson endeavored to assist Napoleon in Santo Domingo, he frantically scrambled to come up with a strategy along the Mississippi. A militant Napoleon in Louisiana would not bode well for United States interests on land or at sea, and Jefferson recognized that such a prospect might force him into making a much dreaded alliance with Britain. Preferring conflict with France to concord with Britain, Jefferson prepared for the possibility of war. But in drumming up two million dollars for extraordinary expenses, Jefferson also held on to hopes that Napoleon could be bought out of New Orleans.

Armed with this money in pocket, and more in tow, Jefferson sent ministers Robert Livingston and James Monroe to France with instructions to purchase New Orleans and as much of Florida as they could possibly acquire, or failing this, to make a military alliance with Britain. In the commission of this historic either/or, Livingston and Monroe set out for Europe, hoping to succeed in France where Jefferson had so often struggled before them. From the first, negotiations proceeded well, and took a most unexpected turn when French foreign secretary Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, under orders from Napoleon, offered the entire tract of Louisiana to the United States.

Such a remarkable offer was not to be taken lightly. Although they had no such purchasing directive from Jefferson, they recognized the value of such an opportunity, and moved on it with conviction. Thus, for a sum of $11.25 million, plus forgiveness of debt totaling $3.75 million, the Louisiana Purchase was accomplished by treaty on April 30, 1803. Over 800,000 square miles of territory officially changed hands with the stroke of a pen.

Beyond merely doubling in area, the United States was now poised to firm up its exclusive claim to the Mississippi and to eradicate lingering foreign influences on the North American continent. At roughly three cents per acre, the cost to the United States was more than the average one cent per acre involved in acquisitions from the natives. Nevertheless, Livingston and Monroe assumed that the money could and would be gathered, and that their statesmanship would be received with unadulterated adulation.

What was Napoleon thinking in selling Louisiana? Primarily, he aimed for a short-term fix, looking to finance his expansion in Europe rather than spread his attentions too thinly over the globe. Against the better judgment of his colleagues and countrymen, Napoleon looked to subdue the European continent before turning his full attentions to Britain. While he had technically betrayed his no-sell agreement with Spain, he effectively controlled Spain anyway, and failed to recognize their sovereignty in international affairs. Further, he considered the sale of Louisiana to be something more like a lease, as he fully intended to establish a world empire, dominating the American continents after shoring up control of Europe.

Meanwhile, the United States was faced with the prospect of its own emerging empire. No provision existed in the Constitution for a territorial acquisition of this scope, and with regard to the administration of the territory, no clear path existed. By provisions of the sale treaty, the residents of Louisiana were to become full citizens of the United States. But if the acquisition of foreign territory was a dubious enterprise, the automatic naturalization of its inhabitants was downright illegal. Such a gross overstepping of federal power not only exceeded Jeffersons own compact theory of union, but even the staunchest Federalists conception of what the Constitution was purported to be.

Ignoring the clause about citizenship, the Senate quickly moved to pass the sale treaty despite a host of other problems. Did the several states have a role in the acquisition process, or, beyond this, questions of administration? How would legislatures be arranged, and who would decide how the territory would be divided? Jefferson recognized that for the federal government, and specifically the executive wing, to decide such questions would be to explode all prior theories of strict construction. But the lure of the West proved too strong to check existing ideological reservations.

Even so, Jefferson was forced to heed the many protests that issued from New Englanders over the Louisiana Purchase. They argued that to admit Louisiana at full privilege into the Union was essentially to dissolve the Union, as each of the several states had signed on to the terms of the Constitution, and nothing beyond. For a time, Jefferson considered the possibility of a constitutional amendment to resolve the difficulties of the Louisiana question. In the end, he decided that it would be better to move unofficially, recognizing the deal as an aberration and trusting that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects.

Having said this, Jefferson moved to push the evil of construction to its outer limits. Without admitting Louisiana under full privileges, as outlined in the treaty, the federal government was forced to override this crucial provision and make alternate arrangements. In so doing, the United States became a colonizing force a mere twenty years after it had succeeded in casting off the yoke of colonization.

By a hasty annexation and treaty approval, a Congress dominated by Democratic- Republicans provided Jefferson with sole executive power over the entire territory, which he then to delegate to two territorial governors, William Claiborne and his deputy, James Wilkinson. Neither of these men had the cultural or linguistic experience to comprehend, much less heed, the wishes of the populace under their control. There was nothing democratic about it: residents of European descent had not been consulted about the treaty, were not involved in the particulars of its administration, and were effectively stripped of all political power. Needless to say, the numerous native tribes living in the territory were not consulted either.

Eventually, the area covered by the Louisiana Territory became, in significant part or whole, the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. In all, over eighty years elapsed before the entire territory was officially integrated into the Union.

From the moment when the Louisiana Territory was acquired, the fundamental character of the Union was forever altered. No more a government of delegated powers, the federal government of the United States became a force of despotic capacities. This materialized under the majority support of Jeffersons party, but not without protest: notably from New England Federalists, and later from Chief Justice Roger Taney, who objected not to the possession of new territory, but to the shameless exercise of imperial power upon it.

Jefferson was doubtless cowed by the obvious contradictions between his former principles and his practices with regard to Louisiana. Worse still, the matter of Florida remained unresolved. Napoleon had not included it in his offer of sale to Livingston and Monroe, because it technically remained in Spains possession. However, as Spain became weaker and weaker under Napoleons press, the ownership of Spain became a cloudier and cloudier issue.

Many in Congress encouraged Jefferson to simply seize Florida, and while several such missions were considered, Jefferson preferred diplomacy with Napoleon to outright thievery. Nevertheless, Congress passed legislation regarding the Mississippi River that extended to territory not in their own jurisdiction! Thus, by the pen, if not by the sword, the United States affected to claim sovereignty over Florida. It was an issue that was to remain unresolved for over a decade before the United States finally established control of the territory behind the diplomacy of President Monroe and the military acumen of Andrew Jackson.

The Pacific Northwest was another tenuous area, with competing claims registered by the United States, Britain, Spain and Russia. In order to shore up American interests in newly-acquired Louisiana, Jefferson received Congressional approval to sponsor an expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Beyond the terms of this approval, and under secret encouragement from Jefferson, the two men continued on beyond Louisiana to the Pacific coast, led through the wilderness by the Shoshone guide Sacajawea.

These first pioneers blazed a rapid trail of ensuing settlement. Behind the support of Jefferson, Congress encouraged westward expansion by reducing the minimum farm size for sale from 320 to 160 acres. At a minimum initial payment of $80 in cash, any citizen could stake a claim on a frontier farm. Such opportunity vastly increased the number of potential pioneers and did much to increase the flow of European immigration to America.

The country they arrived in was unquestionably a changed one. Founded on the values of democracy and liberty, the United States compromised its first principles beyond retrieval in the machinations of the Louisiana Purchase. As Henry Adams wrote, in purchasing Louisiana, Jefferson bought a foreign colony without its consent and against its will...made himself monarch of the new territory, and wielded over it, against its protests, the powers of its old kings. Such a sweeping and unjustified exercise of executive privilege effectively, as Jefferson admitted, made blank paper of the Constitution.

Whither the Union, in the face of such changes? Already divided by the Appalachians, the further frontiers of the Mississippi and the Rockies began to segment a once unified nation into a patchwork of landscapes and levels of civilization. Jefferson, for one, was not overly concerned with the future of everlasting Union. Recognizing the diffusion at hand, he remarked in 1804 that whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederations, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. But in Jeffersons second term, happiness would be in short supply indeed, due as much to internal divisions as to the convoluted series of European wars which gradually brought the American economy to its knees.

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