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Thomas Jefferson


The Louisiana Purchase

Summary The Louisiana Purchase

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.

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