What was the Louisiana Purchase?

At the time of the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the United States was surrounded by alien territory. On the north, Canada remained in the hands of the English. On the south, Florida, which had been ceded to England in 1763, captured in part by the Spanish allies of the United States in 1781, and re-ceded to Spain in 1783, bounded the States from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Louisiana, embracing the whole Mississippi Valley, and extending indefinitely westward, remained French territory after the close of the French and Indian War. In 1762 it was secretly transferred to Spain, though open possession was not given till 1769. Meanwhile, in 1763, Great Britain obtained by treaty that portion lying east of the Mississippi, from its source to the river Iberville. In 1783 this territory was ceded to the United States by the treaty of peace with England. All the territory west of the Mississippi, and on the east from the 31st parallel of latitude to the Gulf, remained in the hands of Spain.

No sooner had American settlements extended to the region of the Mississippi and its eastern affluents than the importance of having free use of this river as a channel of transportation to the sea was strongly felt. This sentiment intensified as the settlements increased and the Spanish authorities manifested a hostile policy. That a foreign power should restrict the use of the mouth of such a river as the Mississippi was intolerable, and had it not been ceded peacefully it must eventually have been taken by force. From McMaster's admirable "History of the People of the United States" we select an account of the acquisition of this vast and valuable territory.]

ON October first, 1800, by the secret treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain gave back to France that province of Louisiana which, in 1762, France had given to her. It was long before the existence of this treaty was known; but the moment it was known Jefferson saw most clearly that trouble with France was not at an end. There was, he said, one spot on the face of the earth so important to the United States that whoever held it was, for that very reason, naturally and forever our enemy; and that spot was New Orleans. He could not, therefore, see it transferred to France but with deep regret. The day she took possession of the city the ancient friendship between her and the United States ended; alliance with Great Britain became necessary, and the sentence that was to keep France below low-water mark became fixed. This day seemed near at hand, for in November, 1802, word came that an expedition was making all haste to cross the ocean and occupy Louisiana.

Meanwhile, the Spanish intendant of the province put forth a proclamation, closed the navigation of the Mississippi to American citizens, forbade all trade, and took away the right of deposit at New Orleans. Protected by this right, the inhabitants of Kentucky and Ohio had for seven years past been floating tobacco and flour, bacon and hams, down the Mississippi in rude arks, and depositing them in the warehouses of New Orleans, there to await the arrival of the sloops and scows to carry them to the West Indies, or to points along the Atlantic coast. The intendant could, at any time, shift the place of deposit; but, by the terms of the treaty of 1795, some convenient port near the mouth of the river must always be open for the deposit of goods and produce. In this respect, therefore, the treaty had been violated; for, when New Orleans was shut, no other town was opened.

The state of affairs here indicated was earnestly debated in Congress, and a resolution passed which, while not accusing Spain, declared that the rights of navigation and deposit should be maintained.

Jefferson was now free to act without fear of meddling from the House, and he speedily did so. The Senate, in a special message, was informed that he had not been idle; that such measures had been promptly taken as seemed likely to bring a friendly settlement about, and that the purpose of these measures was the buying of so much territory on the east bank of the river as would put at rest forever the vexed question of the use of its mouth. His confidence in the ability of the minister at the court of France to accomplish this was unlimited. Yet he could not but believe that the end would be hastened by sending to his aid a man fresh from the United States and bearing with him a just and lively sense of the feeling late events had aroused in the great mass of the people. He therefore nominated James Monroe to be minister extraordinary and plenipotentiary to France, and minister extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Spain; for, Louisiana not having been actually transferred to France, it seemed proper that his Catholic majesty should also be consulted. The Senate confirmed the nomination, and gave Monroe full power, in conjunction with Livingston in France and Pinckney in Spain, to frame any treaty or convention that extended and secured the rights of the United States on the Mississippi, and set apart two millions of dollars to be used, it was understood, for the purchase of the island of New Orleans.

The Federalists in Congress strongly opposed these measures, and offered resolutions tending towards war with Spain. They declared that the free navigation of the river was a clear right of the United States, and that interference with it by Spain was a hostile aggression. They demanded that the President should take possession of some fit place of deposit, and that, if necessary, fifty thousand militia should be called out, and five millions of dollars appropriated for this purpose. These resolutions were opposed and voted down by the Republican party, but in their place a bill was passed authorizing the President to call out a provisional army of eighty thousand militia, and to spend twenty-five thousand dollars in building arsenals in the West.

For the troops the President had no need. The Republicans were right, and, in a few months, far more was secured by negotiation than the Federalists had ever expected to obtain by violence and the use of arms. For months past Livingston had been trying to persuade the First Consul to sell a part of Louisiana to the United States. He begged the Spanish minister to hinder the transfer of the district to France; for, till the transfer was made, the colonists Napoleon was bent on sending to America were not likely to sail. Again and again he demanded a speedy settlement of the debt due to American merchants, and urged the benefits France would derive by parting with a piece of her ancient soil. Not a word came in reply. The man through whose hands his notes all passed was Talleyrand, who still held under Napoleon the same place he once held under the five Directors. Change of master was the only change that able and unprincipled minister had undergone. He was still the treacherous, grasping, ambitious knave of 1797. To Livingston he was all graciousness, but not a word of the American minister's notes reached the First Consul that Talleyrand did not approve. To sell Louisiana was not the wish of Talleyrand. He would see France once more in possession of her old domain, firmly planted on American soil, controlling the Mississippi, setting bounds to the United States, threatening Canada, and, it might be in the near future, planting the tricolor on the walls of that great fortress from which England had pulled down the lilies of France.

It is idle to speculate what might have been the destiny of our country had Louisiana become permanently a possession of France. The thing was not to be Convinced that Talleyrand was tricky, Livingston passed him by and wrote directly to the man whose will was the will of France. Citizen First Consul was asked if the French did not intend to pay their just debts. He was reminded that the Board of Accounts had liquidated and given certificates for about one-quarter of the debt, that on these certificates the American merchants had raised small sums to enable them to live, and that, on a sudden, while the Board went on liquidating, the certificates ceased to be given. He was told of the feeling aroused in the United States by the change about to take place in the ownership of Louisiana. He was asked to sell so much of the territory as lay south of latitude thirty-one, from the Mississippi to the Perdido, and so much as, west of the Mississippi, lay north of the Arkansas River. Thus would the United States secure the mouths of the rivers flowing from her territory to the Mexican gulf. Thus would France have a barrier placed between her and the possessions of her most ancient foe Was not this to be considered? The cupodity of Britain knew no bounds. The Cape, Malta, Egypt, had already awakened her avarice. Should she turn her arms westward, a struggle for Louisiana would at once begin. Of what use could the province be to France? To enable her to command the gulf, supply her islands, and give an outlet to her surplus population. To scatter population over a boundless region was, therefore, bad policy: the true policy was to concentrate and keep it near the sea. The country south of the Arkansas could well maintain a colony of fifteen millions of souls. Could France keep more in subjection? Ought not faraway colonies to be moderate in size? Would rich and prosperous settlements up the Missouri River always be content to pay allegiance to the distant ruler of France?

These memorials brought a speedy reply. Livingston was assured that the First Consul would see to it that the debts were paid, and would send a minister to the United States with full power to act. The minister was to have been General Bernadotte; but on this mission he was destined never to depart. In March the quarrel with England concerning Malta grew serious. "I must," said Napoleon to Lord Whitworth, in the presence of the assembled ministers of Europe, "I must either have Malta or war." New combinations were forming against him in Europe; all England was loudly demanding that Louisiana should be attacked, and, lest it should be taken from him, he determined to sell it to the United States.

April eleventh Talleyrand asked Livingston for an offer for Louisiana entire. The island of New Orleans and West Florida, he was told, were wanted, and no more. This much sold, what remained would, he asserted, be of small value. He would therefore like to know what price the United States would give for all. Livingston thought twenty millions of francs, and Talleyrand departed, protesting the sum was far too small.

The next day Monroe reached Paris, and the day after Barbe-Marbois, Minister of the Treasury, called. Marbois astonished Livingston by declaring that one hundred millions of francs and the payment of the debts due American citizens was the price of Louisiana. This would bring the cost to one hundred and twenty-five millions, for at twenty-five millions of francs Livingston estimated the debts. He pronounced the price exorbitant; Marbois admitted that it was, and asked to take back to St. Cloud an offer of eighty millions of francs, including twenty millions for the debts. Some higgling now took place; but on these terms the purchase was effected by the three instruments dated April thirtieth, 1803.

These were, a treaty of cession, an instrument arranging the mode of payment, and one treating of the debts, their character, and the method of their settlement.

Jefferson was greatly puzzled when these three documents reached his hand. He had offered to buy an island for a dock-yard and the place of deposit; he was offered a magnificent domain. He had been authorized to expend two millions of dollars; the sum demanded was fifteen. As a strict constructionist he could not, and for a while he did not, consider the purchase of foreign territory as a constitutional act. But when he thought of the evils that would follow if Louisiana remained with France, and of the blessings that would follow if Louisiana came to the United States, his common sense got the better of his narrow political scruples, and he soon found a way of escape. He would accept the treaty, summon Congress, urge the House and Senate to perfect the purchase, and trust to the Constitution being amended so as to make the purchase legal.

A sharp debate in Congress, ensued, the old Federal party strongly opposing the consummation of the purchase. The enormous increase the purchase would make in the national debt became a favorite theme, and every effort was made by writers and printers to show the people what a stupendous sum fifteen millions of dollars was.

Fifteen millions of dollars! they would exclaim. The sale of a wilderness has not usually commanded a price so high. Ferdinand Gorges received but twelve hundred and fifty pounds sterling for the province of Maine. William Penn gave for the wilderness that now bears his name but a trifle over five thousand pounds. Fifteen millions of dollars! A breath will suffice to pronounce the words. A few strokes of the pen will express the sum on paper. But not one man in a thousand has any conception of the magnitude of the amount. Weight it, and there will be four hundred and thirty-three tons of solid silver. Load it into wagons, and there will be eight hundred and sixty-six of them. Place the wagons in a line, giving two rods to each and they will cover a distance of five and one-third miles. Hire a laborer to shovel it into the carts, and, though he load sixteen each day, he will not finish the work in two months. Stack it up dollar on dollar, and, supposing nine to make an inch, the pile will be more than three miles high.. All the gold and all the silver coin in the United States would, if collected, fall vastly short of such a sum. We must, therefore, create a stock, and for fifteen years to come pay two thousand four hundred and sixty-five dollars interest each day. Invest the principal as a school fund, and the interest will support, forever, eighteen hundred free schools, allowing fifty scholars and five hundred dollars to each school. For whose benefit is the purchase made? The South and West. Will they pay a share of the debt? No, for the tax on whiskey has been removed.

Statistics, most happily, were of no avail. The mass of the people pronounced the purchase a bargain. The Senate, on October nineteenth, ratified the and conventions; the ratification of Napoleon was already in the hands of the French charge, and on October twenty-first Jefferson informed Congress that ratifications had that day been exchanged. On November tenth the act creating the eleven millions two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of stock called for by the first convention was passed. On December twentieth, 1803, Louisiana was peaceably taken possession of by the United States.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)