On March 10, 1804 the final official transfer of vast lands stretching north from the mouth of the Mississippi River and far into the interior of North America was conducted at St. Louis. A small French Army detachment brought down the Tricolors and a not much larger contingent of U.S. Army regulars ran up the Stars and Stripes in the muddy streets of the settlement. A few score civilians, mostly French with a sprinkling of early bird American land speculators, trappers, and Native Americans watched. After shaking hands all around, everyone went to celebrate with plenty of good stiff drinks. With that the whole vast region of Upper Louisiana became U.S. property—if the infant nation could protect it from the British and their Indian allies.
A few months earlier, on December 20, 1803 the French had turned over the real seat of their power, New Orleans, the city through which the riches of all of the drainages of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers, would have to pass to gain the markets of the world. New Orleans had been the real prize in the delicate negotiations between American diplomats in Paris and Napoleon Bonaparte. The empire transferred at St. Louis was a surprising bonus.
On April 30, 1803 American envoys Robert Livingston and James Monroe agreed to a Treaty with the French Republic which upon ratification would transfer the port of New Orleans and all of France’s vast North American holdings to the United States for a purchase price of $15 million—about 3 cents an acre. The Louisiana Purchase has been called the greatest real estate deal in the history of the world.
In 1801 newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, whose long residency in Paris as American Minister and his known sympathy for Republican France, gave him excellent intelligence connections, learned that Napoleon Bonaparte had concluded the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso with Spain which returned New Orleans and the vast territory of Louisiana to the French. Spanish authorities would continue to govern in place until a formal transfer in 1803.
This was both good and alarming news for the United States. On the plus side, it would deflate a movement among some trans-Appalachian settlers to detach from the U.S. and join the Spanish territories to ensure continued use of the critical port of New Orleans to ship their produce and to obtain land grants west of the Mississippi.
On the other hand, Jefferson, by now alarmed by the turn the Republic had taken under the military dictatorship of Napoleon, learned from his French sources that the General had big plans for restoring the French North American Empire. The British had forced France to cede Louisiana to their Spanish ally in 1763 after the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian Wars.)
Robert Livingston--The Chancellor--was Jefferson's Minister to France and chief negotiator.
The President dispatched Livingston as his special representative with instructions to negotiate the purchase of the port of New Orleans and its immediate environs. Livingston had been on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence with Jefferson back in 1776 (although his contributions to the document were nil), had served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, was the long time Chancellor of New York, and was Jefferson’s most important Republican ally in that state against Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists.
As negotiations dragged on, Jefferson turned to back channel talks with Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours as his agent. Du Pont had been President of the Constituent Assembly in the early years of the French Republic but had run afoul of Robespierre and had been sentenced to death during the Reign of Terror. Spared when Robespierre fell, he came to America with his family to try to establish a colony for fellow exiles. He was close to Jefferson and still had good contacts in France under the new regime of Napoleon.
After his first secret consultations, he proposed to Jefferson that it would be possible and advantageous to purchase the whole of Louisiana and not just the port city. At first Jefferson was cool to the idea, largely because he did not believe he had the authority to make the purchase and fretted that it would expand Federal power at the expense of the states.
Still, he was wary of French power as a neighbor and knew that war would likely be inevitable should Napoleon establish a powerful presence. He signaled a willingness to consider an offer.French exile and Jefferson confidant Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours was the President's back channel agent to Napoleon.
Although powerful French Foreign Minister Talleyrand was known to be opposed, du Pont communicated with individuals close to Napoleon himself. Yet the President sent conflicting instructions to his official negotiator Livingston.
In 1803 he beefed up the official delegation by sending one of his closest associates, James Monroe, himself a former Minister to France under Washington and politically supportive of the Republic during the naval Quasi War of 1798-80.
Meanwhile, Napoleon’s fortunes in the New World had dwindled as tensions with Britain were on the rise. Napoleon’s plans to reassert control over Santo Domingo (now the Republic of Haiti) after the successful slave rebellion of Toussaint l’Ouverture lay in tatters. A huge French army under the command of his brother-in-law General Charles Leclerc was wracked with Yellow Fever and beaten in battle. Without the income from the rich sugar plantations of the island and without a strong naval base in the Caribbean, grandiose plans of restoring the North American Empire were impossible.
Before Monroe even arrived Napoleon told his negotiators to conclude a sale of all of Louisiana. The French Minister of the Treasury informed Livingston that the whole territory was for sale for $15 million, only $5 million over what he had been authorized to pay for New Orleans alone.
James Monroe, Robert Livingston, and French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand sign the Treaty for the purchase of New Orleans and all of Louisiana. Jefferson, left, and Napoleon, right, are represented in the architectural medallions framing this instillation.
When Monroe arrived both men were fearful of exceeding their authority—and were unaware of du Pont’s secret talks with the President’s approval. When the French threatened to break off negotiations for New Orleans and to strongly garrison the city, the envoys felt they had to act on the whole offer. They agreed to the proposed terms on April 30 and signed the document on May 4.
Livingston wrote Jefferson, “We have lived long but this is the noblest work of our whole lives...The United States take rank this day among the first powers of the world.”
The treaty reached Washington, ironically enough, on Bastille Day, July 14, 1803. It caused a domestic furor. Federalists, who were pushing for closer relations if not an out-right alliance with Britain, were fiercely opposed. But so were “Old School” Republicans like House of Representatives Speaker John Randolph, leery of the extension of Federal Power—an issue Jefferson himself continued to anguish over.
New Englanders were particularly alarmed fearing that the addition of vast agrarian areas in the West would inevitably lead to loss of power in the mercantile Northeast and that new slave states eventually carved out would tilt the balance of power in the nation to the South. They also resented assisting France and possibly becoming entangled with her in a war with Britain. The most radical New England Federalists began to talk of secession and even hatched a plot to offer Vice President Aaron Burr the Presidency of a break-away state if he could convince Republican leaning New York to join.
The intrigue led to nothing but greater antipathy between Burr and his New York political rival Alexander Hamilton, which would contribute to the duel in which the Burr killed Hamilton the next year.
Despite all of this, Jefferson concluded that he had to proceed with the purchase and marshaled all of his political ability to secure ratification of the Treaty in the Senate which voted 24 to 7 in favor on October 31.
The Louisiana Purchase may have been the greatest real estate deal of all time.
In October 1804 the new land was organized into the Territory of Orleans (most of the current state of Louisiana) and the District of Louisiana to be administered from St. Louis under the authority of the Governor of the Indiana Territory. By this time Jefferson was eagerly planning the exploration of his new acquisition which would result in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In all, the United States acquired 828,800 square miles, more than doubling the size of the nation. The purchase included all or parts of 14 current states and stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to British North America (Canada) and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
For his part, Napoleon was pleased. He got an infusion of cash to arm in preparation for war with Britain and because, “This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.”