Louisiana Purchase was Jefferson’s shining star

Blue Ridge Mountains

Some 200 years ago, there existed a vast amount of land west of the Mississippi River controlled by France. This real estate for years had been embroiled in European affairs by the diplomatic bickering between England, Spain and France. Each of these nations had a plan for the land, and that was to keep the newborn United States from expanding. 

Napoleon I (Bonaparte), the ruler of France and last to own the land, had plans of restoring the French Empire in America. His plan depended upon the subjugation of the slavery community in the West Indies island of Santo Domingo. When that failed, France lost interest and needed money to resume warring with England. 


In 1800, a well-educated, renaissance type, and politically astute man from the Tidewater area of Virginia was elected the third president of the U.S. 

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a strict constructionist who thought the two functions of the federal government were to stay out of the affairs of the individual states and to govern foreign affairs. The Louisiana problem was tailor-made for the aristocrat from Monticello. 

Jefferson had a real interest in who controlled New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River and the vast land to the west — Monticello faced to the west, and Jefferson taking an evening ease could look and contemplate an interrupted panoramic view to the Blue Ridge Mountains and dream of land beyond for a transcontinental republic. 

For all that Jefferson did in science, foreign affairs, horticulture and politics, his travels within this country were very limited. 

He nevertheless had an uncanny love for the western lands. He saw in these lands to the west, settlers who would own farms, start a business and develop manufacturing establishments, and even more, he saw pioneers who cherished their existence and supported a strong and independent America. 

Making moves

Scarcely had Jefferson finished the oath of office when intelligence reports arrived that Spain had deeded the Louisiana land back to France, including East and West Florida. 

Jefferson, fearing France a more aggressive neighbor than Spain, requested Robert Livingston, minister to France, investigate and report his findings. Should the intelligence report be true, Livingston was to try to acquire the two Floridas, at least West Florida, and thus protect the right of deposit in New Orleans. 

While Livingston was having cautious negotiations with France, the Spanish intendant in New Orleans, Juan Morales, closed the port to American shipping, Oct. 16, 1802. This was a violation of the 1795 Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain. 

The closing of New Orleans to American shipping meant the goods from the newly formed states west of the Appalachian Mountains had no way to get their products to open markets of the world. There was a real possibility that the western elements might march on New Orleans and seize the port. Some individuals talked about seceding from the United States. 

Belligerently nationalistic, the Federalist Party members clamored and rattled sabers for war against the Corsican Napoleon. Jefferson, fearful that war might evolve, reacted by stepping up the negotiation process. 

On Jan. 12, 1803, envoy extraordinaire James Monroe was sent to assist Livingston with new instructions. The two were instructed to offer two million for West Florida and New Orleans. If the French were hard-nosed bargainers, 10 million. 

Napoleon needs money

Before Monroe could reach Paris, Napoleon changed his mind. The U.S. was to be the beneficiary of a series of events over which it had no control. It was the decision of the first consul of France, Napoleon I, to sell the whole of Louisiana. 

Napoleon did not present the treaty to the French legislature, since it would have met great opposition. He chose to ignore the advice even of Talleyrand, his foreign minister and elected to abandon the French empire in America.

Why did Napoleon change his mind? He was preparing for war against England and needed cash. The failure to suppress the lingering slave revolt in Haiti was a humiliation to the French army, and it was demanding of troops and money. 

Essentially, he sold Louisiana to rid France of the memory of French colonial defeats in Canada, Haiti and the backcountry of the U.S. 

The Americans were asked, “how much are you willing to pay for all of Louisiana?” The French minister of finance, Marquis de Barbe-Marbois, Monroe and Livingston now began to put the finishing touches on the greatest diplomatic success in American history. 

Although they had only asked the French for a modest request to acquire West Florida and New Orleans, France gave them an empire. What a deal! 

Louisiana Purchase

By the Louisiana Purchase agreement, signed May 2, but antedated April 30, 1803, Louisiana was purchased for $15 million — $3 million to be paid in gold and $12 million in bonds. 

The U.S. would assume the debt France owed American shipping owners, and the inhabitants living in the territory would be granted U.S. citizenship. Finally, France and Spain would have the right of deposit in New Orleans for a period of 12 years. 

Although Jefferson had some doubts about the legality of the agreement, since the Constitution does not expressly grant the President nor the Congress the power to acquire foreign lands, he approved it and sent the document to the Senate.

The Senate approved the treaty by a vote of 24-7 Oct. 20, 1803, and the U.S. took control of the land Dec. 20, 1803, in New Orleans.

Thomas Jefferson was not altogether happy with the treaty since it did not include the Floridas. That would be accomplished under President Monroe’s administration for a sum of five million dollars. 

But, by the stroke of the pen, the U.S. had almost doubled in size. Manifest Destiny also improved the feeling of nationalism and depressed the secessionist intrigue in the new western states. 

The Louisiana Purchase gave the young country a desired state of peace and security. This was Jefferson’s shining star. 

The three-year Lewis and Clark Expedition began in the spring of 1804 and gave us a first glimpse of what we had acquired. 

That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.



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