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In 1801 the United States bought 827,987 square miles of land from France for about $15 million. Eventually all or parts of 15 states were formed out of the region -- Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.
Prelude to the Purchase
When Thomas Jefferson became President in March 1801, the Mississippi River formed the western boundary of the United States. The southern boundary extended to the 31st parallel north latitude. The Floridas (with West Florida extending to the Mississippi and including New Orleans) lay to the south, and the Louisiana Territory to the west. Spain owned both of those territories.
Having Spain as a neighbor to the west and south was not, initially, a problem for the United States. Although Spain controlled both sides of the Mississippi and the chief port on the Gulf of Mexico (New Orleans), farmers and merchants who relied on that river and port were able to export their products thanks to the Pinckney Treaty of 1795, which gave Americans the "right of deposit" at New Orleans. This right allowed Americans to store in New Orleans, duty-free, goods to be shipped for export. This arrangement was acceptable to the United States, because Spain was a relatively weak nation. If at any time Spain tried to close the Mississippi to American ships, the United States could simply take New Orleans.
In March 1801, the United States Minister to England, Rufus King, learned that Spain had concluded a treaty with France ceding some of its American territories to France in exchange for a small Spanish kingdom in Italy. Believing that the Floridas would be included in the cession, Jefferson directed Robert Livingston, the newly appointed Minister to France, to inform the French government that the United States was unwilling to see the American colonies of Spain transferred to any country except the United States. If the transfer had already taken place, Livingston was to persuade France to transfer the Floridas, especially West Florida, to the United States. French leader Napoleon Bonaparte ignored Livingston's proposals, however.
By 1802 Napoleon had gained control over much of Europe and was prepared to rebuild France's American empire. He planned to subdue a long-simmering rebellion in the West Indian colony of Santo Domingo (now Haiti), and then send troops to take possession of Louisiana. But the French army in Santo Domingo was almost annihilated, and the formal transfer of Louisiana never took place.
Threats of War
With Livingston being ignored in France, Jefferson arranged for his friend, Pierre du Pont de Nemours, to carry dispatches to Livingston and to help him influence the French government against taking possession of Louisiana. Du Pont was instructed to warn France that the United States was willing to form an alliance with Great Britain against France to prevent the annexation of Louisiana. Du Pont, however, suggested that such an ultimatum would make Napoleon more determined to acquire the territory, and suggested that the United States offer to buy the Floridas instead.
On October 18, 1802, the Spanish Governor of New Orleans, undoubtedly acting under orders originating with Napoleon, suspended the right of deposit. Secretary of State James Madison protested to the Spanish government, and also warned Napoleon that Americans were prepared to go to war to regain access to New Orleans.
Napoleon was unwilling to abandon his hopes of building a new empire in America, however, and sent 15,000 more troops to Santo Domingo. Livingston was discouraged, but Jefferson was equally stubborn. He decided to send James Monroe to help Livingston in his negotiations. Congress voted $2 million which the two diplomats could use for the purchase of the east bank of the Mississippi River, but Jefferson privately advised Monroe that they could offer up to $9,375,000 for the Floridas and New Orleans. If France rejected that offer, they were to try to at least re-obtain the right of deposit at New Orleans.
Napoleon Decides to Sell
By the early months of 1803 Napoleon knew that war with Great Britain was again imminent. His chargé d'affaires, Louis Pichon, warned him that the United States could easily seize Louisiana once France was engaged in a European war. He also warned that American newspapers were calling for war. Napoleon took Pichon's warnings seriously. And, since he had failed to quell the rebellion in Santo Domingo, Napoleon no longer felt confident that he could support an American empire. He was now ready to divest France of Louisiana.
On April 10, 1803, Napoleon informed his finance minister, François de Barbé-Marbois, that he was considering selling all of Louisiana to the United States. Monroe arrived in Paris the day after Marbois had offered Livingston the whole of Louisiana. Although Jefferson had only authorized the men to purchase the Floridas, they felt confident that the United States would accept this larger offer. They agreed to Marbois' price of 60 million francs plus the assumption of American claims against France (a total of about $15 million). The treaty, dated April 30, was signed May 2. It reached Washington on July 14, 1803.
Ratifying the Treaty
Jefferson was not actually certain that the Constitution authorized the acquisition of land, but since it did provide for the making of treaties he felt confident that the acquisition of new territory was constitutional. The Federalists objected to the possible creation of a fringe of states that would differ in background and nationality from the original states, but Jefferson believed Americans would inhabit any state formed out of the purchase. The Senate ratified the treaty on October 20, 1803, by a vote of 34 to 7; the House ratified it on October 25. Congress also passed laws to provide for borrowing the money from English and Dutch bankers, payable in 15 years. Spain officially transferred the territory to France on November 30, France transferred it to the United States on December 20, and the United States took formal possession of Louisiana on December 30.
Boundary disputes arose over the Louisiana Territory almost immediately, as the treaty did not state specific boundaries. The United States and Britain agreed in 1818 to establish the northern boundary at the 49th parallel. In the south, the United States claimed West Florida and part of Texas. Jefferson said that France had had actual possession of the Gulf Coast from Mobile westward since 1696, and that in 1755 maps published by the French government showed the Perdido River as the eastern boundary of France's possessions. This, he claimed, was part of the land that Spain had given back to France in 1800, and therefore part of the purchase. This dispute was settled by an 1819 treaty with Spain, in which the United States purchased Florida and surrendered its claim to Texas; Spain in return gave up its claim to West Florida.
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This page was last updated on April 27, 2017.