The Louisiana Purchase refers to a transaction in which the United States purchased an enormous North American territory from France. This acquisition approximately doubled the territory of the United States and gave her total control of the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico up to the Great Lakes . With no more than fifteen million dollars, the opportunistic President Thomas Jefferson capitalized on the desperate condition of Napoleon’s France, and changed the landscape of the New World forever .
As important as this move was because of its ramifications on the control of territory in the New World, the Louisiana Purchase was most significantly a move of self-preservation for the young United States. The significance of the vast and mostly undeveloped territory of Louisiana can easily be underestimated without an understanding of the state of affairs between the United States and its European neighbors in the early nineteenth Century. As tensions between the old European powers heated up in the New World, it became very likely that a war fought in the Americas would result in a land grab disadvantageous to the United States . Control of the Louisiana Territory would not only be the ground on which the nation could one day expand, but it would provide a buffer zone to keep the English and French away from the fragile American settlements and help secure the protection of the United States sovereignty and interests .
Therefore, tension and conflict catalyzed the quickly-executed negotiations for the territory between the United and France. The three most influential foreign powers involved in the transfer of the territory to the United States are Great Britain, Spain, and of course France. Each of these nations played an important role in motivating President Jefferson and his administration to move to purchase New Orleans and ultimately all of Louisiana.
The Louisiana Territory was made more relevant and valuable to the United States by an ominous British presence in the West. Jefferson and his Republican allies wanted to expand the United States so the eastern states would not be threatened by British forts in west left over after the end of the American War for Independence. There was a prevalent fear in the United States of a British invasion. Although the threat of an imminent British attack did not disappear in 1803, control of Louisiana empowered the United States to ensure that there were no illegal British forts or encampments in close proximity to American citizens and interests.
Foreign relations with Great Britain also made the purchase very profitable to the young United States in a very indirect manner. British military personnel in the West and in Canada were spitefully inciting Indian attacks on American cities and towns, particularly in Tennessee, Kentucky, and in the Ohio Territory along the Mississippi River. These native raiders could find asylum from their American pursuers in Spanish Louisiana where they could not follow. These attacks cost American life and limited the production of American goods in the west. In order for the United States to effectively move their products and supplies from one side of the nation to the other, it would need to control both sides of the river.
Despite these motivations to move westward and expand America’s territory, many citizens and Federalists did not believe the United States should extend beyond the Mississippi River. These conservative Americans feared that an attempt to settle land west of the Appalachians would be met with more violent Indian uprisings. This fear may have been carried over from King George’s Royal Proclamation Line of 1763. Jefferson and his administration would have to work to sell the deal to his fellow Americans as well as the European powers.
Perhaps even more significance is the United State’s diplomacy with Spain. Going back to their support in the War for Independence, it could reasonably be inferred that the diplomatic campaign with Spain had been the most stable of the three major European powers. King Charles of Spain seems to have interacted relatively agreeably with President Washington and his Administration. Although neighboring with Spain across the Mississippi River was not as desirable as actual control of the territory, the Spanish were beginning to serve as an ally for the United States at a time when control of Louisiana seemed highly unrealistic.
In 1795, diplomat Charles Pinckney negotiated for the signing of the Treaty of Madrid with Spain. This treaty provided for American use of the Mississippi River and the use of entrepôt city New Orleans to move materials for trade to the eastern states and to the Caribbean islands and European nations. The “Picnkney Treaty” as it came to be called made the settlements along the Mississippi River a connected and profitable part of the young nation. However, the treaty was no longer active when imperial France moved to forcefully purchase the entire expanse of the territory from the Spanish in 1801.
Spain was in no position to refuse to negotiate with the unstable, explosive force that was Napoleonic France. As the Spanish and France were disputing control of West Florida, President Jefferson had already sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston to discuss the purchase of the currently Spanish New Orleans from France. King Charles and the Spanish helplessly watched as large portions of the remains of their New World territory were divided and distributed among foreigners. In a very short period of time, the United States had lost its alliance with Spain and was being encroached upon by a threatening French presence.
The situation was just right for indecisive Bonaparte to sell the United States the entire Louisiana Territory, but that was much unbeknownst to Jefferson at the time. The complicated relations between the United States and France changed very quickly; Jefferson knew his nation must act quickly to overcome the obstacle of the prevalent American fear of France if it were to protect the economy and safety its presence near the Mississippi. The two nations held a dim view of each other following the XYZ affair and the Quasi War and French resentment over Washington’s refusal to honor treaties signed with King Louis’ France, and people in the United States feared being Napoleon’s next conquest if his success continued in Europe. Fortunately, France was more interested in money than undeveloped North American territory.
When American diplomats James Monroe and Robert Livingston arrived in France to discuss the purchase of New Orleans, they were greeted by Foreign Minister Charles Talleyrand. After the XYZ affair, Talleyrand and Bonaparte were wholly unpopular figures in the United States, likely even to Monroe, but the two diplomats worked with their president and the infamous French to secure the city of New Orleans for their nation. Although many writers focus on the significance of Secretary of State James Monroe’s presence, Robert Livingston may have been the difference-maker in the equation. Livingston had served also as Secretary of Foreign Affairs previous to the ratification of the constitution, and he had a history of knowing Bonaparte and the Talleyrand family. This highly diplomatic and largely forgotten Foreign Minister used his personal relationships within the French government to maneuver the United States into a position to negotiate the peaceful transfer of the Louisiana Territory.
Jefferson had indeed sent the diplomats on their secret mission at just the right time. For a short period of time the two nation’s interests coincided perfectly. Jefferson wanted to acquire the all-important New Orleans quickly and peacefully, and Napoleon likely feared he could have lost contact with the entire territory due to a potential blockade from the Royal Navy and needed money to fund his war efforts. After days of trying to get French Foreign Minister Talleyrand and Minister of the Treasurer Marbois to agree to two-million dollars of compensation for the city, it was Bonaparte who contrived the mysterious fifteen-million dollar offer for the entire wilderness that was Louisiana. Madison and Livingston graciously accepted the tremendous offer, but the battle was far from over. The rest of the Jefferson administration would have to convince Congress to raise the money.
As Madison and Livingston had been doing Jefferson’s legwork in France, Jefferson had been tending to the nation’s domestic affairs and softening the voter’s and the congressional views of trade and negotiation with France. Although Federalists such as Rufus King and George Cabot had opposed dealings with France, once the diplomats arrived home with the news of France’s tremendous offer, Congress actually raised the money in remarkable haste. The leaders of the United States were greatly divided over their nations diplomacy with Great Britain, Spain, and France, but they all worked together to further the expand the nation and protect its citizens. The purchase of the Louisiana territory became a bi-partisan action in which Federalists and Republicans were brought into agreement over the survival of the union. Therefore, the Louisiana Purchase is one of the most significant and opportunistic accomplishments in the history of the United States.
As Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would soon report, America had made no mistake. Westward expansion began immediately and the new territory, now called Missouri, was divided into five districts. Territorial governments were set up which would leave these newly acquired territories poised to become some of the richest and most beautiful states in the nation. The iconic gateway in the formerly French city of St. Louis had been opened. Westward expansion had begun, and the shape of the present United States was now in sight.