Possession of Louisiana and Incomplete Details of the Purchase

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

There were several players in the power game of American politics. Napoleon Bonaparte could prove dangerous, if successful in acquiring French control on Saint-Domingue. On the other side, Thomas Jefferson was exploring different options in the context of saving the American interests. Find out what was his idea of retaining his country’s interests.

Image of a map by Nicolas de Fer depicts the French colony of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola island.
Napoleon’s control of Saint-Domingue would have resulted in powerful presence of the French in Gulf of Mexico which did not happen because of General Leclerc’s failure to re-conquer Saint-Domingue. (Image: John Carter Brown Library/Public domain)

Advantage Napoleon Bonaparte

On Saint-Domingue, the black slave population took advantage of the confusions of the French Revolution to overthrow their masters and declare independence as a native black republic. If Napoleon succeeded in reestablishing himself on Saint-Domingue and French control of it, that would create a powerful French presence in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River Valley, then there was no limit to the mischief Bonaparte could cause the American Republic. The entire western agricultural traffic along the Mississippi and all of its tributaries west of the Appalachians could be held hostage in order to compel the cooperation of the United States with French foreign policy.

But to the surprise of two continents, General Leclerc and his French Army failed miserably in their attempt to re-conquer San Domingue for France. Since San Domingue was the key to the rebuilding of a French Empire in the New World, Napoleon’s plans failed and in turn, rendered Louisiana useless to Bonaparte.

Learn more about Hamilton’s idea on developing the republic’s systems of finance, manufacturing, and commerce.

Surprise Proposition by Napoleon

Thomas Jefferson tried to protect American interests on Mississippi by offering to buy the city of New Orleans and its district from the French. He sent a special emissary, James Monroe, to join the American Minister, Robert Livingston in Paris, in pressing an offer on the French.

A painting displaying the moment of celebration with flag raising marking the purchase of Louisiana by the United States from the on December 20, 1803.
The United States purchased the province of Louisiana for $15 million and, in addition, Napoleon also agreed to sell New Orleans to them. (Image: Thure de Thulstrup/Public domain)

In the spring of 1803, Napoleon decided to cut his losses and through his Foreign Minister, Monsieur Talleyrand, abruptly offered to sell not only New Orleans, but all of the Louisiana province to the Americans, approximately 830,000 square miles for $15 million. Monroe and Livingston asked for time to consult with President Jefferson but Talleyrand demanded an immediate response, so they signed a treaty on April 30, 1803, in what amounted to the single greatest real estate deal in history.

Jefferson’s Idea of Constitutional Amendment

Jefferson was happy with the purchase, because the Louisiana purchase more than doubled the amount of territory available for his agricultural empire of liberty. It also guaranteed that the American Republic, would always have more than enough land to make every citizen a virtuous and independent farmer for generations to come.

Jefferson was not troubled that the Constitution gave him no enumerated authority to purchase new land for the United States. He toyed with the idea of proposing an amendment to the Constitution, that granted the federal government an authority to acquire new land. Amending the Constitution was going to take time, and the French wanted a quick decision. Jefferson sent the Treaty of Cession that ceded Louisiana to the United States, to the Senate with the private comment, “The less we say about constitutional difficulties, the better.”

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Formal Possession of Louisiana

The Senate ratified the treaty in October, and American officials took formal possession of Louisiana in ceremonies at New Orleans on December 20. Two important details of the Louisiana Purchase were overlooked in the hasty process of sale. Those were the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory and the contents of it. Talleyrand’s description of the boundaries of Louisiana were deliberately vague, because the French had not held title to Louisiana long enough to explore it all, once the Spanish had been compelled to yield it up.

Inadequate Details of the Purchase

It was not clear whether the purchase also included the Spanish-held province of West Florida, the vast plains down to the Rio Grande, modern state of Texas, or the Oregon Territory on the Pacific, nor did anyone have a clear idea of what the geography, the inhabitants, or the resources of the new purchase looked like. Jefferson had pressed for an expedition to the West to answer those questions ever since the days of the Confederation. The Livingston-Monroe negotiations merely gave him the pretext to ask Congress for the sum of $2,500 to finance a scouting party up the Missouri River Valley to the Pacific in the spring of 1803.

Expedition Plan by Jefferson

Jefferson selected his reliable and enterprising private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis as chief for the expedition who chose William Clark as his associate. In the spring of 1804, shortly after the Treaty of Cession was signed, Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis with a 48-man corps of discovery, with instructions from Jefferson to thoroughly map the Louisiana Territory; evaluating the soil, its climate, mineral resources; and to determine whether the Missouri River might not run all the way to the Pacific.

Learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s incapability to create practical alternatives to Hamilton’s hard-headed fiscal policies.

Lewis and Clark’s Intricate Expedition Details

Lewis and Clark’s expedition disappeared without a trace for two and a half years until they turned up back at St. Louis in September 1806 with a loss of only one man on the journey. They had ascended the Missouri River as far as North Dakota, wintered with the Mandan Indians, scaled the Rocky Mountains with the help of a French Canadian trapper. They had floated down the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific, returning over the Rockies in 1806.

The notebooks Lewis and Clark brought back were packed with observations, sketches, measurements, and the corps of discoveries included specimens of plants and animals. Having only one hostile fight with Indians, they had secured American title to the Oregon country as part of the purchase. It was the single greatest scientific expedition of the day but they made one major mistake in judgment. Both Lewis and Clark agreed that the territory beyond Missouri, while rich in natural resources, was not fit for white settlement.

Common Questions about the History of the United States

Q: Why did Jefferson want to buy New Orleans from Napoleon?

In order to protect American interests on the Mississippi, Thomas Jefferson offered to buy the city of New Orleans and its district from the French.

Q: How much did the Louisiana purchase cost?

The cost of Louisiana province purchase for approximately 830,000 square miles was $15 million.

Q: What were the long-term effects of the Louisiana purchase?

The long-term effects of the Louisiana purchase were that it was not clear whether the purchase also included the Spanish-held province of West Florida, the vast plains down to the Rio Grande, the modern state of Texas, or the Oregon Territory on the Pacific. No one had a clear idea of what the geography, inhabitants, or resources of the new purchase looked like.

Q: Who did Jefferson select to lead the expedition into the Louisiana territory?

Jefferson selected his reliable private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis as chief for the expedition who chose William Clark as his associate.

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