The Louisiana Purchase was the most important land acquisition in American history. It added 15 states to the US, most of which became our bread basket.
Thomas Jefferson had this providential vision to spread democracy across the continent. Buying such a huge piece of land was the beginning of America’s westward movement; and his utopian ideal was an influence on later generations who coined “Manifest Destiny’’ as the inspiration for the US to stretch across North America.
But spreading democracy was the ideal that came after buying the land. Jefferson had another, much more worrisome issue to contend with that caused him to want it.
That was France. Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power, which put an end to the democratic-minded French Revolution and replaced it with a dictatorship. Napoleon had aspirations of conquering Europe, but Jefferson understood that he had ambitions in North America, too.
France had just received the Louisiana Territory from Spain in 1800, in the Treaty of Ildefonso, and Napoleon wanted to establish the territory as a French colony. Newspaper reports at the time not only had Jefferson worried, but also the American public that French military occupation of this vast territory would be a threat to trade and pull the US into constant warfare taking place on the European continent. What’s worse was that Jefferson was realizing that a military alliance with the dreaded British might be necessary. Remember, the US just won its independence, and England was still considered an enemy, especially to Jefferson.
At first, Jefferson only wanted to buy New Orleans and its immediate surroundings from France so that American merchants could freely sail into the Gulf of Mexico to trade with the various Caribbean islands. Prior to 1800, American merchants were only allowed to drop off goods for trade at New Orleans, so by making this an American port, merchants would now have freedom of the seas to trade with whom they wanted.
Napoleon had different intentions. First, he planned on reconquering the island of St. Domingue (today’s countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), which freed itself from French rule by way of a slave revolt. From there, St. Domingue was to be used as a staging point for Napoleon’s invasion of North America. The island also was a significant source of wealth for France with its sugar plantations.
France sent 20,000 soldiers to re-take the island, place it back under French authority. But the expedition turned into a disaster. Yellow fever struck, wiping out two-thirds of the French army. And with war looming in Europe, Napoleon gave up his desire for conquering North America. He needed more soldiers and a lot of cash to fight closer to home.
With money suddenly becoming more important than conquest, Napoleon offered the whole territory to the US Ambassador to France, Robert Livingston, for $15 million, about three to four cents per acre.
Then partisan politics got in the way. The federalists, the political party opposing Jefferson, argued that the Constitution didn’t specify the US government could buy land. Federalists were afraid of losing their hold on political power, and enlarging the country could create political rivalries between different sections of the US. The federalists were right, in hindsight, as sectional differences created a lot of bickering, even creating a war in 1861.
But James Madison convinced Jefferson that a treaty authorizing the purchase of land was within the bounds of the US Constitution since the president had the power to negotiate treaties with other countries. Both the Senate and House of Representatives ratified the treaty.
Jefferson didn’t waste any time. Before the purchase of the territory even became official, he pushed bills through congress authorizing expeditions to explore the land. Zebulon Pike led two expeditions, one to find the source of the Mississippi River and another to find the sources of the Arkansas and Red Rivers.
The other expedition is the most well-known: the Lewis and Clark expedition that everyone learned in their history classes. Jefferson believed that the US could establish a monopoly on trade with Asia if Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were able to find an all-water route to the pacific. They didn’t, but by exploring the Northwestern region of North America, the US was able to make a claim to the lands that later became the states of Washington and Oregon.
No one, neither citizen nor politician, knew the true value of the land the US bought. But it turned out to be some of the most valuable farm land in the world. The US is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, and most of it is grown in the Great Plains region. The only issue after purchase was making this land available to all Americans, which wouldn’t happen for many more years.
Some facts about the Louisiana Purchase:
828,000 square miles.
The $15 million cost of the purchase is worth $250 million in today’s dollars.
The extreme northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase is part of today’s Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. A boundary dispute between the US and England led to a treaty defining the US-Canadian border.