On 20 October 1803 the USA pulled off one of the best deals in the history of mankind by purchasing a third of modern America from Napoleon’s France. This cost them just 50 million francs.
At a stroke the country was transformed from an emerging power confined to the east coast to a huge territory controlling vast natural resources. With Louisiana in American hands, harnessing the wild west became possible.
An unstable history
The vast territory of Louisiana had already changed hands frequently throughout its relatively short history. Extending from what is now parts of Canada to the city of New Orleans, this vast territory had originally belonged to France, having been claimed by King Louis’ nation in 1699. Such a vast wilderness was still sparsely populated in 1803, but some small settlements had sprung up along its main rivers.
These hardy frontier people would unwittingly become part of the chessboard of 18th century international relations in 1762, when they were handed over to Spain following a French defeat in the Seven Years War. American relations with their new neighbour quickly became tetchy, particularly after they were barred from using the important port of New Orleans.
However, this slight tension was nothing compared with the panic provoked by Napoleon’s reclaiming of the territory for France in 1800.
The Little Corporal had big American ambitions…
Though Louisiana nominally remained in Spanish hands almost right up to its transfer to America, the ambitious Napoleon -at this point First Consul of France – had won it back with a Treaty secured from the Spanish.
Aware that this man was aggressive and contemplating trying to restore French hegemony in America, American fears were further fed by a large transferal of French troops to New Orleans in 1801.
Some Americans, including President Thomas Jefferson, considered siding with their old enemy Britain in order to combat this threat. However, subsequent events radically changed the situation.
Napoleon’s first act to regain control in the western hemisphere was to send an army to put down the infamous slave rebellion on the island of Sainte-Domingue (now Haiti.) Lead by charismatic ex-slave Toussaint L’Overture, the rebellion had been exceptionally bloody and had already resisted British and Spanish attempts to put it down. The loss of such a lucrative possession was costing France dearly, and in January 1802 General Leclerc set sail for the Caribbean.
…but it was not to be
This expedition was a disaster. In the early 19th century tropical diseases meant that the Caribbean was a graveyard for Europeans (this is why African slaves were used in the first place) and many Frenchmen died without ever seeing a rebel slave. This, combined with the fanatical rebel resistance, meant that by November 1803 only a third of the French army remained alive, and the remainder had to be evacuated.
Haiti, incidentally, was declared one of the world’s only republics after victory in this war, though the United States refused to recognize it for fear that this would give their own slaves dangerous ideas.
Meanwhile, this disaster convinced Napoleon that Europe, not the Americas, was the route to greatness. With this in mind, and wary of having to fight the British in North America, he began to consider selling his vast new territory of Louisiana.
France’s failure was the States’ opportunity
Jefferson’s government were keen to get their hands on New Orleans and the surrounding area, but were astonished when French Treasury Minister Barbé-Marbois offered his American counterpart Livingstone the whole Louisiana territory for just $15 million.
To put this in perspective, Livingstone’s delegation had been preparing to haggle hard in order to bring the price of New Orleans alone down to $10 million. Even if the value of the dollar is inflated to its current level, that is only 42 cents paid per acre of land.
Terrified that this extraordinary offer might be withdrawn at any time, the Americans wasted no time in signing the deal – and signed it on 30 April 1803 – just a few weeks after the idea of buying New Orleans had first been raised. The size of the United States of America doubled overnight.
On 20 October 1803 the Senate finally ratified the Treaty by 27 votes to 4, and the following day Jefferson was authorised to take military possession of the Louisiana Territory. Subsequently, plans were formulated to explore the territory’s wilderness – most famously that of Lewis and Clark.
The best deal in history?
With the centre of the modern United States now in American hands, the opportunities to expand into the unexplored west now seemed limitless. The century which followed the acquisition of Louisiana was pivotal in the development of this young nation, which quickly grew, both territorially and industrially, into one of the world’s great powers.
Today, this is still the case, and one can walk all the way across the continent and be immersed in the United States of America. Thus, the importance of the Louisiana Purchase should not be underplayed or forgotten.