Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase

Peter Curry

4 mins

06 Nov 2018

The Louisiana Purchase saw the addition of swathes of what we now recognise as modern America to the Union. Despite its name, the modern territory of Louisiana state encompasses only a small part of the purchase.

There was significant debate over the Louisiana Purchase in the Union itself. The purchase of Louisiana fit into the construction of a new American republic, a topic of significant debate among American leaders.

It is worth remembering that America developed across the continent of North America in fits and starts. In the late 1700s, there was still a strong French and Spanish presence in Florida and Louisiana.

The British were still a threat in forts in the north and in Canada, and the Royal Navy would not recognise American sailors as American, impressing them into service of the British Empire. Britain had cut America out of the imperial trading system, and American finances were suffering as a result.

Louisiana Purchase, 1803, doubling the size of the United States. Credit: Commons.

America remained weak and exposed to European influence. The Ohio river led to the Mississippi river, whose mouth was controlled by the French and Spanish in the south.

There is an argument that had the French retained Louisiana, America would have been forced to develop a much stronger government to raise taxes and secure its borders, and consequently would have had to tighten control over state independence.

The version of federalised America that we know today, where the states can act freely of federal action in a lot of areas, would not exist.

Jefferson’s vision

Thomas Jefferson’s famous vision for the United States was that it should be an “Empire of Liberty”, despite the seeming contradiction in terms.

Jefferson’s vision required territory. As the lands were being gradually settled by a few American migrants, many Americans, including Jefferson, assumed that the territory would be acquired “piece by piece.”

The risk of another power taking it from a weakened Spain made a profound reconsideration of this policy necessary.

Jefferson believed that small farmers, who owned the land they worked, constituted an ideal form of society. He saw factories as nightmarish places, where people lost their freedoms and where tyranny was constructed.

He believed that these places trapped poorer people within the orbit of manufacturing, and given no route to independence.

Wage labour was anathema to Jefferson, and he saw the factory towns of Manchester and Birmingham in England as ominous examples of what could lie in store for America.

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The massive expansion of U.S. territory would allow the Jeffersonian vision of a society of small farmers to flourish.

There was a significant set of concerns that caused problems for Jefferson however.

Jefferson disapproved of the idea of buying Louisiana from France, as that implied that the French had a right to the territory in the first place.

He also held concerns about whether he had the authority as president to purchase the territory, as it represented an extension of constitutional power to the executive branch of U.S. government.

However, he recognised that France posed a greater threat to American sovereignty and was prepared to go to war to prevent a strong French presence in the region.

Another concern lingered that the expansion of American territory would require a form of autocratic government to keep it together, which was anathema to many senators.

David Ramsey wrote:

“…that this immense population will divide into separate independent governments; or can only be kept together by the strong arm of the monarchy, or despotism, to the destruction of elective principles, which pervade our present constitution.”

The purchase

Nonetheless, James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston were dispatched to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans in January 1803. They were instructed to purchase New Orleans and its environs, and did not anticipate the vast territory they would later acquire.

The purchase of Louisiana was prompted by the Haitian Revolution, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The Haitian Revolution began in 1791 as a slave rebellion and saw the French continually attempted to re-assert their control over the colony, before eventually conceding its independence in 1804.

Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot. Credit: Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert / Commons.

Without Haiti, Napoleon felt the French New World Empire lacked support, and without revenue from the Caribbean sugar colony, Louisiana held little importance for him.

His foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand opposed the idea of selling the territory, but Napoleon pressed ahead, and ordered François Barbé-Marbois, the French Treasury Minister, to offer the entire territory for $15 million.

The American delegation had been willing to pay up to $10 million for New Orleans, but were dumbstruck when the vast territory was offered for $15 million.

The territory of the Louisiana Purchase placed over a modern map. Credit: Natural Earth and Portland State University / Commons.

Livingston did not think that Americans back home would reject the offer, and seeing that the French might change their minds at any point, which would lead to the loss of New Orleans, purchased the territory.

The Louisiana Purchase was by far the largest territorial gain in U.S. history, and was one of Jefferson’s greatest contributions to the nascent Union. Stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, the purchase doubled the size of the United States.

The territory itself was gargantuan, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to Rupert’s Land in the north, and from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, and the French had sold it to the Americans at a price of less than 3 cents an acre.

Header image credit: Depiction of the territory gained in the Louisiana purchase. Credit: Frank Bond / Commons.