This lesson discusses the Louisiana Purchase. Learn more about the most important real estate deal in American history and how it influenced the growth of the United States.
Then test your knowledge with a quiz.
France Takes Control of Louisiana
Napoleon Bonaparte had visions of a French empire in North America. France’s first emperor had already conquered much of Europe, making him one of the most feared and powerful leaders of the early 19th century. The crown jewel of his North American empire was going to be Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean that was known for its sugar plantations. However, Napoleon also had his eye on the United States. The first step to conquering the United States and adding it to his empire was to regain control of Louisiana and the port city of New Orleans.
France actually founded New Orleans in 1718. However, France lost control of Louisiana in 1762, following the French and Indian War. France’s ally, Spain, took Louisiana as compensation for losing Florida to Great Britain. In 1800, Napoleon took Louisiana back after pressuring Charles IV to sign the Treaty of Ildefonso.
The Importance of New Orleans
New Orleans is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 1800, the river was the main highway of trade and commerce for the United States. Even when Spain had control of New Orleans, the Spanish allowed the U.S. to use the port. This was called the ‘right to deposit.’ However, that was revoked when France took over New Orleans.
That alone was troubling for President Thomas Jefferson. Equally concerning was the issue of national security. New Orleans would have given Napoleon a convenient point for launching an invasion of the United States. Jefferson’s solution was to see if Napoleon would be willing to sell New Orleans. This was a dilemma for Jefferson because he believed in strict interpretation of the Constitution, which says nothing about buying land. Still, Jefferson believed it was in the best interest of the country to try to make a deal.
Napoleon’s Vision of an Empire Crumbles
Napoleon’s plans for a North American empire were derailed after France lost control of Saint-Domingue, which is now known as Haiti. Slaves revolted against the French army that occupied the island and the Haitian Revolution of 1803 left Napoleon wondering if he really wanted Louisiana anymore. He had been told that the population of the U.S.
was on the rise. The more people that there were to fight for the U.S., the more difficult a French invasion would be.
Even if France did take control of the U.S., the distance between France and the U.
S. would have made it difficult for the French to fight off other enemy invaders. Napoleon decided that it would make more sense to try and conquer England instead.
To do that, he needed more money, which he hoped he could get by selling not just New Orleans, but all of Louisiana.
Making a Deal with Napoleon
In April 1803, future president James Monroe and the French ambassador, Robert Livingston, went to Paris to try to negotiate a deal. Jefferson instructed them to offer 10 million dollars for New Orleans and part of present-day Florida. Napoleon rejected that offer, but said that he was willing to sell the entire territory of Louisiana for 15 million dollars. In 1803, Louisiana was an enormous chunk of land that covered 828,000 square miles. It stretched from the Gulf of Mexico, all the way up to Canada, and included land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.
That made the price about four cents an acre. It was a bargain that the U.S. could not pass up. Congress approved the sale by a 24 to 7 vote, and in December 1803, France officially gave up control of Louisiana to the United States.
The Importance of the Louisiana Purchase
Jefferson was glad to have New Orleans, but he had no idea what existed in the rest of Louisiana. In fact, until the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804, the only people who had any idea about what was in the rest of Louisiana were the Native Americans that lived there.
Jefferson did know that he doubled the size of the country. Louisiana eventually became all or part of 15 different states. Settlement started immediately and the country grew in population, not just land mass. The purchase also brought a wealth of natural resources, such as coal, oil, silver, and gold.
Unfortunately, the Native Americans who had made the territory their home for centuries saw their way of life come to an end. The country’s quest for Manifest Destiny forced the Indians to relocate to reservations as white settlers began to populate the western frontier.