1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Louisiana Purchase

LOUISIANA PURCHASE, a large portion of the area of the United States of America, purchased from the French Republic in 1803. The territory to which France held explorer’s title originally included the entire valley of the Mississippi (see Louisiana); but the “Louisiana” which was ceded by her to Spain in 1762 (England refusing it, preferring the Floridas), retroceded to France in 1800,[1] and ceded by Napoleon to the United States—in violation of his pledge to Spain that he would not alienate the province—embraced only the portion W. of the river and the island of New Orleans on the E. (and, as might be claimed with some show of argument, West Florida to the Perdido river).

With the settlement of the trans-Alleghany region, the freedom of the Mississippi had become of vital importance to the western settlements, and Spain had recognized these interests in her treaty with the United States of 1795, by guaranteeing freedom of navigation and the privilege of deposit at New Orleans. The transfer of Louisiana from a weak neighbour to so powerful and ambitious a state as France was naturally unwelcome to the United States, and Robert R. Livingston, the American minister in Paris, was instructed by Secretary-of-State Madison to endeavour to prevent the consummation of the retrocession; or, should that be irrevocable, to endeavour to buy the Floridas (either from France, if they had passed with Louisiana, or through her goodwill from Spain)—or at least West Florida—and if possible New Orleans, so as to give the United States a secure position on the Mississippi, and insure the safety of her commerce. The United States was also trying to collect claims of her merchants for spoliations by French cruisers during the late war between France and Great Britain. In his preliminary propositions Livingston lightly suggested to Talleyrand a cession of Louisiana to satisfy these claims; following it with the more serious demand that France should pledge observance of the Spanish concession to the Mississippi trade. This pledge Napoleon readily gave. But during these negotiations a suspension by the Spanish governor of the right of deposit aroused extreme apprehension in America and resulted in warlike votes in Congress. Of these, and of London reports of a British expedition against New Orleans preparing in anticipation of the imminent rupture of the peace of Amiens, Livingston made most capable use; and pressed for a cession of West Florida, New Orleans and Louisiana north of the Arkansas river. But without New Orleans Louisiana was of little present worth, and Napoleon—the collapse of whose American colonial schemes seemed involved in his failure in Santo Domingo, who was persuaded he could not hold Louisiana against Great Britain, and who was already turning from projects of colonial empire toward his later continental policy—suddenly offered to Livingston the whole of the province. Livingston disclaimed wanting the part below the Arkansas. In even mentioning Louisiana he had gone outside his instructions. At this stage James Monroe became associated with him in the negotiations. They were quickly closed, Barbé Marbois acting for Napoleon, and by three conventions signed on the 30th of April 1803 the American ministers, without instructions, boldly accepted for their country a territory approximately 1,000,000 sq. m. in area—about five times the area of continental France. For this imperial domain, perhaps the richest agricultural region of the world, the United States paid 60,000,000 francs ($11,250,000) outright, and assumed the claims of her citizens against France to the extent of 20,000,000 francs ($3,750,000) additional; the interest payments incidental to the final settlement raising the total eventually to $27,267,622, or about four cents an acre.

Different writers have emphasized differently the various factors in this extraordinary diplomatic episode. Unquestionably the western people were ready to war for the navigation of the Mississippi; but, that being guaranteed, it seems certain that France might peaceably have taken and held the western shore. The acquisition was not a triumph of American diplomacy, but a piece of marvellous diplomatic good fortune; for the records abundantly prove, as Madison said, that the cause of success was a sudden policy of Napoleon, forced by European contingencies. Livingston alone of the public men concerned showed indubitably before the event a conception of the feasibility and desirability of the acquisition of a vast territory beyond the Mississippi. Jefferson had wished to buy the Floridas, but alarmed by the magnitude of the cession, declared his belief that the United States had no power to acquire Louisiana. Though such strict construction of the constitution was a cardinal dogma of the Democratic party, this dogma was abandoned outright in practice, Jefferson finding “but one opinion as to the necessity of shutting up the constitution” (or amending it, which was not done) and seeking justification of the means in the end. The Federalist party, heretofore broad-constructionists, became strict-constructionists under the temptation of factious politics, and a very notable political struggle was thus precipitated—notable among other things for strong expressions of sectionalism. The net result was the establishment of the doctrine of “implied powers” in interpreting the constitution; a doctrine under which the Supreme Court presently found power to acquire territory implied in the powers to wage war and make peace, negotiate treaties, and “dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.”

The exact limits of the acquisition were not definitely drawn. The French archives show that Napoleon regarded the Rio Grande as the W. boundary of the territory of which he was to take possession, and the United States up to 1819 ably maintained the same claim. She also claimed all West Florida as part of Louisiana—which, in the usage of the second half of the 18th century, it apparently was not. When she acquired the Floridas in 1819–1821 she abandoned the claim to Texas. The line then adopted between the American and Spanish possessions on the W. followed the Sabine river from the Gulf of Mexico to the parallel of 32° N., ran thence due N. to the Red river, followed this to the meridian of 100° W. and this line N. to the Arkansas river, thence along this to its source, thence N. to the parallel of 42°, and along this line to the Pacific. Such is the accepted description of the W. boundary of the Louisiana Purchase—waiving Texas—thus retrospectively determined, except that that boundary ran with the crest of the Rocky Mountains N. of its intersection with the parallel of 42°. No portion of the Purchase lay west of the mountains, although for some years after 1870 the official maps of the United States government erroneously included Oregon as so acquired—an error finally abandoned by 1900.

On the 20th of December 1803, at New Orleans, the United States took possession of the lower part of the province, and on the 9th of March 1804, at St Louis, of the upper. The entire region then contained possibly 80,000 residents. The treaty of cession required the incorporation of Louisiana in the Union, and the admission of its inhabitants, “as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.” By act of the 26th of March 1804 the region below 33° N. was organized as the Territory of Orleans (see Louisiana), and that above as the District of Louisiana. The region above 33°, renamed in 1805 the Territory of Louisiana, and in 1812 the Territory of Missouri, was divided as time went on into many Indian reservations, territories and states. Thus were carved from the great domain of the Purchase Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Oklahoma in their entirety, and much the greatest part of Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. There is justification for the saying of Thiers that the United States were “indebted for their birth and for their greatness”—at least for an early assurance of greatness—“to the long struggle between France and England.” The acquisition of so vast a territory proved thus of immense influence in the history of the United States. It made it possible for them to hold a more independent and more dignified position between France and England during the Napoleonic wars; it established for ever in practice the doctrine of implied powers in the interpretation of the Federal Constitution; it gave the new republic a grand basis for material greatness; assured its dominance in North America; afforded the field for a magnificent experiment in expansion, and new doctrines of colonization; fed the national land hunger; incidentally moulded the slavery issue; and precipitated its final solution.

It is generally agreed that after the Revolution and the Civil War, the Louisiana Purchase is the greatest fact in American history. In 1904 a world’s fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, was held at St Louis in commemoration of the cession. After one hundred years the wilderness then acquired had become the centre of the power and wealth of the Union. It contained in 1903 15,000,000 inhabitants, and its taxable wealth alone was four hundred times the fifteen millions given to Napoleon.

Authorities.—The official literature is in the American State Papers, Foreign Relations, vol. 2, and Public Lands, vol. 2; diplomatic papers reprinted in House Document 431, 57th Congress, 2nd Session (1903); to which add the Histoire de la Louisiane et de la cession (Paris, 1829; Eng. trans., Philadelphia, 1830), by François Barbé-Marbois. This book abounds in supposed “speeches” of Napoleon, and “sayings” by Napoleon and Livingston that would have been highly prophetic in 1803, though no longer so in 1829. They have been used liberally and indiscriminatingly by the most prominent American historians. See also T. Donaldson, The Public Domain, House Miscellaneous Document 45, pt. 4, 47 th Congress, 2nd Session. For the boundary discussions by J. Q. Adams and Don L. de Onis, 1818–1819, American State Papers, Foreign Relations, vol. 4; also in Onis’s Official Correspondence between Don Luis de Onis . . . and John Quincy Adams, &c. (London, 1818), or Memoria sobre las negociaciones entre España y los Estados Unidos que dieron motivo al tratado de 1819 (Madrid, 1820). See also discussion and map in U.S. Census, 1900, Bulletin 74; and the letters of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Rufus King and other statesmen of the time. By far the best general account of the diplomacy is in Henry Adams’s History of the United States, vols. 1 and 2; and of Western conditions and American sentiment in J. B. McMaster’s History of the United States, vols. 2 and 3. Consult also Justin Winsor, Narrative and Critical History, vol. 7; and various valuable periodical articles, especially in the American Historical Review, by F. J. Turner and others. Reference may be made to B. Hermann, The Louisiana Purchase (Washington, 1898), and Theodore Roosevelt’s Winning of the West, vol. 4. Of the various special but popular accounts (by J. K. Hosmer, Ripley Hitchcock, R. Blanchard, K. E. Winship, &c.), not one is worthy of its subject, and all contain various inaccuracies.

  1. By the treaty of San Ildefonso, signed the 1st of October 1800. This was never ratified by Charles IV. of Spain, but the treaty of Madrid of the 21st of March 1801, which confirmed it, was signed by him on the 15th of October 1802.