Let’s Make a Deal: The Louisiana Purchase

We have now officially reached the 200th anniversary year of Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike’s Mississippi River expedition. For those of you not playing Rip Van Winkle in the past year, you’ll notice that we are continuing the series of Pike and exploration articles that we began last year.

The story of the expedition has many facets, not just the critical (for us, at least!) Morrison County portion of the trip. Widening the telescope to an international level, a series of pivotal events both doubled the size of the United States and led to Pike’s expedition.

Under the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, U.S. minister to France, and James Monroe, a later U.S. President, were authorized to strike a deal with Napoleon Bonaparte, ruler of France. The year was 1803. The situation seemed desperate. Trade was involved. Secrets were revealed.

A cascade of earlier world events led to the deal-making of 1803, going back at least as far as the French & Indian War (1756-1763). This conflict, which was known as the Seven Years War in Europe, resulted from the desire of the British colonies to expand into French territory in America. The American Indians sided primarily with the French in this war, which ended with the Treaty of Paris and a victorious Britain. America was now divided between Britain and Spain, with all lands east of the Mississippi River going to Britain. Spain had surrendered Florida to Britain and for her trouble, Spain received New Orleans and lands west of the Mississippi River from France. These western lands were called Louisiana.

Between 1775 and 1783, a little conflict called the Revolutionary War wrested the American colonies away from Britain and the United States of America sprang to life. From the end of the French & Indian War through the Revolutionary War, Americans engaged in trade throughout the land. In order to circumvent the Appalachian and Alleghany Mountains, American traders shipped their goods to the port of New Orleans, where the merchandise could travel up the Mississippi River for easier distribution. Because the port was owned by Spain, traders were perpetually afraid that it would be closed to them. The Treaty of San Lorenzo, also called Pinckney’s Treaty, allayed their fears.

Negotiated in 1795 by Thomas Pinckney, U.S. envoy to Spain, the treaty dealt primarily with trade issues, but also established an official border between Florida (then owned again by Spain) and the United States. As for trade, the treaty allowed U.S. traders to dock at the port of New Orleans and transport their goods on the Mississippi River. Pinckney’s Treaty also enabled American traders to deposit their wares at the port of New Orleans for up to three years without paying any duty.

With the treaty in place, traders merrily continued their commerce activities until 1803, when President Jefferson announced in a “Message to the Senate of January 11, 1803 Regarding Louisiana” that the rights of traders to deposit their goods at the port of New Orleans had been suspended. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Spanish and French had signed the Treaty of San Ildefonso on October 1, 1800, that returned the port and Louisiana Territory to the French. Pinckney’s Treaty was null and void. The secret was out now that U.S. trade was affected.

Worried about Napoleon Bonaparte’s intentions and the cessation of trade along the Mississippi, Jefferson immediately appointed “Robert R. Livingston to be minister plenipotentiary and James Monroe to be minister extraordinary and plenipotentiary, with full powers to both jointly, or to either on the death of the other, to enter into a treaty or convention with the First Consul of France for the purpose of enlarging and more effectually securing our rights and interest in the river Mississippi and in the Territories eastward thereof.” (Thomas Jefferson – Message to Senate, Jan. 11, 1803)

Jefferson’s primary goal was to procure the port of New Orleans. However, when Livingston and Monroe met with François Barbé Marbois, Napoleon’s representative, they were surprised at the deal he wanted to make. Instead of selling just the port, Napoleon offered Louisiana, all 827,192 square miles of it, to the United States. Like the deal of a good used car salesman, Napoleon’s offer was a take-it-now proposition. Livingston and Monroe had to accept it immediately, without consent of the full Congress. Jefferson approved of the transaction, even though it raised serious Constitutional issues. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed on April 30, 1803. After much debate about the deal’s constitutionality, Congress ratified the treaty in October 1803. For $15,000,000, roughly five-cents an acre, the United States doubled in size.

Why was Napoleon so quick to unload prime French property? He needed the cash to renew France’s war with Britain. He was also afraid that if the property remained in the hands of the French, the British would attempt to seize it during the planned conflict.

In a move that appeared to be prescient, Thomas Jefferson announced his own secret to Congress on January 18, 1803, months before the Louisiana Purchase deal was on the table. He proposed an exploratory expedition to the west coast of the continent such that the United States might advance “the interests of commerce” and gain a greater “geographical knowledge of our own continent”. This planned expedition was eventually led by the much acclaimed Lewis & Clark. Knowing full well that the exploration would cross lands still under the ownership of other countries, Jefferson stated, “The nation claiming the territory, regarding this as a literary pursuit, which is in the habit of permitting within its dominions, would not be disposed to view it with jealousy . . . .” So, why the secrecy, President Jefferson? (Transcript of Jefferson’s Secret message to Congress Regarding the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1803) from www.ourdocuments.gov)

There you have it – the international intrigue of secrets and wars and treaties and commerce that led to the Louisiana Purchase and, in turn, to Lt. Zebulon Pike’s expedition up the Mississippi River. For us, it all comes back to Pike.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2005, Morrison County Historical Society

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