While most have some familiarity with the Louisiana Purchase, there are quite a few details that remain relatively unknown regarding this unparalleled acquisition that changed the very face of the United States map.
Our story begins when, in 1763, France surrendered American territory it controlled after their defeat in the French and Indian War. As consolation for the Spanish loss of Florida to England, France gave its ally (Spain) French Louisiana which was situated west of the Mississippi River and included the critical port city of New Orleans.
And in 1795, a treaty was established wherein Spain agreed to allow the United States use of the Mississippi River for trade and transportation of goods as well as access to the port warehouses in New Orleans. All seemed well…
Until 1802 when King Charles IV of Spain gave over the territory around New Orleans to France and the U.S. found itself no longer allowed to access the port warehouses that were critical to its commerce and economy.
Needless to say, this transfer of control was quite alarming to our young country and its president, Thomas Jefferson, chose James Monroe as “special envoy.” Along with Minister to France, Robert Livingston, he was charged with negotiating a deal to allow the United States to purchase land “west of the Mississippi.” Since this was indeed a lofty goal, the U.S. would settle for acquiring only the city of New Orleans. Monroe was authorized up to 15 million dollars to facilitate this crucial land deal.
Though it was well-known that France’s Napoleon had previously set his sights on restoring the French Empire once established in America, he now found himself busy attempting to quash a growing slave rebellion in St. Domingue (present-day Haiti). And to add insult to injury, many French soldiers positioned there had succumbed to the horrors of yellow fever. Without a strong French military presence in the Louisiana territory, it was most certainly subject to capture by either Britain or Canada in the future. And considering the state of France’s forces, they could ill-afford to station soldiers in that area.
So thanks to perfect timing, France readily agreed to sell upwards of 800,000 acres of land stretching all the way from Louisiana to the soil beyond the Rocky Mountains, all at the reasonable price of 15 million dollars!
Monroe and Livingston departed France and returned to the U.S. just in time to announce the spectacular acquisition on Independence Day in 1803. After being passed by the Senate, funded by the House of Representatives and signed into law by President Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was ratified into law on October 8th, 1803.
And on this day in 1803, the city of New Orleans was officially handed over to the United States by France.
As for the constitutionality of such a purchase, Thomas Jefferson had serious concerns as he was known for holding strictly to the expressly-enumerated powers of the sacred document. The acquisition of “foreign territories” was not specifically addressed anywhere within the Constitution at the time. Jefferson’s solution to the perceived overreach?
He drafted a constitutional amendment that, once instated, would retroactively approve the purchase. However, his idea was quickly “shot down” by his own cabinet who considered the measure wholly unnecessary.
Though he had misgivings about the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson rightly counted it among one of his finest achievements. On that we can all agree!