Imagine the US without the large middle portion of its territory. This would mean non-existence of states like Oklahoma, Nebraska, North Dakota, Colorado and Minnesota. The massive middle piece of America’s land, Louisiana territory, was once owned by France. If not for the Louisiana Purchase, this region- currently harbouring 15 US states, would probably have remained a French territory. Purchased by the US from France in 1803, Louisiana territory brought into the US about 8,28,000 square miles of area. Bought at less than 4 cents per acre, this colossal land transaction doubled the size of this young republic. 

Involving an area larger than today’s France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Holland and Switzerland put together, Louisiana Purchase was the best bargain of all times and is, thus, considered to be one of the most important achievements of Jefferson’s presidency. All, or parts of 15 US states were carved from this 8,28,000 square miles territory, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. 

Louisiana territory, covering most of the Mississippi valley has been an article of Old-World’s interest for many years. Explorations in the 17th and 18th centuries gave France control over it. Originally belonging to France, the territory was ceded to Spain in 1763 when France was battling with Great Britain. But the region changed hands again in 1801. As the French regained power, they convinced Spain of ceding the territory back to France. A treaty called for the return of Louisiana in exchange for a small Italian kingdom. Such reports worried the US who began fearing a looming French invasion. Thomas Jefferson began negotiations with France through the diplomatic route. He even engaged in back channel diplomacy to allay concerns regarding potential conflicts and possibilities of war. Initially the US was willing to buy New Orleans only because three-eighths of the US produce passed through it to the markets. Therefore, it was crucial for America’s commerce that New Orleans remained free and open. Unexpectedly, France suggested it to buy all of Louisiana as Napoleon Bonaparte abruptly decided to sell the entire territory to the US.

There are good reasons to believe why he did so. The French failure in Santo Domingo, the imminence of renewed war with Great Britain along with financial difficulties, might have prompted Napoleon to offer the entire Louisiana territory for sale to the United States. Moreover, he needed funds as he was gearing up for another campaign against Britain and hoped to create a huge country in the Western Hemisphere to counter the British. Historians have also pointed out other reasons for Napoleon’s renunciation of Louisiana. Following America’s independence, Napoleon knew about France’s inability to maintain a colony on the American continent. In his view, Louisiana territory was useful only as a granary for Saint Domingue, France’s most important holding in the West. Also, knowing well that he could not oust Americans from the land possessed by France in North America, Napoleon offered all of Louisiana to the U.S. 

Though the Americans hoped to buy the entire Louisiana territory for $12.7 million, France declared that $15 million was as low as it would go. Therefore, a fresh deadlock ensued and the deal was struck for $15 million on April 29, 1803. The treaty was signed on May 2 and backdated to April 30. By the terms of the treaty, Louisiana Territory was sold to the United States in the exact same form France had received it from Spain. U.S. acquired the land to the west of the Mississippi River for $15 million. At about four cents an acre, it was an incredible bargain but still the purchase had a price that was more than what the U.S. treasury could afford. For this bargain, US agreed to pay $11.25 million outright and assumed claims of its citizens against France for the amount of $3.75 million. 

Louisiana Purchase also brought a good deal of controversy. The constitutionality of the purchase remained debatable as Jefferson had not followed the strict provisions envisaged in the Constitution. The Constitution nowhere empowered the federal government to purchase a new land. Jefferson, left troubled by this act, stated that the Constitution allowed him room to act under the treaty-making provisions. Moreover, American negotiators were fully aware that what the United States had purchased was unclear. The treaty couldn’t convey the terms properly. Even the boundaries weren’t described clearly. The treaty neither gave any assurance regarding the consideration of West Florida as a part of Louisiana nor did it delineate the southwest boundary.

A dispute soon arose between Spain and the United States concerning the extent of Louisiana territory. The territorial boundaries had not been defined in the 1763 Treaty that ceded Louisiana territory from France to Spain, nor in the 1801 Treaty ceding it back to France. And the 1803 Louisiana Purchase agreement selling it to the United States was already vague.

At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, its population of slaves of African origin and Indian tribes was about 8,000. But the land transaction was negotiated between France and the US, without referring to those who lived on it and had not ceded it to any colonial power. Few decades following the Louisiana Purchase were a period of court decisions ousting numerous tribes from their lands. All this came at a great cost to Native Americans. The bargain gave the US the authority to take control of the land from its indigenous inhabitants. Being subjected to unfair treaties and genocidal and discriminatory policies, they paid the price for the United States’ westward expansion. By 1840, the U.S. had forced thousands of Native Americans from their lands. The condition of the enslaved people deteriorated. After the deal was struck, the territory remained a hub of the slave trade, stoking debates about whether the United States should permit slavery. To bring an end to these tensions, US lawmakers drew an imaginary line across the freshly expanded country, separating it into slave and free states. 

The Louisiana Purchase had temporarily satisfied the nation’s desire for expansion but left behind apprehensions about basic human rights. This led to unanswered questions over the idea of indigenous land rights leading all the way into the mid-20th century. Many court cases and tribal suits following the land deal led to the Indian Claims Commission Act in 1946. Ergo, the United States ended up paying far more than the deal amount of $15 million for the Louisiana Territory. Natives had received approximately 20 times as much as France had for the territory bought by the US. It is often quoted that the real estate bought by the US was not purchased from Napoleon but from its original owners. The estimated total cost of Louisiana Purchase turned out to be around $2.6 billion after accounting for all subsequent financial settlements along with interest payments corresponding to them.

Rich in gold, silver and other ores along with huge forests and grasslands for grazing and farming, the new acquisition made America immensely wealthy. The fertility of the land, its climate and extent, promised riches to the US treasury. It assured the US of a thriving economy and ample resources for posterity. 

Louisiana Purchase altered the shape of the nation. It strengthened the US and provided an impetus to its strategic and materialistic growth. Had the US not purchased Louisiana, it would have diminished the possibilities of US becoming a world power thereby reducing its international influence. This, in turn, would have meant that their ideas of freedom and democracy would have carried less weight in the present-day world. In the absence of this portion – also home to America’s richest states – US would not have been what it is today. Thus, Louisiana Purchase was not just a land deal but a great force that successfully held the continent together.  

 

References:

How the Louisiana Purchase Changed the World dated April 2003

Louisiana Purchase-HISTORY dated 06.06.2019

The Louisiana Purchase was a bargain. dated 30.04.2020

Louisiana Purchase: United States history dated 23.11.2020

Westward Expansion: The Louisiana Purchase

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