The Louisiana Purchase

The Positions of the Involved

To Buy or Not to Buy, that is the Question

In the late 1700s and early 1800s there had been great controversy on how the territorial claims of the Louisiana Territory should be handled. It began when France held the territory but ceded it to Spain in compensation for their debt as a result of the French and Indian War.

As the United States augmented their territories westbound, the navigation of the Mississippi River and the access to the port of New Orleans had become necessary to the survival and stability of the American economy. President Thomas Jefferson, who had been newly elected in year 1800, expressed his prediction of the significance of the taking of the territory to the Pierre Samuel du Pont, and in which also said that he expected the retransfer of authority to France from Spain. He also wrote a letter to France’s Minister, Robert Livingston, and stated that “every eye in the United States is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana. Perhaps nothing since the revolutionary war has produced more uneasy sensations through the body of the nation.”

President Thomas Jefferson of the United States, the government of the United States, Spain, Great Britain, and France all had differing views of the Louisiana Purchase. Spain was upset with the idea of the purchase because it would enfeeble their power in North America. They recognized the United States’ right to use the Mississippi river and to deposit products in New Orleans for future abroad shippings. But Jefferson wrote “Spain might have retained New Orleans quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there, so that her possession of the place would be hardly felt by us.” He continued saying “it would not perhaps be very long before some circumstance might arise which might make the cession of it to us the price of something of more worth to her.”

After Napoleon took over in 1799, France made plans to make augment its power in North America. They sided with Spain and fought to convince the Continental Congress to cede the American rights to the Mississippi River water trade route. They also worked to prevent the United States’ access to ports in attempt to hinder their trade. However, amidst the war between the French and the British, Napoleon came to the conclusion that it would be better to offer the land to the United States instead of having their enemy, Great Britain, go to take over and ultimately receive the land. As a result, Napoleon offered the United States more than they originally requested, which was New Orleans, plus the addition of the entire Louisiana Territory.

Though there were all of these differences in views, it ultimately resulted in the United States’ Purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Was it right for Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the United States Government to make this decision?


October 30th, 1803

The Louisiana Purchase had been ratified by the Senate on October 20th! The Treaty had been voted for with 24 yeas and 7 nays. The purchase would cause a doubling in the United States size, enfeebling Spain. It had been known to fill the Spaniards with disdain, who had also been fighting against it along with France, to avoid such harsh territorial claims. In 1762, after the French lost the French and Indian War and gave Quebec to Britain, France handed the Louisiana territory to Spain for payment. However, due to a weakening by territorial concession from the U.S. in 1795, Spain became more enfeebled. This caused Spain to give the Louisiana territory back to France with a secret treaty in October 1800. In April, American Emissary James Monroe traveled to France and compromised with their leaders to sell the expansive Louisiana Territory to the United States.

It had been said that “Americans enjoyed the right of deposit as neutrals in England’s war with France and Spain.” This had angered the Spanish Order, and in turn denied the American right of deposit, though it would only be guaranteed for three years and contradicted the 1795 Pinckney Treaty. France also sided with Spain and fought to convince the Continental Congress to cede the American rights to the Mississippi River water trade route. In October 1800, the French were trying to terminate the Franco-American alliance while another French representative in Spain tried to tell them to give up on Louisiana, which hurt Spain’s pride and security. Overall, they believed that Americans were gaining too much territory, and in turn, augmenting their power as a nation.

The Americans made compromises left and right. Spain was essentially a decaying power which inspired no fear into the Americans. There were only about one thousand Spanish soldiers guarding the Louisiana territory from the rest of the United States. The United States had the ability to send thousands of men from their newly expanded army, which would ultimately overtake the isolated Spaniards. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786: “My fear, is that they are too feeble to hold them till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece. The navigation of the Mississippi we must have,” in regards to Louisiana being in the weak hands of the Spanish.

Secretary of State: Madison

As Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States from the 1800 election, he chose one of his closest allies, James Madison, to be his Secretary of State. As Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Madison’s job was to contact with international embassies, American ministers and consuls abroad, and state officials across the nation. He would write out reports for Congress, publish laws, supervise patents, issuing passports, and making sure there are Great Seals of the United States on every official document. James Madison shared his vision for the good of the country with President Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Gallatin, which was a “republican triumvirate.”

The purchase of the Louisiana Territory was ideal for Madison’s and Jefferson’s plan of an augmenting republic for farmers. It was unexpected when Napoleon of France offered the territory, and in which if United States accepted, would double the size of the United States and extend its border to the Rocky Mountains. However, there was controversy on whether or not the Louisiana Purchase was Constitutional.

In 1803, when war between France and Britain brewed, both worked to hinder the United States from trade. James Madison demanded for Britain’s blockades to be withdrawn and to end it’s impressments. In response, he also wrote a two-hundred and four page document titled An Examination of the British Doctrine, Which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade, Not Open in the Time of Peace. Though he worked hard against the pressures of the French and British, they did not falter. The House of Representatives constantly debated the laws regarding the Louisiana purchase and created many acts to rationalize the purchase and the French in ceding the territory to the United States.

Napoleon’s plans to re-establish France in the New-World began when he decided to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States in avoidance of the seizing of the territory by the British, in which they were currently at war with. He consulted with the minister of France, François de Barbé-Marbois, and also decided that it would not be worth sending forces to guard the Mississippi Valley. Therefore, Napoleon entered negotiations with a representative of the United States to enact the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, which also included New Orleans, the United States’ original request, for $15 million with four cents per acre.

The Constitutional Conflict

The Constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase was first questioned when Napoleon offered it so unexpectedly, but the Constitution did not contain a certain method for acquiring new territories. The purchase treaty had to be ratified by the end of October and in which gave President Jefferson time to resolve the controversy of its constitutionality.

The debates on the Louisiana Purchase began on December 15th, 1802 with Thomas Jefferson presenting his second Annual message to Congress which stated that “the cession of the Spanish province of Louisiana to France, which took place in the course of the late war, will, if carried into effect, make a change in the aspect our foreign relations, which will doubtless have just weight in any deliberations of the legislature connected with that subject.” From the beginning of January 1803, the House of Representatives debated Spain’s cession of the Louisiana territory to France. Through February 1803 the Senate debated the question of the indisputable right of the United States to have the freedom to explore the Mississippi. The Senate ruled that they authorize the President to “organize, arm, and equip, according to the law, and hold in readiness to march, at a moment’s warning, 80,000 effective militia” on February 25. On April 30th, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty and Conventions were signed in Paris, France.

Jefferson’s Cabinet members claimed that the Constitutional Amendment that Jefferson suggested was not necessary. Because of the drastic time constraints, Jefferson accepted the Cabinet’s decision and supported it by stating “It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; & saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.” The Senate ratified the treaty on October 20th with a vote of 24 yeas against 7 nays. Through the rest of October, the House of Representatives continued to debate the Louisiana Treaty and in turn passes “acts” that rationalize the purchase treaty.

In response to this, Spain is disdained, but had no means or military power to hinder its progress. On November 30th of 1803, Spain formally transferred Louisiana to France, though in 1800 Spain already secretly agreed to return Louisiana to France in exchange for Etruria. Nearly a month later, on December 20th, France formally transferred Louisiana to the United States. Ten days later, on December 30th, the United States takes formal possession of the territory.

The final result was that they adopted a broad construction based on the premise that all nations had the right to acquire territory through treaties.

Jefferson's Primary Reasoning for Supporting the Purchase

Though President Thomas Jefferson had always been a strict Constitutionalist, he feared the conflicts of the unstable structure of powers given to the national government in the Constitution, for it did not hold any direction for the acquirement of new lands from other countries. Jefferson saw that it would only be just to establish and approve a constitutional amendment regarding the issue, but was rejected by Congress. Jefferson’s Cabinet also argued that his suggestion of an amendment was unnecessary because of the time constraints and how it must be ratified by the end of October. He worked hard to follow what he believed to be the proper constitutional procedure, but not enough of his consultants shared his vision and he eventually acquiesced.

Napoleon’s offer for the territory was highly unexpected, for if the United States accepted, then the size of the country would be doubled and in which their borders would exceed that of their mandate. The purchase of the Louisiana Territory was ideal for Madison’s and Jefferson’s plan of an augmenting republic for farmers. Jefferson appointed James Monroe to be his messenger and go to France to negotiate. He would communicate with Robert Livingston, France’s Minister. They both learned that Napoleon had given up his desire to recreate the French empire in North America. Therefore, Napoleon offered the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The two Ministers negotiated a purchase treaty and made an announcement on July 3rd 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty could not be official until it was ratified by the Senate, funded by the House of Representatives, and signed by the President. Though Jefferson understood that the offer for such an expansive augmenting in land was too good to be true, he still questioned its constitutionality. He recognized that Article IV of the Constitution only said that new states could be added, but there was no guide or procedure in the taking of foreign territories. In 1803, he wrote that “The General Government has no powers but such as the Constitution gives it… it has not given it power of holding foreign territory and still less of incorporating it into the Union. An amendment of the Constitution seems necessary for this.” Though he drafted an amendment for this cause, he was ignored in the fact that they did not have the patience for the process and decided to move forward with the Louisiana Purchase.