La Purchase Part 2


(NOTE: this article was researched and written in 2002. This information below may not be valid any longer)

by Dale Novick

When I was attending high school in New Orleans, I had no interest in the past. My thoughts were centered on more pressing matters, such as my latest flame, what my mother had fixed for lunch, or fine-tuning my note-taking abilities . . . smuggled to other students. Most of what I must have learned about the Louisiana Purchase in US History has now been consigned to the deepest layers of my unconscious mind.

As it turns out, that wasn’t such a bad thing. Revisiting this historic time line as an adult has left me with feelings of unexpected pride at the wisdom and courage of our Founding Fathers. The year 2003 will be a banner year in Louisiana and across America, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the purchase of the Louisiana territories from France.

Recently I visited with friends on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As I headed back to New Orleans on I-10-East, a smile lit up my face as my car crossed the border into Louisiana. "Bienvenue à Louisiane" was written beneath the "Welcome to Louisiana" signpost, extending a gracious greeting to all newcomers to our lovely state.

Many Louisiana customs and traditions today cannot be separated from those of our French forebears. French is spoken in many small towns in central and southern Louisiana, and our tradition is heavily steeped in French Catholicism. The ambiance and flavor of Louisiana today is an extension of a glorious heritage that originated with Napoleon I’s decision to abandon his quest for a French empire, way back in 1803.

What was it like to negotiate with Napoleon I via intermediaries, over a span of years, without telephones, Internet service, fax, or computers to crunch the data? Thomas Jefferson was Napoleon’s chief American adversary. History buffs claim Jefferson was ready to send 50,000 American troops down to New Orleans to protect the port for the United States. How many of those troops stood a chance of surviving the difficulties of war, not to mention the heat, lack of sanitation, poor nutrition, and mosquito infested swamplands that surrounded New Orleans at this time?

Access to the port of New Orleans was an economic necessity for American farmers. The denial of this access by Spain and France lead to events that culminated with the purchase of the Louisiana territories. This treaty nearly doubled the size of the United States. The main players were Emperor Napoleon I, President Thomas Jefferson, Foreign Minister Robert Livingston, Pierre du Pont de Nemours, James Monroe, and Secretary of State James Madison. During the mid and late 18th century, the port of New Orleans had become a hub for both economic and military reasons. In 1762, France ceded the territory known as Louisiana to Spain.

When Jefferson became president in March 1801, the Mississippi River formed the western boundary of the United States. The Floridas, with western Florida extending to the Mississippi and including New Orleans, lay to the south., and the Louisiana territories lay to the west. Both were owned by Spain.

American farmers west of the Appalachian Mountains shipped all of their surplus goods by boat down rivers flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River was the main artery for transporting their crops. In a treaty of 1795, Spain agreed to give the United States the "right of deposit" at New Orleans. This right allowed Americans to transport and store in New Orleans, duty-free, goods shipped for export. These products included among other things flour, tobacco, pork, feathers, salt, whiskey, beeswax, and bear and deerskins. However, in 1798, Spain suspended the right of deposit, deeply disturbing the Americans. In 1800, Spain transferred Louisiana to France, in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. However, Napoleon allowed Spanish authorities to continue to govern.

In March of 1801, the month that Mr. Jefferson became president, the U.S. minister to the United Kingdom, Rufus King, heard that Spain planned to give part of its American colonies to France. Jefferson feared that France might interfere with trade in the western territories. Secretary of State James Madison warned the French 'charge 'd’affaires' that the United States expected to have an outlet to the sea. In June, 1801, the right of deposit for United States goods was reinstated for a short time.

In September 1801, Robert Livingston, the newly appointed U.S. minister to France, sailed for that country with instructions to inform the French government that the United States would not allow the American colonies of Spain transferred to any country except the United States. By November, 1801, Madison obtained a copy of the treaty in which Spain ceded Louisiana to France. The President did not know how much territory this included.

President Jefferson instructed Livingston to prevent the cession if possible. If it had already taken place, he was to persuade France to transfer the Floridas, especially West Florida, to the United States. New Orleans was included in this possible transfer. Napoleon rejected Livingston’s proposals.

Jefferson arranged for his friend, Pierre du Pont de Nemours, to carry dispatches to Livingston in aiding him to influence the French government against acquiring the American Colonies. De Pont was to warn France that if it annexed Louisiana, the United States would form an alliance with the United Kingdom against France.

In March 1802, a French colonel arrived in New Orleans, sent by Napoleon to receive the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France. However, the French army troops designated for Louisiana were diverted to the colony of Santo Domingo in the French West Indies to suppress a slave rebellion. Although the rebellion was stopped, the transfer of Louisiana was delayed due to yellow fever and continuing rebel forces.

On Oct. 18, 1802, the right of deposit was again suspended, confirming President Jefferson’s fears. Governor Salcedo was following orders received from Spain, probably dictated by Napoleon. Madison protested to the Spanish government and also warned Napoleon that Americans were people of action. Talks of war reverberated. Jefferson dispatched James Monroe to France in order to pursue negotiations with Livingston. However, Napoleon refused to abandon hopes for an American empire.

Napoleon knew that war with the United Kingdom was imminent. He was warned by the French charge d’affaires that the Americans might seize Louisiana as soon as France became embroiled in a European war, and that the British navy might seize the territory. Napoleon, alarmed at the possibility of an Anglo-American alliance, was informed that the Americans were considering sending a force of 50,000 troops to take New Orleans by force.

On April 10, 1803, Napoleon notified his finance minister he was considering ceding the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The President had instructed Monroe and Livingston to purchase only the Floridas, but they felt confident that the United States would accept the larger offer. An agreement was made of 60 million French francs plus the assumption of American claims against France for a total cost of $15 million dollars. On April 30, 1803, the Treaty of Louisiana Purchase was drawn up, and signed on May 2, 1803. It reached Washington on July 14, 1803. (1)

General Horatio Gates is quoted as exclaiming to President Jefferson on July 18, 1803 "Let the Land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a song." (3) General Gates is one of the many minor interesting characters that helped shape our emerging nation. Gates was an American Revolutionary general who was born in England, and migrated to what is now West Virginia after serving in the French and Indian War. He was sympathetic to colonial complaints against the crown and in 1775 was made adjutant general of the continental army. Congress elected Gates president of the board of war. A group of army officers thought so highly of him that talk surfaced of replacing General George Washington with Gates. (2) He must have been quite a valiant man.

The United States paid France $15 million dollars (approximately 4 cents per acre!) for close to 850,000 square miles of land. One can only speculate on the "buzz" the President and the Founding Fathers experienced when the treaty was actually signed sealed and delivered. At that time, the Constitution of the United States did not authorize the acquisition of land, but it did provide for the making of treaties. President Jefferson felt the acquisition" of new territory was constitutional, although it is reported that he admitted "stretching the constitution until it cracked."

At the time of the treaty, it was virtually impossible to comprehend the enormity of the land purchase. The enormous area fell between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. The purchase of this land nearly doubled the size of the United States, and eventually all or parts of 13 states were formed out of this region. These states, or parts of states that have been carved from the Louisiana territories include Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Montana.

Part III of this series will explore the controversy documenting the exact land boundaries as mandated by the May 2, 1803 treaty.


1. Henry C. Dethloff, "Louisiana Purchase" World Book online Americas Editions,, June 9, 2002.

2. Encyclopedia Britannica (1966), Gates, Horatio (10), p. 27.


4. The Treaty of the Louisiana Purchase

Click here for Part I of the article.

About the Author: Dale Novick is a native of New Orleans who has a passion for all things French. She teaches psychology at a college in the New Orleans area when not writing about France, history or human nature. She attended the Paris Writer's Workshop in May, 2002.