By Jeff Olson
Once upon a time there was a city which lay near the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sier de Bienville. Bienville was governor of the French colony of Louisiana and he named New Orleans after Philippe, Duke of Orleans who ruled France for King Louis XV. In 1762, King Louis gave Louisiana to his cousin, King Charles III of Spain.
“Pinckney’s Treaty,” signed with Spain in 1795, gave American merchants rights to navigate the entire Mississippi River and the “right of deposit” which allowed them to store goods shipped for export, duty-free, in New Orleans.
Spain revoked this treaty in 1798, causing a strong reaction among Americans who shipped all their surplus produce by boat down rivers which flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
In President Thomas Jefferson’s words, “It is New Orleans, through which three-eighths of our territory must pass to market.”
In 1800, Jefferson received word that Spain planned to transfer part of its American colonies to France. However, in 1801 the right of deposit was restored but for how long was uncertain since Spain continued to govern the territory.
Therefore, President Jefferson preemptively sent Robert Livingston to France to persuade the French government to transfer the colonies to the United States. In 1802, Jefferson’s fears were realized when the Spanish governor suspended the right of deposit for Americans in New Orleans.
To avoid a possible war with France, President Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris in April 1802 to negotiate a settlement. At this time, Napoleon Bonaparte’s military activities and intentions in North America remained ambitious and threatened America’s security.
In late 1802, Spain finally transferred Louisiana to France but it had no intention of ceding Florida to France, which would leave Louisiana indefensible.
Therefore, in early 1803 Jefferson authorized the American envoys to offer France nine million dollars for New Orleans and the Floridas.
The timing couldn’t have been better for the U.S. because Napoleon’s priorities had changed, as he needed money to finance a military force in Santo Domingo and a possible war with Britain. These circumstances would change the course of American and world history.
In April 1803, Napoleon’s Treasury Minister offered Livingston not just New Orleans but the entire Louisiana Territory at a price of fifteen million dollars.
This deal was not just unexpected, but also too good to refuse. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed on April 30, 1803 after which Livingston stated “We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our whole lives…From this day the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank.”
The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate two hundred fifteen years ago this week, October 20, 1803.
The U.S. bought 827,987 square miles of land from which all or parts of 15 states would be formed.
This transaction doubled the size of the United States and, for less than 3 cents per acre, set her on a course to become a nation of not only enormous size and vast natural and economic resources but also one of unlimited possibilities and potential.
In the words of John Quincy Adams, “the Louisiana Purchase would prove “next in historical importance to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”