By the time Thomas Jefferson became the third U.S. president in 1801, the United States spanned from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Americans shipped goods in from the Atlantic, but Jefferson knew that gaining access to the river and the Gulf of Mexico would greatly strengthen the young nation. That would mean crossing land owned by France. French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, however, wasn’t interested in making a land deal with the United States. Jefferson wouldn’t give up, so he sent in James Monroe to try again, and the Louisiana Purchase was born. Far beyond the port of New Orleans, which Jefferson had hoped for, Monroe secured the largest land deal in the nation’s history and almost doubled the size of the country: the entire Louisiana Territory – 827,000 square miles – for $15 million.
La Louisiane: The Sun King’s Land
Under French control from 1682 to 1762, La Louisiane was an administrative district that originally stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains. French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle named the land in honor of King Louis XIV, often known as the Sun King.
Toward the end of the Seven Years’ War, France gave Louisiana to Spain in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. But in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte secretly took the territory back and let Spain continue to administer it.
Napoleon’s Plan, Thwarted
Napoleon had visions of a French Empire expanded throughout North America. He saw a power vacuum on the continent, as the United States and England were both in no position to challenge French militarily after the Revolutionary War, and Spain’s presence was too weak to pose a threat. Napoleon planned to send 25,000 soldiers and 63 ships to New Orleans, where they would occupy the city, and no one would be able to do anything about it.
But it wasn’t meant to be. A slave revolt in the Caribbean and an outbreak of yellow fever defeated his plan. In the end, Napoleon lost over 60,000 troops and had no hope of establishing a strong enough presence in Louisiana. By the time Jefferson sent Monroe to negotiate a land deal for New Orleans, Napoleon just wanted out of the colony and needed money for an impending war with England.
Westward Expansion and the Anti-Federalist Dilemma
President Jefferson heard about the secret treaty between Napoleon and the Spanish and worried about what the French would do. He had several reasons for wanting to make the land deal, but the primary reason was national security. He had hoped, however, only for the port of New Orleans. When Monroe returned with the news that Napoleon wanted to sell all of Louisiana for $15 million, Jefferson was faced with a dilemma.
The benefits of the Louisiana Purchase were obvious: more land for exploration and western expansion, and it was a sweet deal. But Jefferson was strongly anti-federalist and didn’t believe that the government should have any more power than exactly what the Constitution said – and the Constitution didn’t have a provision for adding such a territory. Jefferson worried, though, that if he waited for an amendment, the deal would fall through and there would be no way to avoid war with France. So he compromised. With the support of the American people, Jefferson agreed to the purchase.
Manifest Destiny, From Sea to Shining Sea
The Louisiana Purchase went down in history as the greatest accomplishment in Jefferson’s presidency. It nearly doubled the size of the United States and spawned the idea that the country had a “Manifest Destiny” to reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Louisiana Purchase changed the way other nations dealt with the United States and played major roles in both the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Indeed, without the land that eventually became 15 new states, the Civil War might never have occurred.