To see it afresh, think of the Louisiana territory not as 828,000 square miles comprising all or part of 15 States, but as the bursting of the bounds.
In 1803, the country was only 20 years independent, and had been functioning under the constitution for only 14 years. On the map, America extended from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, but to the North, British troops still occupied territory on the northern frontier that they had seized during the revolution. To the south were the Spanish. Both countries were hostile, both of them were encouraging and often arming Indian nations to attack the new nation at its vulnerable western and southern extremities. West of the Appalachian Mountains, only Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio had enough settlers to qualify for statehood.
The purchase of Louisiana changed all that. America was one thing before the purchase, and something entirely different afterward.
It is important to remember how thinly populated these territories were. Painting a color on a map is not the same things as peopling the territory. None of this vast expanse of territory had any large European population. Indian tribes far outnumbered them all, and even the Indians were only thinly on the ground. (By the time the English landed at Jamestown in 1607, successive waves of epidemic diseases had already reduced the Indian population to perhaps 10 percent of what it had been.)
In 1802, James Monroe and Robert Livingston were in Paris to try to negotiate the purchase of the city of New Orleans. New Orleans controlled the Mississippi River, which was vital for the shipment of goods from anywhere west of the Appalachians. American merchants had enjoyed a “right of deposit” – the right to use New Orleans for storage and transshipment of goods – until in 1798 a Spanish governor unilaterally revoked it. Turned out, he was acting on his own hook, and was replaced, but still it made the Americans nervous. Suppose the Spanish government decided it was a good idea after all? They asked Spain about selling the city. Spain said they had to talk to Napoleon.
The Louisiana territory was French from 1699 until 1763, when it ceded the territory to its ally Spain at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. Napoleon took back Louisiana, hoping to build an empire, but he lost an army in Haiti and he knew that the long war with Great Britain was about to be renewed. When war resumed, the British Navy would certainly cut him off from any remaining overseas territory.
“New Orleans? Pah!” [he said in effect.] “Why don’t you buy Louisiana entirely?”
He passed instructions, and on April 11, 1803, the French Treasury Minister suggested that rather than New Orleans for $10 million, the Americans take the whole Louisiana territory for $15 million. (This turned out to be about three cents per acre.) Livingston wasn’t authorized to purchase Louisiana, only New Orleans. But he and Monroe took the chance offered, and signed the deal on April 30, 1803. The news reached the nation’s capital, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1803, and Jefferson announced it that day. The Senate ratified the treaty, twenty-four to seven, on October 20. France turned over the city of New Orleans on December 20, 1803, and on March 10, 1804, a formal ceremony in St. Louis transferred ownership of the territory.
Jefferson couldn’t scratch his nose without severe criticism from Federalist contemporaries and a certain school of historians. The Louisiana Purchase is a prime example of the “blame Jefferson first” school of statesmanship.
Historian Henry Adams argued that the whole sale was invalid: “The sale of Louisiana to the United States was trebly invalid; if it were French property, Bonaparte could not constitutionally alienate it without the consent of the Chambers [of deputies]; if it were Spanish property, he could not alienate it at all; if Spain had a right of reclamation, his sale was worthless.” But Spain did turn the territory over to France in a ceremony in New Orleans on November 30, a month before France turned it over to American officials. And Madison reminded the Spanish, later, that when America had approached Spain to purchase New Orleans, Spain itself had said that America would have to treat with France.
Others saw a contradiction between Jefferson’s strict constructionist view of the Constitution and his action in purchasing Louisiana. But the Louisiana Purchase was a treaty, and the Constitution specifically grants the president the power to negotiate treaties. Jefferson’s secretary of state, James Madison, assured Jefferson that the Louisiana Purchase was well within even the strictest interpretation of the Constitution, and who knew more about the Constitution than Madison?.
Jefferson was concerned whether a President had the constitutional authority to expand the nation’s territory. Make such a deal, and he worried lest increasing federal executive power might erode states’ rights. But he was a practical man. He had written to Livingston, the previous year, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants…. Spain might have retained it quietly for years…. Not so can it ever be in the hands of France.”
Of course there were other concerns. Would this vast new territory not absorb the natural population increase, eclipsing the New England and Eastern states? Would it not lead to more slave-holding states? Could the French and Spanish people living in New Orleans learn to become good citizens of a republic? Would it be safe to let them become citizens? The answers to all these questions would have to be worked out in practice.
Meanwhile, the American government paid a down payment of $3 million in gold, and issued bonds for the balance, using the banking house that became Baring Brothers, in London, as agents. Because Napoleon wanted to receive his money as quickly as possible, the two firms received the American bonds and paid cash to France. Bonaparte spent it all on his planned invasion of Great Britain, which never came off. But America had been transformed.