If it had not been for a chain of events at the beginning of the 19th century, we might very well be speaking French today instead of American.
When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, thousands of Americans hungry for fertile lands had moved to the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, displacing dozens of Indian tribes in the process. These farmers floated their harvested crops down the Mississippi on primitive boats to New Orleans to sell at market or to export abroad. Jefferson realized that whoever controlled this bustling port owned the Mississippi River and had the power to open it or close it to commerce at will and thereby had, as he phrased it, “a hand on the throat of the American economy.”
France had ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain back in 1762 near the end of the French and Indian War. But in 1800, Napoleon struck a deal with the King of Spain in which France gained a half-dozen ships and the return of the Louisiana Territory, while Spain received a small section of Italy – mainly modern-day Tuscany. Napoleon had dreams of building a French Empire in the Western hemisphere.
Anxious to avoid war with France, but hell bent on America controlling the Mississippi River, Jefferson sent his close friend Robert R. Livingston to Paris to try to purchase New Orleans outright from Napoleon. Although Livingston spoke little French and was half deaf, he was a brilliant and persistent man.
Livingston quickly learned that Napoleon planned to dispatch 5,000 to 7,000 troops to conquer Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and then sail on to New Orleans and plant the French flag on Louisiana soil, much as LaSalle had done more than a century earlier.
It almost seemed like a divine act of providence though, because the islanders devastated those French invasion troops, causing Napoleon to step back and reconsider. Realizing how violently Jefferson opposed the French occupation of Louisiana, and having suffered a military trouncing on Saint Domingue, Napoleon decided in early 1803 to withdraw from North America.
He was now set on stripping Egypt from England in a military confrontation – an enterprise that required money, not subtropical swampland. After great deliberation, on April 11, 1803 – a year after Livingston arrived in Paris – Napoleon was willing to sell not just New Orleans but the entire Louisiana Territory for $422.5 million. This was an area larger than the combined size of present-day Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Great Britain, encompassing land from which all or part of 16 states – including Missouri – would be carved. Although Livingston, along with special envoy James Monroe, whom Jefferson had just dispatched to France, weren’t authorized to make a deal, they wisely seized the day. Together they quickly agreed with Napoleon’s demand that all Louisiana Territory occupants must become U.S. citizens, an insurance policy against some future American president selling the landmass off to an enemy of France. After intense negotiations, the price was haggled down to $15 million – at about 3 cents an acre. One of the greatest real estate deals in the whole world.
Not much has changed over the decades as Federalist politicians denounced Jefferson for what they deemed an unconstitutional transaction. New Englanders voiced shrill dissent and even urged the Northeastern states to secede, “amicably if they can; violently if they must.”
The critics had a right to be concerned. There was no constitutional provision for a president acquiring new territory and granting automatic citizenship to the inhabitants. But Jefferson quieted them by submitting the treaty to Congress on national security grounds. A menacing France had to be removed from America.
On Oct. 21, 1803, after limited debate, the Senate ratified the treaty, a 24 to 7 margin.
Reach Ted W. Stillwell at email@example.com or 816-896-3592.