Professor Donald Elder: the Louisiana Purchase

Feb 9, 2016 by

GA 2004 02.p65

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: the Louisiana Purchase

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, one of the greatest events, at least in my mind, in American History was the Louisiana Purchase, which occurred during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.  Can you tell us about what was going on in America at that time?

When the United States had achieved its independence after the Revolutionary War, its western boundary—the Mississippi River—was so far removed from where most Americans lived that it seemed unlikely that there would be any consideration of national expansion that far west for generations to come.

In actuality, only a few years after becoming a nation, it became apparent to some that the new nation would have to acquire new territory or quite possibly begin to dissolve. This dire realization resulted from the patterns of trade that had been embraced by Americans living on the frontier. Most settlers moving westward did so to create farms, with the hopes of selling their surplus crops for profit.

Unfortunately for them, it proved prohibitively costly to transport their produce overland to sell in the nation’s cities. Soon, however, and alternative strategy was discovered. Because large stretches of the new nation were situated in the watershed of the Mississippi River, frontier farmers could load their produce on rafts, and then float these vessels at no cost down to the mouth of that river. They could then ship the goods on sailing vessels to the nation’s urban centers.

As fate would have it, just as soon as this promising approach appeared, it seemed to be quickly invalidated. This was because the point at which the goods would be taken off the rafts and put on board ocean-going vessels was the city of New Orleans in present-day Louisiana, and authorities there refused permission for such transactions (known as the right of deposit) to take place.

These individuals were representatives of the Spanish crown, because it turned out that New Orleans was situated at a point on the Mississippi River a few miles south of where America’s claim to that waterway ended. Originally founded by the French, since 1763 that community had belonged to Spain because of the peace treaty that had ended the Seven Years War. Americans were perplexed by the Spanish attitude towards trade through New Orleans, because during the Revolutionary War Spain had fought alongside us against the British.

But once the United States had achieved independence, Spain began to perceive the new nation as a potential threat to its vast holdings on the North American continent. Spain believed that as Americans migrated south and west toward Louisiana, they would eventually contemplate migrating into that territory.

At that point, the Americans could well demand that the United States annex Louisiana. This possibility could be eliminated, however, if Spain denied the right of deposit. Americans, the Spanish reasoned, would not move westward if they saw no chance to sell their crops through Louisiana. Accordingly, the Spanish informed the United States of its new policy after we had achieved our independence. In 1795, Spain chose to allow trade to resume, but in 1798 it once again refused the right of deposit.

Thomas Jefferson, elected president in that year, then had to develop a strategy for dealing with Spanish intransigence on this issue. It occurred to him that if the United States acquired New Orleans, the problem would be resolved. Although fiscally conservative, Jefferson decided that it would be in the best interests of the nation if he could buy that city. This idea to gain control of New Orleans would eventually lead to the Louisiana Purchase.

2) Who were the principal people involved and how did this come about?

As previously noted, the American president who was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase was Thomas Jefferson. To achieve his goal, Jefferson employed two diplomats. Jefferson first utilized Robert Livingston, whom he had appointed in 1801 as his Minister to France. Livingston was chosen because in 1800 Spain had ceded Louisiana to France.

Accordingly, Jefferson gave Livingston instructions to buy New Orleans. This brought Livingston into contact with emissaries of the French ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte. Initially, the French showed no interest in Livingston’s offer. Napoleon, it turned out, had ambitions to regain control of present-day Haiti, and felt that he would need New Orleans as supply base for French military forces operating on that island. Consequently, Livingston’s diplomatic efforts came to naught.

For that reason, Jefferson sent James Monroe (who had been the Minister to France during the presidency of George Washington) to Europe to help Livingston with negotiations. By the time Monroe reached France, however, it turned out that the attitude of the French regarding Louisiana had changed dramatically. This was in large part due to the fact that the French had suffered a disastrous military reverse in their efforts to regain Haiti, and in 1803 Napoleon chose to end the campaign.

Thus, Napoleon had no further need for New Orleans. Contemplating a resumption of his efforts to gain control of the continent of Europe, decided that he would take the Americans up on their offer to purchase that city. Monroe had barely arrived in Paris when he and Livingston were informed that the French were amenable to negotiating a sale. Jefferson, Napoleon, Livingston, and Monroe are therefore the four individuals most responsible for the Louisiana Purchase.

3) How much was actually spent and how much land (approximately) was procured?

Originally, Jefferson had authorized Livingston to Purchase just the city of New Orleans for $10,000,000. Napoleon, however, wanted to rid himself of all his holdings in North America, and offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for $15,000,000. This clearly exceeded both in scope and price what he had been authorized to secure. Any initial reluctance that Livingston and Monroe might have had about exceeding instructions quickly vanished, as the two realized that Napoleon could easily change his mind on the sale.

Rather than wait for authorization from Jefferson, they therefore decided to agree to a treaty that purchased all of the Louisiana. In all, the United States acquired 828,000 square miles of territory from the French.

4) What was the reaction of the general public and Washington at that time?

In retrospect, it is surprising that not all Americans immediately embraced the Louisiana Purchase; after all, it doubled the size of the nation, and guaranteed that Americans could trade through New Orleans. But some Americans did find fault with this action. For some, the price tag associated with the purchase was regarded as exorbitantly high. Others objected to the fact that the Constitution did not explicitly give the government the authority to purchase land from a foreign country. Ironically, Jefferson had come into office as what we would today term a “strict constructionist,” but he swallowed his scruples because of the benefits that would result from the acquisition of Louisiana.

Finally, there were many Americans living along the East Coast who had no liking for the purchase. They felt that many new states would be created from the Louisiana Territory, and increasing the number of states would diminish the influence of the original members of the Union. But most Americans believed that the Louisiana Purchase would greatly benefit the nation, and so ratification of the treaty with France was swift and virtually unanimous.

5) How was the Louisiana Purchase linked to the concept of “manifest destiny”?

At first glance it wouldn’t appear that the Louisiana Purchase and Manifest Destiny have anything in common: the former occurred in 1803, while the latter is associated with the period after the end of War of 1812.

But looking at it another way, it seems that a causal relationship could be established between the two. Manifest Destiny is the belief that the United States would (and should) extend its control from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it would become a reality when the United States took land known as the Mexican Cession in the Mexican War. But this acquisition only made sense because the United States already controlled lands west of the Mississippi River, courtesy of the Louisiana Purchase.

From this perspective, without the land acquired by Jefferson already under our control few Americans would have felt that the United States extending from one coast to the other was as inevitable as the concept of Manifest Destiny made it out to be.

6) What have I neglected to ask about the impact of this great event?

The benefits of the Louisiana Purchase for the United States are almost incalculable. Great cities developed in the region we acquired from France, for example, and our nation’s grain belt would also be situated there. Taking the long view of history, however, it becomes apparent that there was one disastrous consequence that would eventually occur because of the acquisition. It is well for us to remember that hundreds of thousands of Native Americans living in that region would see their way of life come to an end through American expansion. Historical events always have consequences—the Louisiana Purchase aptly demonstrates that principle in both a positive and a negative manner.

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1 Comment

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    Kevin D. Monson Jr.

    Very good now mother nature verses human nature, outcomes, supernatural benefits, truth reasoning, and what the influence of the land consists of now.

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