Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase, 1803, American acquisition from France of the formerly Spanish region of Louisiana.

Reasons for the Purchase

The revelation in 1801 of the secret agreement of 1800, whereby Spain retroceded Louisiana to France, aroused uneasiness in the United States both because Napoleonic France was an aggressive power and because Western settlers depended on the Mississippi River for commerce. In a letter to the American minister to France, Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813; see Livingston, family), President Jefferson stated that "The day that France takes possession of New Orleans … we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation." Late in 1802 the right of deposit at New Orleans, granted to Americans by the Pinckney treaty of 1795, was withdrawn by the Spanish intendant (Louisiana was still under Spanish control). Although Spain soon restored the right of deposit, the acquisition of New Orleans became of paramount national interest.

Negotiations and Purchase

Jefferson instructed Livingston to attempt to purchase the "Isle of Orleans" (i.e., New Orleans) and West Florida from France. He appointed James Monroe minister extraordinary and plenipotentiary to serve with Livingston. Congress granted the envoys $2 million to secure their object.

The international situation favored the American diplomats. Louisiana was of diminishing importance to France. The costly revolt in Haiti forced the French emperor Napoleon I to reconsider his plan to make Hispaniola the keystone of his colonial empire, and impending war with Great Britain made him question the feasibility of holding Louisiana against that great naval power. He decided to sell Louisiana to the United States.

On Apr. 11, 1803, the French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand opened negotiations by asking the surprised Livingston what the United States would give for all of Louisiana. Bargaining began in earnest the next day, on Monroe's arrival in Paris. On Apr. 29, the U.S. envoys agreed to pay a total of $15 million to France; about $3,750,000 of this sum covered claims of U.S. citizens against France, which the U.S. government agreed to discharge. The treaty, dated Apr. 30, 1803, was signed several days later. Jefferson's scruples about the constitutionality of the purchase were overcome by his fears that Napoleon might change his mind (as intimated in reports from Livingston) and by the overwhelming public approval of the Louisiana Purchase (although there was some objection from Federalists, especially in New England).

The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in October, and the U.S. flag was raised over New Orleans on Dec. 20. The Louisiana Purchase, extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mts. and from the Gulf of Mexico to British North America, doubled the national domain, increasing it c.828,000 sq mi (c.2,144,500 sq km). The final boundaries of the territory were not settled for many years (see West Florida Controversy), since the 1803 treaty did not set the limits of the region.


See J. K. Hosmer, The History of the Louisiana Purchase (1902); J. A. Robertson, Louisiana under the Rule of Spain, France, and the United States, 1785–1807 (2 vol., 1910–11, repr. 1969); E. S. Brown, The Constitutional History of the Louisiana Purchase (1920, repr. 1972), A. P. Whitaker, The Mississippi Question, 1795–1803 (1934, repr. 1962).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Louisiana Purchase: Selected full-text books and articles

Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century By John E. Findling; Frank W. Thackeray Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Louisiana Purchase, 1803"
The Shaping of American Diplomacy By William Appleman Williams Rand McNally, 1956
Librarian's tip: "The Significance of the Louisana Purchase" begins on p. 71
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
FREE! The Jeffersonian System, 1801-1811 By Edward Channing Harper and Brothers, 1906
Librarian's tip: Chap. IV "La Louisiana (1664-1800)," Chap. V "The Louisiana Purchase (1801-1803)," and Chap. VI "The Administration of Louisiana (1803-1812)"
The Trans-Mississippi West (1803-1853): A History of Its Acquisition and Settlement By Cardinal Goodwin D. Appleton, 1928
Librarian's tip: Chap. I "The Purchase of Louisiana," Chap. II "American Explorations West of the Mississippi (1804-1822)," and Chap. III "The Settlement of the Louisiana Purchase and the Adjustment of Boundaries to 1821"
Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography By Merrill D. Peterson Oxford University Press, 1975
Librarian's tip: "Louisiana!" begins on p. 745
Lewis & Clark: Legacies, Memories, and New Perspectives By Kris Fresonke; Mark Spence University of California Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "The Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark Expedition: A Constitutional Moment?"
FREE! Leading American Treaties By Charles E. Hill Macmillan, 1922
Librarian's tip: Chap. V "The Louisiana Purchase, 1803"
Treaties and Executive Agreements in the United States: Their Separate Roles and Limitations By Elbert M. Byrd Jr Martinus Nijhoff, 1960
Librarian's tip: "The Louisiana Purchase Treaty" begins on p. 59
The Revolution of 1803 By Onuf, Peter S The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 2003
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