Thomas Jefferson
U.S. Presidents

U.S. Presidents Image Gallery Thomas Jefferson originally wanted New Orleans, but he ended up with more than he bargained for. See more pictures of the presidents.

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How the Louisiana Purchase Worked

Thomas Jefferson would probably get a chuckle out of the United States' current border problems. At least we know where the borders are.

And the current president's issues with immigration and naturalization? Jefferson had him beat on that, too.

President Jefferson sent a couple of his representatives over to France in April 1803 to buy the city of New Orleans and maybe some extra land if France refused to sell just the city. What the third president got was the Louisiana Purchase, a patch of land that nearly doubled the size of the young nation. And while Jefferson got what he originally wanted, New Orleans, he got a lot more to deal with, too.

First of all, France had never bothered to figure out where the western border of this land was, so Jefferson didn't really know just how much land he had bought. Secondly, Jefferson didn't get an empty swath of land: It came with an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people, most of whom spoke only French.

By purchasing the land, did Jefferson buy thousands of new citizens? What if they didn't want to be Americans? And not all of those people were even able to be Americans at that point in history: There were an estimated 11,000 slaves and a Native American population, most of whom had no interest in becoming citizens.

Considering the population of the United States at the time was just over 5 million, if these people became citizens, they would have a lot of voting power (along with anyone who moved to these new territories). Did they have the right to decide the direction of the nation when they had only become citizens of it recently? And if they weren't citizens, then what were these new people?

These were all issues that Jefferson and the rest of the country had to deal with when they paid $15 million for the land. But for all the problems, the Louisiana Purchase is remembered as one of the great acts of Jefferson as president, as it expanded the nation and boosted the economy by giving commerce a vital port on the Mississippi River, on which many American goods were shipped.

So what was involved in the Louisiana Purchase, why is it important and why does it still matter today? Read on to find out more.

Livingston, Monroe and Talleyrand

Statesmen James Monroe and Robert R. Livingstone completing negotiations with Comte Talleyrand for the Louisiana purchase on April 30, 1803.

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Why the United States Wanted Louisiana

Jefferson authorized his representatives, the American minister to France Robert Livingston and minister plenipotentiary James Monroe (minister plenipotentiary meant he had Jefferson's full authority), to offer a maximum of $10 million for land east of Mississippi and New Orleans. But when the pair met with the French representatives, they were told that it was either $15 million for the entire Louisiana territory, or the deal was off. So why didn't Livingston and Monroe just walk away from the deal?

First, Monroe had spoken one-on-one with Jefferson just before he traveled to France, and knew the importance of New Orleans as a gateway to the Mississippi River. The River was vital to the young country's economy, as water was the main form of transportation for the goods produced in the country.

But there was another reason that Jefferson -- and thus, Monroe -- knew the land was important. America was still very much an agricultural society, especially in the South. The money crops, tobacco and corn (and later cotton), stripped the land of its minerals. Rather than fertilize (and before crop rotation techniques were widely accepted), farmers could use up the land until it couldn't produce, then they would gather their families and slaves and move west to the next open plot of land. This migration began in the mid-1700s and reached its pinnacle a few decades after the Louisiana Purchase. According to local records, the average southern planter family moved at least twice every generation, presumably because the family would farm the land until it was stripped of its use. (Kennedy).

So Americans were hungry for more land, and Jefferson knew they would continue pushing farther west as long as the land was there. Since there was no way to reach Jefferson quickly (a trip back to France could take weeks, and there wasn't any long-distance communication), Livingston and Monroe accepted the offer on April 30, 1803.

In all fairness, the United States did get a sweet deal. The United States financed their $15 million purchase for 20 years with the Barings Bank of London and Hope & Co. of Amsterdam, which at 6 percent interest, came to a total of $23,527,872.57, or about 4 cents per acre. In fact, after the treaty was ratified, Livingston wrote to Jefferson that Napoleon began to second-guess the deal and even threatened not to abide by the terms because the terms were too much in the United States' favor. Livingston urged that the Congress must ratify the treaty before Napoleon changed his mind.

So what did the United States get for the money? The final boundaries determined that the Louisiana Purchase was 529,402,880 acres, which more than doubled the size of the United States, which contained 434 million acres at the time. The land would eventually be divided to make parts of 13 states, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming.

But if Napoleon thought America was getting too much for too little, why did he sell the land to America in the first place? Read on to find out.


French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was gearing up for war with England, so he was eager to sell the Louisiana territory to fund his war.

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Why Did the French Sell?

To understand why France was willing to sell at such a bargain basement price, we have to understand what was happening across the Atlantic. Europe originally fought with each other over who would take America into its empire. But as the United States established its independence, the French, British, Dutch and Spanish were forced to decide how cost-effective it would be to send their armies across an ocean to fight for some vast wilderness when they were still fighting each other back home in Europe.

In 1800, the Spanish and French signed a secret pact, the Treaty of Ildefonso, under which the Spanish returned Louisiana to France (Spain got a kingdom out of it, and they still governed the Louisiana territory). France, ruled by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, wanted Louisiana for its strategic importance in his plan to make Saint Domingue in Haiti a profitable colony. But when France couldn't hold on to Saint Domingue, Napoleon decided that possessing Louisiana wasn't worth the money or the trouble, especially since he was gearing up for a war with England.

The United States already had a treaty with Spain for use of the port of New Orleans, the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795), but it really didn't matter if it was France or Spain -- neither was pleased that the United States would profit off of its port. But Napoleon figured if he could get a quick influx of money from a deal with the United States, he could curry some favor with his own people as he geared up for a war with England. The $15 million deal was broken down as such:

  • The French received $2 million cash up front.
  • France received 60 million francs ($11.25 million) over the 20-year loan.
  • The French debt of 20 million francs ($3.75 million) to the United States was forgiven.

But the French weren't simply selling their land -- they were including all of the people who lived on that land. In the next section, find out how these "new" Americans were treated by the U.S. government.

New Orleans

The city of New Orleans in the mid-1800s; a half century before, this city belonged to France.

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What Happened to the People of Louisiana?

According to the 1800 U.S. census, there were 5.3 million people living in the United States. The 1810 U.S. census showed the Louisiana Purchase territory had a population of 97,000. Author Peter J. Kastor estimated that at the time the treaty was signed, the Louisiana Purchase included 11,000 slaves and 1,500 free blacks (Kastor).

These mostly French-speaking people of Louisiana, who had been under Spanish rule for some time, had to be told they were now Americans. And many in the U.S. government considered the Louisianans heathens in the wilderness, unprepared for democracy. Much of the American opinion in government was that the people of Louisiana had been under Spain's authoritarian rule for their entire lives, so the people should only gradually be introduced to democracy and have the power of the vote. Some pushed for Louisiana to be a colony and unrepresented in Congress; others wanted to incorporate them immediately (this idea was popular with Louisianans, who weren't interested in being lesser citizens or colonists).

Many Southerners (and Northerners) were worried because slaves, free blacks and whites mingled much more freely in the Louisiana Territory, especially in New Orleans. Additionally, there was a bias against incorporating the non-Anglo, non-English speaking Catholics, which was the majority of the new citizens. Some feared that French Catholics would obey only the Pope, not the U.S. government (anti-Catholicism sentiment in the United States was present, if unspoken, in the 1800s).

In response came the Governance Acts of 1804-05, which outlawed the international slave trade (which made southerners especially happy because the demand for their "property" increased), and stated that as soon as the Territory of Orleans had 60,000 free residents, it could petition for statehood.

In the end, author Jon Kukla says, "Controversies over race, religion, law, language and culture not only delayed Louisiana's statehood until 1812, they worked like the rumblings of an earthquake along the vulnerable fault lines of 19th-century American society and government" (Kukla).

The remaining people from the Louisiana Purchase were Native Americans, composed of two major Indian confederacies: Choctaw in the east and Caddo in the west, as well as many other smaller factions. While there was some early talk of making part of the territory a nation within the United States, the discussion never got very far with Jefferson, who's administration's policy was to nudge -- sometimes by force -- the Native Americans farther west until the white settlers controlled the Louisiana territory completely. Part of the Louisiana Purchase land would eventually become the Trail of Tears, the deadly route used to force Native Americans out of their homes during President Andrew Jackson's administration.

While these new citizens were getting acclimated to their new country, the people of America had some pretty strong reactions of their own. Read on to see how they handled this change to their country.

Burr and Hamilton

American politicians Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) and Aaron Burr (1756-1836) take aim in the duel that would end Hamilton's life, Weehawken, New Jersey.

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Public Reaction

The American public had a lot to absorb; imagine being told that the president bought enough land to double the size of the country.

Part of the problem with comprehending the size was that no one really knew where the Louisiana Purchase ended. "The only borders to which everybody agreed were the Mississippi River to the east and Canada to the north. France and Spain had never established a clear western boundary before 1763, and Spain saw no reason to do so afterward" (Kastor). It would take years to resolve boundary issues -- and additional treaties in 1818 and 1819 to get parts of Florida, which the United States had hoped they would get in the Louisiana Purchase.

The eastern states, especially in the northeast, feared losing power to the new population. According to Betty Houchin Winfield, "The greatest volume of criticism in newspapers and pamphlets came from Boston, Hartford, New York and Philadelphia. In fact, slightly less than 25 percent of the publications commented on any advantages to be gained by an expansion of the population into the new territory. About 66 percent of the rural press had a favorable opinion of the acquisition of the new territory" (Kastor). There was even some fear that people would leave the east en masse to move to cheap land out west, thus decreasing eastern power even further.

Slavery was also behind much of the concern. Admitting new states meant deciding whether they were "free" or "slave" states, and each new state meant a tip in the balance of power between the north and the south. Out of this concern would come the Missouri Compromise, which declared that states had to be admitted in pairs -- one slave, one free -- so neither side could gain an advantage. This compromise would hold up until the 1850s and was one of the catalysts to the Civil War.

Some of the opposition to the Louisiana Purchase was purely political. Federalists, led by Vice President Aaron Burr and Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering, were upset about price and accused Monroe and Livingston of overstepping their boundaries. Federalist newspapers even charged that the only value the vast span of land had was that it could be traded with Spain for Florida later. But while the Federalists argued that the Purchase would hurt the eastern states, Jefferson's popularity spike was even more upsetting for them, politically.

The Federalists even tried to argue that the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional. This assertion followed a strict constructionist argument that the Constitution did not accommodate immediate naturalization of a new group, and the terms that the French signed in the treaty said that the people living in the Louisiana Territory were to be incorporated immediately. But the Constitution clearly stated guidelines and rules for admitting new states, and Congress agreed with President Jefferson that it was part of the federal government's implied powers in the Constitution that they could incorporate this land.

So how does history's view of the Louisiana Purchase compare with opinions when the transaction occurred? Read on to find out.

French soldiers saluting the completion of the Louisiana Purchase

Painting of French soldiers firing guns to salute raising of U.S. flag after official completion of Louisiana Purchase.

William C. Shrout//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

History's View of the Louisiana Purchase

History softens a lot of harsh edges, and the opposition to the Louisiana Purchase faded over the years. Much of the country approved of the Louisiana Purchase because they had the opportunity to buy cheap land, and the expansion increased pride in the young country. "A nation that once may have been resigned to sharing the Mississippi with a foreign neighbor now embraced the Pacific Coast as its 'Manifest Destiny'" (Kukla). And Americans were happy to have complete control of the strategic port of New Orleans, which gave them control of Mississippi to transport their products to European markets and beyond.

And beyond all of that, the Louisiana Purchase was significant historically because it was one of the first times such a huge piece of land wasn't fought over to win. The United States. peaceably negotiated with France for the land, which was still under Spanish control -- which wasn't too pleased with Napoleon for selling its land. There was concern that the transition wouldn't be smooth: Spanish/French/American relations at the time were strained due to trade disagreements and European wars, so there was no guarantee that the Spanish would transfer the territory peacefully to the French, considering they protested the deal as soon as it became public. But on Nov. 30, 1803, Spain peacefully authorized the transfer of Louisiana to the French. The French then transferred the lower portion of Louisiana territory to the United States on December 20, 1803, and three months later transferred the remaining land to the United States.

In the end, the Louisiana Purchase ended up being a boon to the young nation's economy and the additional land raised the United States' standing internationally. However, the inability to resolve the struggle for power and control of the Louisiana Purchase would be among the causes for the coming Civil War.

For more information on the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson and related topics, explore the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related How Stuff Works ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • "Alaska Purchase." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 15 May 2008.
  • "crop rotation." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 14 May 2008
  • Economic History Services. Accessed April 28, 2008.
  • Hemphill, W. Edwin. "The Jeffersonian Background of the Louisiana Purchase." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Vol. 22, No. 2. September 1935.
  • Holton, Woody. "The Price Was Right." Reviews in American History. Volume 32, Number 2, June 2004.
  • Gitlin, Jay "Children of Empire of Concitoyens?" from "The Louisiana Purchase: Emergence of an American Nation." Peter J. Kastor, editor. 2002.
  • Kastor, Peter J. "The Nation's Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America." 2004.
  • Kennedy, Roger G. "Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause." 2003.
  • Kukla, Jon. "A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America." 2003.
  • PBS' New Perspectives on the West. Accessed May 15, 2008.
  • The Louisiana Purchase: A Heritage Explored. Accessed May 15, 2008.
  • Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Accessed April 28, 2008.
  • U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed May 12, 2008.
  • U.S. Department of State. Accessed May 14, 2008.
  • Winfield, Betty Houchin. "Public Perception and Public Events" from "The Louisiana Purchase: Emergence of an American Nation." Peter J. Kastor, editor. 2002.