The Louisiana Purchase, 1803  “An Empire for Liberty”

"On every question of construction [interpreting the Constitution], let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed [and written].  Thomas Jefferson

"Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction." --Thomas Jefferson

"What is practicable must sometimes take precedence over pure theory." -- Thomas Jefferson writing about the Louisiana Purchase (1803)

"This little event, of France's possessing herself of Louisiana . is the embryo of a tornado which will burst on the countries on both sides of the Atlantic and involve in it's effects their highest destinies." President Thomas Jefferson wrote this prediction in an April 1802 letter to Pierre Samuel du Pont amid reports that Spain would retrocede to France the vast territory of Louisiana. As the United States had expanded westward, navigation of the Mississippi River and access to the port of New Orleans had become critical to American commerce, so this transfer of authority was cause for concern. Within a week of his letter to du Pont, Jefferson wrote U.S. Minister to France Robert Livingston: "Every eye in the U.S. is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana. Perhaps nothing since the revolutionary war has produced more uneasy sensations through the body of the nation."

The presence of Spain was not so provocative. A conflict over navigation of the Mississippi had been resolved in 1795 with a treaty in which Spain recognized the United States' right to use the river and to deposit goods in New Orleans for transfer to oceangoing vessels. In his letter to Livingston, Jefferson wrote,

"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. France placing herself in that door assumes to us the attitude of defiance. Spain might have retained [New Orleans] quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there, so that her possession of the place would be hardly felt by us. . . .It can never be thus with France . . . The day that France takes possession of N. Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark. It seals the union of two nations who in conjunction can maintain exclusive possession of the ocean. From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation. He went on to speculate that "it would not perhaps be very long before some circumstance might arise which might make the cession of it to us the price of something of more worth to her."


Napoleon Bonaparte; courtesy the Library of Congress.
Napoleon Bonaparte;
courtesy the Library of Congress

Jefferson's vision of obtaining territory from Spain was altered by the prospect of having the much more powerful France of Napoleon Bonaparte as a next-door neighbor.

France had surrendered its North American possessions at the end of the French and Indian War. New Orleans and Louisiana west of the Mississippi were transferred to Spain in 1762, and French territories east of the Mississippi, including Canada, were ceded to Britain the next year. But Napoleon, who took power in 1799, aimed to restore France's presence on the continent.

The Louisiana situation reached a crisis point in October 1802 when Spain's King Charles IV signed a decree transferring the territory to France and the Spanish agent in New Orleans, acting on orders from the Spanish court, revoked Americans' access to the port's warehouses. These moves prompted outrage in the United States.


1815 Plan of New Orleans by I. Tanesse; image courtesy the Library of Congress.
1815 Plan of New Orleans by I. Tanesse;
courtesy the Library of Congress

While Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison worked to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, some factions in the West and the opposition Federalist Party called for war and advocated secession by the western territories in order to seize control of the lower Mississippi and New Orleans.

Aware of the need for action more visible than diplomatic maneuverings and concerned with the threat of disunion, Jefferson in January 1803 recommended that James Monroe join Livingston in Paris as minister extraordinary. (Later that same month, Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition that would cross the Louisiana territory, regardless of who controlled it, and proceed on to the Pacific. This would turn out to be the Lewis and Clark Expedition.) Monroe was a close personal friend and political ally of Jefferson's, but he also owned land in Kentucky and had spoken openly for the rights of the western territories.

Jefferson urged Monroe to accept the posting, saying he possessed "the unlimited confidence of the administration and of the western people." Jefferson added: "All eyes, all hopes, are now fixed on you . for on the event of this mission depends the future destinies of this republic."

Shortly thereafter, Jefferson wrote to Kentucky's governor, James Garrard, to inform him of Monroe's appointment and to assure him that Monroe was empowered to enter into "arrangements that may effectually secure our rights & interest in the Mississippi, and in the country eastward of that."

As Jefferson noted in that letter, Monroe's charge was to obtain land east of the Mississippi. Monroe's instructions, drawn up by Madison and approved by Jefferson, allocated up to $10 million for the purchase of New Orleans and all or part of the Floridas. If this bid failed, Monroe was instructed to try to purchase just New Orleans, or, at the very least, secure U.S. access to the Mississippi and the port.

But when Monroe reached Paris on April 12, 1803, he learned from Livingston that a very different offer was on the table.


Plan of the siege of Santo Domingo, center of the Saint Domingue revolt by Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1805); courtesy the Library of Congress.
Plan of the siege of Santo Domingo,
center of the Saint Domingue revolt
by Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1805);
courtesy the Library of Congress


Napoleon's plans to re-establish France in the New World were unraveling. The French army sent to suppress a rebellion by slaves and free blacks in the sugar-rich colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) had been decimated by fierce resistance from the former slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, and by yellow fever. Of the 30,000 French troops who arrived in Saint-Domingue, 25,000 died. Some fell in battle, but most, including Leclerc, died of yellow fever. In January, 1804, Saint-Domingue became an independent nation. Without Saint Domingue, Napoleon's colonial ambitions for a French empire were foiled in North America. Louisiana would be useless as a granary without sugar islanders to feed. Napoleon also considered the temper of the United States, where sentiment was growing against France and stronger ties with Great Britain were being considered. Spain's refusal to sell Florida was the last straw, and Napoleon turned his attention once more to Europe where a new war with Britain seemed inevitable.; the sale of the now-useless Louisiana would supply needed funds to wage war there. Napoleon directed his ministers, Talleyrand and Barbe-Marbois, to offer the entire Louisiana territory to the United States - and quickly.

France's minister of finance, Francois de Barbé-Marbois, who had always doubted Louisiana's worth, counseled Napoleon that Louisiana would be less valuable without Saint Domingue and, in the event of war, the territory would likely be taken by the British from Canada. France could not afford to send forces to occupy the entire Mississippi Valley, so why not abandon the idea of empire in America and sell the territory to the United States?

Napoleon agreed. On April 11, Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand told Livingston that France was willing to sell all of Louisiana. Livingston informed Monroe upon his arrival the next day.


Seizing on what Jefferson later called "a fugitive occurrence," Monroe and Livingston immediately entered into negotiations and on April 30 reached an agreement that exceeded their authority - the purchase of the Louisiana territory, including New Orleans, for $15 million. The acquisition of approximately 827,000 square miles would double the size of the United States.

Though rumors of the purchase preceded notification from Monroe and Livingston, their message reached Washington in time for an official announcement on July 4, 1803.

First page of Louisiana Purchase Treaty; courtesy the Library of Congress
First page of Louisiana Purchase Treaty; courtesy the Library of Congress


The purchase treaty had to be ratified by the end of October, which gave Jefferson and his Cabinet time to deliberate the issues of boundaries and constitutionality. Exact boundaries would have to be negotiated with Spain and England and so would not be set for several years, and Jefferson's Cabinet members argued that the constitutional amendment he proposed was not necessary. As time for ratification of the purchase treaty grew short, Jefferson accepted his Cabinet's counsel and rationalized: "It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good." He also said “Sometimes the practicable must take precedence over pure theory.”

The potential acquisition of  Louisiana led the political parties to reverse their usual stands regarding constitutional interpretation. Jefferson's political opponents in the Federalist Party (normally broad constructionists) argued that the Louisiana purchase was a worthless desert, and that the Constitution did not provide for the acquisition of new land or negotiating treaties without the consent of the Senate. What really worried the opposition was that new states, which would inevitably be carved from the Louisiana territory, would strengthen Western and Southern interests (and therefore the Democratic-Republicans) in Congress, and further reduce the influence of New England Federalists in national affairs. President Jefferson, because of  his normally “strict constructionist” approach to Constitutional interpretation found the constitutionality of the treaty deeply troubling.  But was also an enthusiastic supporter of westward expansion (he called it “an empire for liberty”), and so  held firm in his support for the treaty, noting privately, “The less we say about constitutional difficulties the better.” Despite Federalist objections, the U.S. Senate ratified the Louisiana treaty in the autumn of 1803.

The Senate ratified the treaty Oct. 20 by a vote of 24 to 7. Spain, upset by the sale but without the military power to block it, formally returned Louisiana to France on Nov. 30. France officially transferred the territory to the Americans on Dec. 20, and the United States took formal possession on Dec. 30.

Jefferson's prediction of a "tornado" that would burst upon the countries on both sides of the Atlantic had been averted, but his belief that the affair of Louisiana would impact upon "their highest destinies" proved prophetic indeed.


Gaye Wilson, Monticello Research
March 2003

(first printed as Jefferson's Big Deal: the Louisiana Purchase for the Spring 2003 Monticello Newsletter)