221 years ago, the United States unexpectedly for itself increased several times — by buying Louisiana from Napoleon for almost nothing. Hereʼs more about the most successful deal in history

Serhii Pyvovarov
Dmytro Rayevskyi
221 years ago, the United States unexpectedly for itself increased several times — by buying Louisiana from Napoleon for almost nothing. Hereʼs more about the most successful deal in history

Ceremony of the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States in the city of St. Louis, March 10, 1804. Illustration by Ed Webel.

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On May 2, 1803, the United States signed an agreement to purchase the North American French colony of Louisiana. At that time it was not limited to the modern state of the same name. It was a huge territory from the Gulf of Mexico to the borders of Canada, which was almost twice the area of the United States then. The price of the deal was $15 million — today it is about $370 million. At first, the Americans hoped to persuade the French to sell the land only because New Orleans was an important trading port at the mouth of the Mississippi River. But they received an unexpected offer from Napoleonʼs government officials to buy all of Louisiana. The purchase contributed to the further rapid expansion of the United States westward to the very Pacific coast, although not all Americans were delighted with it at first. Babel recounts the details of that deal—how Louisiana changed hands, how Haiti pushed Napoleon into selling out, and how American diplomats negotiated the deal in Paris at their peril and risk and ultimately didnʼt lose.

Louisiana changed hands several times

The territory in the central part of the modern USA appeared on Spanish maps in the 16th century. But the French began to master it. In the 17th century, French settlers began to move south from their colonies in Canada along the Mississippi River to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1682, the colonists declared the new lands French possessions and named them Louisiana in honor of the French king Louis XIV.

Louisiana at that time was a huge territory — from the lands on both banks of the Mississippi in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the borders of modern Canada in the north. At the beginning of the 18th century, the French founded the settlement of Nouvelle-Orléans at the place where the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Later, it turned into a large port city, which became the main trade center in the region.

After its defeat in the Seven Yearsʼ War in 1763, France lost its North American colonies. The territories of Canada and lands east of the Mississippi were taken by the British, the remaining territories of Louisiana, including New Orleans, went to Spain. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France and began to restore the French colonial empire. During 1800-1801, he agreed with Spain, weakened by the colonial confrontation with Britain, to return Louisiana in exchange for warships and the Italian Duchy of Tuscany.

Map as of the beginning of the 19th century. The borders of Louisiana are outlined in purple in the center, the territory of the then United States in orange on the right.

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The United States was not happy about the return of France

Since the founding of the United States, Washington and Paris have maintained close ties. It was Franceʼs military aid that was decisive in the United Statesʼ War of Independence of 1775-1783. Later, the US welcomed the French Revolution of 1789, which transformed the country from a monarchy to a republic. However, neutrality was announced in the wars of revolutionary France against neighboring European monarchies. Since then, relations between the states began to deteriorate. The American government was wary of Napoleonʼs rise to power. And after his plans for the return of Louisiana, they were quite worried.

Under the agreement with the Spanish, the US had the right to free navigation on the Mississippi and could use the port of New Orleans as a transportation hub. In addition, American settlers little by little seized land in the Mississippi Delta, taking advantage of Spainʼs weakness. With the return of France, the United States could lose an important trade route through the Gulf of Mexico. And Napoleon would hardly tolerate the creeping American colonization on the lands of Louisiana. In December 1801, he sent a 30,000-strong army to the transatlantic colonies. In 1802, King Charles IV of Spain approved the agreement on the transfer of Louisiana, the following year the Spanish administration was to be replaced by a French one.

At this time, the opposition federalists began to put pressure on the then president of the United States from the democratic republicans, Thomas Jefferson, demanding to send troops and capture New Orleans by force. The president did not want to go to war with France, but he was not going to compromise national interests either. As a last resort, Jefferson was ready to enter into an alliance with unfriendly Britain. But in the meantime, he asked the American ambassador to France, Robert Livingston, to probe the soil and try to find some kind of peaceful solution, such as offering the French to sell New Orleans.

Thomas Jefferson during the presidency of 1801-1809. Engraving by Alonso Chappell.

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Haiti was a more important colony for the French

As a result of the Seven Yearsʼ War, the French did not lose all their colonies in America. The most valuable of those that remained was Santo Domingo — the modern Republic of Haiti in the western part of the island of the same name in the Caribbean Sea. In a few decades, it became the most profitable French colony. By the 1780s, Santo Domingo produced about 40% of all sugar and 60% of all coffee supplied to Europe. All this, of course, using slave labor. In 1791, the slaves of Santo Domingo, inspired by the French Revolution, revolted and formed an essentially independent state on the island. At that time, revolutionary Paris did not like them.

Everything changed when Napoleon came to power. He began preparing for a new war with Britain and even planned an invasion of the British Isles. For this, money was needed, so Napoleon expected to quickly replenish the treasury from the colonies. In America, he made his main bet on Haiti. And Louisiana was supposed to supply grain and other products for labor on Haitian plantations.

So the French military expedition, which sailed from Europe in 1801, was the first to regain control over Santo Domingo. By April 1802, the French had almost defeated the rebels, restored slavery, and started work on the plantations. But in May, an epidemic of yellow fever broke out on the island, from which about 15,000 French soldiers died in just two months, along with the commander of the expedition, General Charles Leclerc. The rebellion broke out with new force, and the French no longer had enough strength to suppress it. And there was no need to talk about keeping Louisiana, which the French no longer needed too much.

Battle of Haitian rebels with the French in 1802. Engraving by Carl Girardet.

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The Americans received an unexpected offer from the French regarding Louisiana

In January 1802, Jefferson sent his closest associate, Congressman and future fifth President of the United States James Monroe, to Paris to help Ambassador Livingston. He was authorized to spend no more than $10 million on New Orleans. And in the event of a failure of the negotiations in Paris, he was to go to London to negotiate an alliance against France.

While Monroe sailed to Europe, the situation changed radically. The day before his arrival, on April 11, 1803, Livingston, in a private conversation with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, again spoke about the possibility of acquiring New Orleans. Livingston raised this topic not for the first time, but Talleyrand constantly avoided the details. However, this time the French unexpectedly asked if the United States wanted to buy all of Louisiana.

The next day, Monroe joined the difficult negotiations right after the ship touched the shore. The sides traded until the end of the month — the French asked for $22.5 million, but the Americans first offered $8 million, then $12. In the end, the parties agreed on $15 million.

Monroe and Livingston acted at their own peril, because they did not have the authority to purchase all of Louisiana, and for an amount that exceeded their budget. But they did not have the time and the opportunity to coordinate everything promptly with Washington. It would take several months to deliver a message across the ocean and receive a response. And at that time, the British bribed people from Napoleonʼs closest circle to persuade him not to sell Louisiana. But he did not change his mind. The text of the purchase agreement was concluded on April 30 simply in one of the Paris hotels, and on May 2, 1803, it was officially signed on behalf of the United States and France. The new lands with an area of more than two million square kilometers almost doubled the territory of the then USA.

"This is the noblest work in our entire lives. From this day forward the United States takes its place among the powers of the first rank," said an enthusiastic Livingston after the signing.

Monroe and Livingston discuss the Louisiana Purchase with Talleyrand.

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At first, not everyone in the United States was happy with the purchase of Louisiana

Monroe and Livingston arrived in the USA with news of the purchase of new huge territories only on July 3, 1803. They decided to announce it publicly the next day, July 4, before the Independence Day of the United States. But opinions in the press were divided. If some newspapers wrote about the "universal joy of millions of citizens", others noted that now "we have to give money, which we have too little, for land, which we already have too much." There really wasnʼt enough money in the US treasury at that time. I had to take a loan from European banks, and then pay it back with interest for another 15 years.

The federalists were the most furious. One of the congressmen agreed to the fact that he offered the northeastern states to leave the United States. But soon they found another argument. Jefferson was told that the president had no constitutional authority to enact such agreements. This confused the head of the White House. After all, he himself constantly insisted on strict adherence to the Constitution. But associates reassured Jefferson and referred to the second article of the second section of the Constitution, according to which the president had the right to conclude interstate agreements with the consent of the Senate.

The Senate ratified the agreement by a majority vote on October 20, 1803. And then Louisiana changed hands several more times. The Spanish handed over New Orleans to the French at the end of November 1803, and the latter to the Americans at the end of December. A similar ceremony took place in St. Louis, another large city in Louisiana on the Mississippi River. During March 9-10, 1804, three flags alternated on the main square — Spanish, French, and American.

Replacing the French flag with the American one in the central square of New Orleans in 1803. Painting by Toure De Tulstrup.

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In reality, Louisiana cost much more, but it was worth it

Donʼt be fooled by the large area of Louisiana—neither the French nor the Spanish were concerned with colonizing the area and held only a few settlements, mostly ports on the Mississippi. Most of the land was inhabited by Indian tribes who did not know anything about the agreements between the colonial states and did not consider themselves their citizens. The United States had to negotiate with them separately, and these agreements were not always fair, to say the least.

In the 20th century, this resulted in numerous lawsuits against the American government for the oppression of the rights of the indigenous population. So with all the extra costs taken into account, Louisiana has cost the US about $11 billion to date. Not so much. For comparison, the US plans to spend more than $800 billion in 2024 on defense alone.

In addition, it was necessary to settle disputes with the Spanish and the British regarding the boundaries of Louisiana. After all, in none of the previous agreements were its clear boundaries prescribed. During 1804-1806, Jefferson organized several research expeditions to the newly acquired territories. The maps of the explorers became a strong argument in favor of the United States in further negotiations regarding the boundaries of Louisiana.

But most importantly, the Louisiana Purchase finally shaped the main American national idea of the time — the gradual expansion westward to the Pacific Ocean. By the middle of the 19th century, the United States had bought or conquered almost all of its present-day territories and effectively pushed the European colonial empires out of the continent. Because of this, historians place the Louisiana Purchase on a par with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other historical events that shaped the modern United States.

John Gastʼs painting "American Progress" from 1872, which symbolizes the national idea of the westward expansion of the United States.

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Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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Stephen E. Ambrose, Douglas Brinkley. The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation: From the Louisiana Purchase to Today. National Geographic, 2002.

Charles Cerami. Jeffersonʼs Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon and the Men behind the Louisiana Purchase. Sourcebooks, 2004.

Bill Wiemuth. The Louisiana Purchase: International Intrigue & Secret Treaties — The Incredible Story of How the United States Doubled in Size. Independently published, 2020.

Piero Gleijeses. Napoleon, Jefferson, and the Louisiana Purchase. The International History Review, Volume 39, 2017.

Robert Lee. Accounting for Conquest: The Price of the Louisiana Purchase of Indian Country. The Journal of American History, Vol. 103, No. 4, 2017.

Serhii Pyvovarov
Dmytro Rayevskyi

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