Eyewitness Reports in History Louisiana Purchase Part 1

An eyewitness account of the Louisiana Purchase in United States history managed by Thomas Jefferson.


Louisiana Purchase

When: October, 1802-October, 1803

How: In 1795, Western farmers won permission to ship their produce down the Mississippi River, then controlled by Spain. This included the right of deposit at New Orleans. There, cargoes of corn, whiskey, and pork were reloaded aboard oceangoing vessels bound for the East Coast and foreign ports.

On Oct. 16, 1802, Juan Ventura Morales, intendant of Louisiana, commissioned by the king of Spain, withdrew the right of deposit.

Without the Mississippi, farmers had no access to markets. Westerners responded to the news with explosive indignation. Militias formed. Messages went to Pres. Thomas Jefferson with demands for a march on New Orleans.

Jefferson knew the river had become a lifeline for Westerners, held to the Union by loose bonds. But he also knew that France, not Spain, would soon be in control of it. Rumors of a secret deal between the two countries had finally been confirmed. Napoleon Bonaparte, dreaming of a New World empire, had persuaded Spain to turn over Louisiana, a huge expanse of land west of the Mississippi.

The idea of power-drunk Napoleon in charge of the river chilled Jefferson. And he was stung by the taunts of his political opponents, who lambasted his "milk and water" policies. But Jefferson had a passion for peace. An alternative to war would be the purchase of New Orleans.

Jefferson had already instructed Robert Livingston, the American minister in Paris, to explore the possibility of buying New Orleans. Now he asked Congress to appropriate money to buy this port city and the Floridas. He then instructed James Monroe to go to Paris and help Livingston negotiate. Monroe, a Virginian but popular with the West, had a friendly manner but could drive hard bargains.

Livingston did not look forward to Monroe's arrival. For months he had got nowhere with smooth-talking Talleyrand, French minister of foreign affairs. Napoleon had been unwilling to sell an inch of land.

But then in a surprise move, Talleyrand hinted that Napoleon might be willing to dump all of Louisiana. Livingston would have liked to bring off the purchase before Monroe arrived with his fancy title of Envoy Extraordinary.

Monroe got to Paris early in April. That same day Barbe-Marbois, minister of finance, met with Livingston. Napoleon, he said, was indeed ready to sell Louisiana. Many things had happened to change his mind. Troops sent to Santo Domingo as a first step in setting up his New World empire had been disastrously defeated. Because of prospects of a war with England, he needed gold for military supplies. Favors to America might also lead to an alliance against the British.

For days, Monroe and Livingston dickered over the price of purchase. They also wanted to know exactly what they were buying. Finally they settled on a territory extending from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and westward to the Rockies, but boundaries were still indefinite. For this land they would pay $15 million-$5 million more than had been authorized.

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