The United States’ acquisition of the Louisiana Territory is one of the final acts in a long series of foreign affairs in which the big European powers of France, Britain, and Spain struggled to control a vast portion of the North American Continent, and who had to contend with the new American nation and its aspirations. At the heart of this struggle was the navigation rights to the Mississippi River which could be navigated from the Gulf of Mexico nearly to Canada to conduct trade over half of the present U.S. territory. Whoever controlled the river and access to New Orleans commanded a financial and trade monopoly which could strangle the fledgling U.S. if it did not seek favorable terms with France and Spain.
The control of trade in the Mississippi river system was a key aspect of a much broader global conflict in Europe, known there as the Seven Years’ War. In North America, it was known as the French and Indian War, and it was fought between the British and the French for the right to hold their competing territorial colonial claims. France ultimately lost this war, and by the Treaty of Paris, 1763, it had to cede or give up all of its North American territory; Canada and the eastern portion of the Louisiana Territory went to the British and Spain was given control of New Orleans. In a secret treaty, that of Fontainebleau in 1762, France had already ceded the western Louisiana territory to Spain.
During the American Revolution, the colonies allied with France to help defeat Britain. Following the war, the new American nation took the land held by the British between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Spain was no longer the dominant colonial threat it had been in the seventeenth century, but the United States occupied a weak position diplomatically since it owed tremendous debts to Britain and France, and had no navy to protect its shores. Spain was still a considerable threat and shared a long border with the U.S. It wasn’t until 1795 in Picnkney’s Treaty that the U.S. gained free navigation rights from Spain to the Mississippi River and free warehousing to store goods until they could be shipped abroad or upstream. Prior to that, goods were taxed and tolls were charged for the use of the river.
During the 1790s, the U.S. found itself in the midst of another war between France and Britain. The French Revolution had escalated beyond a national conflict into a global one by 1793. The U.S. wanted to be neutral and be allowed to trade with France, but Britain would have none of it and seized U.S. ships and forced American sailors to serve in the British Navy. In 1794, Jay’s Treaty settled the hostilities with Britain, but France was angry at the terms and the perceived partnership between the U.S. and Britain. France began seizing U.S. ships and refused to let the U.S. foreign minister into France to negotiate. France tried to get the U.S. to pay a bribe to reach a settlement, but the U.S. ministers would not do this. Instead John Adams began building up the Navy and established the Marines and fought the Quasi War (1798-1800) in the West Indies (Caribbean Isles) with France, until France realized Britain was assisting the U.S. Then, France allowed the U.S. foreign minister to enter the country to negotiate peace.
By that point in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte had named himself Emperor of France. His ambition was to subdue all of Europe for France, and to reclaim his American colony in Louisiana. In 1802, Bonaparte forced Spain to return Louisiana to France in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. Bonaparte’s purpose was to build up a French Army to send to Louisiana to defend his “New France” from British and U.S. attacks. At roughly the same time, a slave revolt broke out in the French held island of Haiti. Bonaparte sent troops there to stop the rebellion and he had hoped to use Haiti as a staging point for moving troops to Louisiana. However, the French failed the territory was lost, and many more soldiers died of Yellow Fever, which left Bonaparte’s army decimated and unable to continue to the U.S.
Once President Thomas Jefferson had heard of the transfer of Louisiana back to France, he worried about the fate of navigation rights along the Mississippi, he decided to do something bold and offer to buy the Louisiana Territory from France. Once Jefferson’s ministers got to France, Napoleon had decided to abandon his plans for a revival of New France, and was eager to sell. The U.S. paid $15 million and acquired over 500 billion acres of land, more than doubling the land area of the nation at that date.
The Louisiana Purchase remains the single largest land acquisition in U.S. history. It opened up the Great Plains and the Midwest to settlement and agricultural production, and was at the center of the events which led to the Civil War because of the desire to extend slavery into the new territories. It was also the scene of conflicts with Native Americans and their forcible removal. Combined with the addition of Spanish Florida in 1819, Texas in 1845, Oregon in 1846, the Mexican Cession in 1848, and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the Continental U.S. boundaries were finalized. It wasn’t until 1959 that the U.S. annexed more territory to become the states of Alaska and Hawaii.
Entry: Louisiana Purchase
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: August 2012
Date Modified: October 2015
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