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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Bonapartes in America

Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance

published by
Dorrance and Company,
Philadelphia, 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 13

 p230  XII
Napoleon and the Louisiana Purchase

"From this day the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank."

That was the comment of Robert Livingston, then United States Ambassador to France, as he signed the Treaty, April 30, 1803, which transferred the vast territory known as Louisiana from France to the United States for the trifling sum of $15,000,000. Thus it came about that, indirectly, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the great builders of the United States as we know it today. It is true, of course, that if Napoleon had not sold Louisiana to the United States, England would have taken it from him, but it by no means follows that if England had secured that vast territory it would now be under the flag of the United States.

The French first settled in the Louisiana Territory at Biloxi, now Mississippi, in 1699. Afterwards the Mississippi Company was granted the monopoly of all trade with Louisiana for twenty-five years. This company made an effort to introduce white settlers and also negroes. Germans were settled in Arkansas. In 1732 the Mississippi Company resigned Louisiana to the French Crown. By an act passed at Fontainebleau, November 3, 1762, the King of France ceded to the King of Spain the "whole country known as Louisiana, together with New Orleans and the island on which the said city is  p231 situated." On November 13, at the Escurial, the King of Spain accepted the cession of Louisiana by France. Spain did not take full possession until 1769. In 1794 Spain, hard pressed by the French and the British, made a treaty with the United States whereby Spain recognized the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the United States, separating it from Louisiana, and the free navigation of the Mississippi was granted to citizens of the United States for three years, with the right to bring their merchandise to the port of New Orleans and export it without paying any duty.

Three years later, the Spanish governor of Louisiana refused the right to the United States longer to use New Orleans as a place of deposit and export. This caused great excitement in the United States and there were proposals in Congress to seize by force the whole of Louisiana. This might have been done had not Spain restored the right of export.

Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte had become First Consul. Ambitious to re‑establish the Colonial Empire of France, Napoleon secured from Spain the retrocession of Louisiana in 1800, and had formed a plan for taking immediate possession of New Orleans with an armed expedition. Livingston, the American Minister in France, advised the United States Government to this effect. President Jefferson realized at once the threat and menace France would be to the United States if in possession of New Orleans and the Louisiana territory, and instructed Livingston to do what he could to secure from France a portion of Louisiana, especially the island of New Orleans.

 p232  Under date of April 18, 1802, in a letter to Livingston, Jefferson gives expression to his great anxiety. He says: "The cession of Louisiana and the Floridas to France works most sorely on the United States. It completely reverses all the political relations of the United States and will form a new epoch in our political course. Of all nations of any consideration, France is the one which hitherto has offered the fewest points on which we could have any conflict of right. From these causes we have ever looked to her as our natural friend. Her growth, therefore, we viewed as our own; her misfortunes, ours. 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 of our inhabitants. France, placing herself in that door, assumes to us the attitude of defiance. Spain might have retained it quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there. . . . The day that France takes possession of New 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." Then he goes on to say that if France is not willing to hand over Louisiana as a whole, perhaps she would be willing to cede the island of New Orleans and the Floridas.

 p233  It was to secure the Floridas and New Orleans that Livingston, assisted later by James Monroe, carried on his negotiations. To Livingston's great surprise, Marbois, Bonaparte's representative, said that Napoleon would treat for the sale of the whole of Louisiana. Napoleon was not ignorant of the value of the Louisiana territory; but his colonial schemes had met with disaster in Santo Domingo, and he was persuaded that he could not hold New Orleans against the British fleet, if, as seemed imminent then, the peace of Amiens should be ended and war break out between France and England. "Irresolution and indetermination," said Napoleon, "are no longer in season. I renounce Louisiana. It is not only New Orleans that I will cede; it is the whole colony without reservation. I know the price of what I abandon, and I have sufficiently proved the importance that I attach to this province, since my first diplomatic act with Spain had for its object the recovery of it. I renounce it with the greatest regret. To attempt to retain it would be folly."1

A few days after the treaty of cession was signed, Napoleon said to his negotiator, Marbois, "I would that France could enjoy this unexpected capital, that it may be employed in works beneficial to her marine. This accession of territory strengthens forever the power of the United States, and I have just given to England a maritime rival that will sooner or later humble her pride."

 p234  Jefferson was somewhat troubled by this the greatest achievement of his administration, and described by Henry K. Adams as the greatest diplomatic success recorded in American history. He did not believe that the Constitution gave the Federal Government the right to acquire or incorporate territory and favored a submission to the states of a Constitutional amendment, but finally yielded to the advice of his political friends that no amendment was necessary, and that any delay in the settlement would be perilous. In a letter to Wilson C. Nicholas, September 7, 1803, Jefferson wrote: "I confess, then, I think it important in the present case to set an example against broad construction by appealing for new power for the people. If, however, our friends should think differently, certainly I shall acquiesce with satisfaction; confiding that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects."

Thus for the sum of $15,000,000 an empire was purchased and added to the territory of the United States. Out of that territory, five times the area of continental France, were carved, in time, the states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and most of Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. The shadow of the Bonapartes is deep upon the domain of the United States of America.

The Authors' Note:

1 Harper's Encyclopaedia of U. S. History, vol. V, p483. Harper and Brothers, N. Y. 1902.

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Page updated: 26 Feb 13