Upon the eve of the downfall of New France, when the inevitable was plainly foreseen, Louis XV, in order to prevent England from obtaining them, ceded to Spain (November, 1762) the town and neighborhood of New Orleans and the broad possessions of France west of the Mississippi. The following year, by the Treaty of Paris, she lost to England all of her holdings east of the great river. Spain remained in possession of the trans-Mississippi country until 1800. Napoleon, just then dreaming of another New France in the western half of North America, as well as desiring to check the United States in its development westward, in that year (October 1st), coerced the Court of Madrid into a treaty of retrocession. Under this agreement Spain was to receive as recompense the improvised "Kingdom of Etruria," in northern Italy, to be governed by the Duke of Parma, son-in-law of the Spanish King; she was also to retain East and West Florida, which Napoleon had sought, but despite Spanish subserviency could not obtain.
That the great Corsican desired to establish a strong colonial empire to the west of the United States, controlling the Gulf of Mexico and the entire Mississippi Valley, there is now no doubt. Immediately after the retrocession of Louisiana, a large French expedition occupied the island of Santo Domingo, and another corps was destined for New Orleans; but the army in Santo Domingo was at once confronted by a native negro revolution, and the occupation of New Orleans, timed for October, 1802, was accordingly deferred.
These movements naturally alarmed President Jefferson, for New Orleans was the key to the continental interior. James Monroe was sent as a special envoy to Paris (March, 1803), to seek the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas, with a view of securing to our western settlers the free navigation of the Mississippi. The denial of this privilege by Spain, and the threatened denial by France, had been the cause of long-continued dissatisfaction among the trans-Alleghany borderers, who at that time cared more for an opening for their surplus products than they did for the Federal unionto them as yet a shadowy thing, controlled by men of the Atlantic slope, unknowing and indifferent, they thought, to the needs of the West.
Jefferson was strongly imprest by the demands of the frontiersmen; but as a man of peace apparently would have been willing, if unable to secure any French territory at the mouth of the river to accept a free navigation agreement from France, rather than have an armed contest with that power. He appears to have thought that eventually an alliance with England might win still further concession from Paris. It is not evident that at this time his interest in the country west of the river went further than a desire to discover within it a path to the Pacific.
Affairs were in this unsatisfactory condition, promising ill for the future of the young nation, when the French minister, Talleyrand, greatly surprized the American minister at Paris, Robert R. Livingston, by proposing (April 11th) that the United States buy all of Louisiana. The reason for this sudden change of heart was, that Napoleon had determined on a new war with England. This ambitious military enterprise required more money than he then possest; he feared that England's navy might, during the struggle, capture the approaches to Louisiana; by previously disposing of the territory to the United States he would not only obtain funds, but would thwart his enemy, and assist in rearing a formidable rival to her in North America.
Monroe had just arrived at Paris, bearing instructions authorizing Livingston and himself to pay $2,000,000 for New Orleans and the Floridas. This new proposition came to them as unexpectedly as "a bolt from the blue."The only method communicating with Washington was by the ocean mails, which were then very slow. The First Consul insisted on haste, for he needed the money at once; war was soon to be declared between France and England, and in brief time the latter might seize the Gulf of Mexico, and thus win Louisiana for herself.
Our envoys were equal to the emergency. Lacking opportunity to consult with the President, they realized that delay might mean defeat, and promptly entered upon negotiations. At the end of a week's discussion, during which his brothers Lucian and Joseph bitterly opposed the sequestration of this colonial possession, Napoleon2 arbitrarily directed his finance minister, Marbois, to sign a treaty (April 30th), with the American representatives, by which Louisiana, with its ill-defined boundaries, was sold to the United States for $15,000,000. Thus was our territory doubled at a few strokes of the pen. When Livingston, the principal American negotiator, rose after he shook hands with his colleagues and saying: "We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our lives!"
It was the early days of July before the news of this remarkable diplomatic negotiation reached Washington. Needless to say, it awakened uncommon excitement at the national capital. Captain Meriwether Lewis was in town, obtaining from the President final instructions before starting upon his great exploring expedition to the Pacific, an enterprise which was now placed upon a far different footing from the original intention. When, upon the fifth of the month, he bade farewell to his friends at the White House, and left for the West, he left behind him a partizan squabble upon the issue of which hung the future of the United States as a world power.
In this dispute the Federalists bitterly opposed, while the Republicans favored, the proposed purchase of foreign territory. Jefferson, himself, on constitutional grounds, entertained strong scruples against the transaction. He was but slowly won to the theory that the treaty-making power was sufficient to warrant the purchase, without an amendment to the Consitution.
The treaty itself arrived in Washington the fourteenth of July, and was ratified by Congress on the nineteenth of October, following; but it was some time before New England became reconciled, prophetically fearing that the acquisition of so much new territory, which was eventually to be formed into voting States, would result in throwing the balance of political power into the West. There was even some talk in that section of secession, because of this threatened loss of prestige. In the end, however, all concerned became reconciled to the contemplation of a United States extending across the continent. Florida, Texas, and California later followed in natural sequencenot without qualms upon the part of many; but the great struggle had been fought out over the Louisiana Purchase, and the power of territorial expansion accepted as a constitutional doctrine.
1 From Thwaites' "Rocky Mountain Explorations." By permission of the publishers, D. Appleton & Company. Copyright, 1904.
2 For Lucien Bonaparte's account of a stormy interview on the subject between himself and his two brothers, Napoleon and Joseph, see later pages in this volume. (See the next chapter.)
HOW NAPOLEON SOLD THE TERRITORY IN SPITE OF HIS BROTHERS