The East slow to see the facts. Foresight of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton. A critical period. Spanish exactions. The river closed. Popular agitation. The West ready for war. Jefferson resolves to buy New Orleans and the Floridas. Monroe appointed commissioner. Livingston’s work in Paris. Talleyrand’s startling proposition. How Napoleon made his purpose known. A family quarrel in a bath-room.

Although the Western expansion of Americans after the Revolution had made control of the Mississippi a question of swiftly increasing consequence, this had become apparent but slowly to the people of the East. A few statesmen saw the difficulties which were realized so forcibly by the pioneers who were pushing the frontier to the west. As early as 1782, while the negotiations were in progress which resulted in the establishment of peace with England by the Treaty of Paris the following year, Franklin wrote to Jay that to part with the Mississippi were as if one should sell his street door.1 In 1790 Washington declared that " we must have and certainly shall have the full navigation of the Mississippi." It was a necessity pointed out in the same year by Jefferson when Alexander Hamilton secretary of state. In 1799 Alexander Hamilton, even then in advance of his time, argued that we should possess not only the Floridas but the whole of Louisiana. Yet popular sentiment in the East was slow to grasp the practical importance of an issue which became so acute in the West as early as 1793 that Kentuckians, as we have seen, advocated a resort to force and were ready to follow, the counsels of Genet.

In the East the Mississippi question was utilized by the Federalists in the first year of the century as political capital. Their bitter opposition to Jefferson, who became President on March 4, 1801, led them to exult in the dilemma which seemed forced upon him the following year. On the one hand there was an increasing possibility of war with France; on the other if the government failed to support the demands of the West and South, there was a prospect of their secession and the dissolution of the Union. Jefferson’s supporters, the Republicans, argued for negotiation rather than war. They pointed to the success of Washington’s diplomacy in averting another war with England in 1794, and John Adams’s avoidance of a general war with France. It was a situation in which an impetuous chief executive might have precipitated a war. Jefferson was emphatically a man of peace.

When Congress met in December, 1802, the President’s annual message was awaited with intense eagerness; but it was absolutely pacific. This was not due to indifference. Jefferson had proved his interest in the West. It was in January, 1802, that his minister to France, Robert R. Livingston, learned of the secret treaty by which Spain retroceded Louisiana to France, a cession at first denied by Talleyrand. Livingston's Autograph In May, Madison, Jefferson’s secretary of state, was writing to Livingston regarding the menace of the cession, and transmitting Jefferson’s instructions for the acquisition from Spain of New Orleans and the territory east of the Mississippi in case the cession to France had not been accomplished.

In Paris Livingston followed closely the development of Napoleon’s plans and labored to find a way of carrying out his instructions. In Washington Jefferson’s peaceful and cautious policy influenced Congress at the outset to leave matters in his hands. But in the West and in the South peace was unknown. The news of the retrocession of Louisiana and the suspension of the right of deposit for American goods at New Orleans by the Spanish intendant, Morales, brought an outbreak which compelled recognition. Remonstrances and memorials were circulated through the West. James Monroe State legislatures called for action. Troops were demanded to oppose the first attempt of the French to land at New Orleans. The West and the South clamored for freedom of trade, even at the cost of war.

It became inevitable that the government should take action. Jefferson appointed James Monroe as a special envoy to Paris with power to buy New Orleans and the Floridas for $2,000,000.2 Here was the American beginning of the negotiations, which were intended to effect only the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas.3 It is true, however, that the farsighted Livingston proposed that France should cede the Louisiana territory above the Arkansas River, but this was an idea of his own, and the instructions given by Jefferson were narrowly limited, as we have seen.4

The earnestness and ability with which Livingston labored in Paris to secure the Floridas and New Orleans and the free use of the Mississippi seemed to be poorly rewarded by the appointment of Monroe as a special commissioner to do practically what he was already trying to bring about. But the seriousness of the situation justified a special appointment, and it was Livingston after all who held the larger part in the negotiations. Meantime Livingston argued his case with Talleyrand, with Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, and with Barbé-Marbois, minister of the treasury. He boldly predicted a rupture with the United States in case France should occupy Louisiana and hold the mouth of the Mississippi and the Floridas.

For a long time his arguments seemed to carry little weight, but on April 11, 1803, Talleyrand met him with the startling proposition that the United States should buy the whole of Louisiana. This was not the plan of Jefferson; it was not the purpose of Livingston. Napoleon himself, in his usual arbitrary fashion, had changed his purpose and decided to offer the whole of the great Louisiana territory to the United States.5

Livingston’s description of this remarkable event is quoted from a letter to Madison. "M. Talleyrand asked me this day when pressing the subject whether we wished to have the whole of Louisiana. I told him no; that our wishes extended only to New Orleans and the Floridas; that the policy of France, however, should dictate (as I had shown in an official note) to give us the country above the river Arkansas, in order to place a barrier between them and Canada. He said that if they gave New Orleans the rest would be of little value, and that he would wish to know ‘what we would give for the whole.’ I told him it was a subject I had not thought of, but that I supposed we should not object to twenty millions [francs, — about $4,000,000] provided our citizens were paid. He said this was too low an offer and he would be glad if I would reflect upon it and tell him to-morrow. I told him that as Mr. Monroe would be in town in two days, I would delay my further offer until I had the pleasure of introducing him."

1The many complications with France and Spain as well as England which confronted the American Peace Commission are described in Winsor’s "Narrative and Critical History," Vol. VII, chap. ii.
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2 1 JAN 11, 1803.


...While my confidence in our minister plenipotentiary at Paris is entire & undiminished, I still think that these objects might be promoted by joining with him a person sent from here directly.

I therefore nominate Robert R. Livingston to be minister plenipotentiary, & James Monroe to be minister extraordinary & plenipotentiary, with full powers to both. . . or to either . . . to enter into a treaty or convention . . . for the purpose of enlarging & more effectually securing our rights & interests in the river Mississippi & in the territories east ward thereof.. ..

(State Papers. For. Rel., Vol. II, p. 475.)

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3 It was not then known that France had acquired only Louisiana.
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4Jefferson’s views at this stage are shown in a letter written to Monroe, January 13, 1803. "On the event of this mission depend the future destinies of the Republic. If we cannot by a purchase of the country, insure to ourselves course of perpetual peace and friendship with all nations then, as war cannot be far distant it behooves us to be immediately preparing for that course, without however hastening it; and it may be necessary, on your failure or the Continent, to cross the Channel."
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5 Disgust at the disastrous campaign in San Domingo, anger with Spain, a desire to be free for new campaigns in Europe, and a wish to be rid of the whole irritating subject of Louisiana are cited by Henry Adams as among the probable motives for Napoleon’s change of mind. An essential motive was evidently due to the likelihood of a combination of England and the United States against France in case he occupied Louisiana. The result might well have been the exhaustion of France and the downfall of Napoleon long before Waterloo, with radical changes in European history and probably in our own.
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman