Closing the bargain. The terms of payment. What was bought. Questions as to West Florida. The news in the United States. Federalist opposition. Debates over the right to buy and rule foreign territory. The treaty ratified. Provisions for government.

It was on April 11 that Livingston was surprised by Talleyrand’s offer of the whole of Louisiana. The next day Livingston, recovering from his astonishment, endeavored to arrange the matter definitely, but the wily Talleyrand delayed lest he should cheapen the bargain by seeming too eager. Livingston was anxious to carry the affair as far as possible before Monroe took part.

After Monroe arrived, there followed a period of haggling over the price and terms. The price first mentioned on the French side was a hundred million francs ($20,000,000), with a provision that the United States should pay the claims of American citizens against France for depredations by French privateers, which amounted to twenty million francs ($4,000,000). Then Marbois, who presented this offer, dropped to eighty million francs ($16,000,000) for the territory and the claims. Finally, on April 29, the Americans agreed to Marbois’s terms. The next day, April 30, their agreement was submitted to Napoleon. April 30 was adopted as the date of the treaty of cession and the convention regarding the payments, although the documents were not actually signed until a few days later.1

One curious feature of this checkered history is that the exact boundaries of the purchased territory were unknown. The treaty simply described the province of Louisiana "with the same extent" that it had under Spain and earlier under France. The eastern boundary was the Mississippi from its source to the parallel of thirty-one degrees; but no one knew where the source was, and the eastern boundary below thirty-one degrees was in question, although the Americans claimed the country as far as the Perdido River.2 The western boundary was supposed to be the mountains, although little was known regarding them; and the northern limit was the ill-defined possessions of Great Britain.

What was bought, therefore, was a vast expanse of territory- whose precise limits no one knew. Again, the Floridas were not mentioned in the treaty because they had not been ceded by Spain, although the acquisition of West Florida from the Mississippi to the river Perdido was part of the original American plan. All that the commissioners obtained was a verbal promise from Napoleon to use his good offices with Spain in helping the United States to gain West Florida. The Americans claimed West Florida as included in the sale under the French title. The claim was denied by Spain, but in 1810 a successful local revolution against Spain resulted in the formal annexation of West Florida to the United States.

The exact cost of the Louisiana territory was sixty-four million francs, in the form of United States six per cent bonds, representing a capital of $11,250,000.3 In addition to this the American government agreed to assume and pay the obligations of France to American citizens for French attacks upon American shipping. These were estimated at twenty million francs, or $3,750,000, making the total payment $15,000,000. Troubles and scandals arose from the settlement of these claims, but that forms no part of this history.

With the money paid for the Louisiana territory Napoleon had intended to construct a system of canals; but war broke out almost immediately, and by another of the curious turns of fate which accompanied the whole affair, this money was spent by Napoleon in preparations for an invasion of England which never took place.

President Jefferson had hoped to secure New Orleans and West Florida at a cost of not more than $2,000,000. But there came from Paris the astonishing tidings that the commissioners had bought the whole Louisiana territory and had agreed to pay $15,000,000. The great news was promptly seized upon by the politicians and the people. The part opposed to Jefferson, the Federalists, attacked the purchase. They ridiculed the vague stories told of the unknown interior, and condemned the acquisition of a wilderness; but by the majority of the people the purchase was approved. Nevertheless, there were new and serious questions to be settled concerning the rights and powers of the United States as regarded the acquisition of foreign territory and its government. They were questions not unlike those discussed when the United States, after the late war with Spain, acquired the Philippines and Porto Rico.

Thomas Jefferson

In October, 1803, Congress met. Jefferson himself was a strict constructionist of the Constitution, and believed in states rights. He held that Congress had only such powers as were definitely delegated to it and such as were necessary to carry out the delegated powers. He believed that this treaty providing for the incorporation of foreign territory was in violation of the Constitution. He held at first that an amendment to the Constitution would be necessary before action could be taken upon the treaty. But he was confronted with a practical issue of grave and immediate moment. Statesmen holding views as extreme as his own argued for the constitutionality of the acquisition. Jefferson yielded his opinions to the practical exigencies of the situation, believing, as was the case, that the popular view would approve his course. Federalists, as well as Republicans, agreed that the United States could acquire territory.4

As to the status of the inhabitants of the Louisiana territory, another question was presented which was seized upon by the Federalists. The treaty contemplated their early admission to the rights of citizens of the United States, — Louisiana was not to be a dependent colony, without a vote or the prospect of statehood. This was bitterly opposed by the Federalists. It was argued that the vote of each individual state was necessary for the admission of a new state. The New England Federalists, foreseeing a lessening of their power through the admission of southern and western states, were strenuous antagonists of the measure. In some cases there was talk of secession.

Again the treaty gave special privileges to the vessels of France and Spain at New Orleans, although the Constitution required that duties should be uniform. This was defended by the claim that "Louisiana is purchased, by the United States in their federal capacity, and is in the nature of a colony whose commerce may be regulated without reference to the Constitution." The far-reaching importance of these arguments, and of the precedent established by the ratification of the treaty, has been illustrated in the discussions over the recent acquisition of Porto Rico and the Philippines.5 The discussion of these questions was long and bitter, but the treaty was ratified October 19, 1803.

After the treaty was ratified and the bill to provide payment for the purchase was passed still another question arose, — How should the territory be governed? In spite of Federalist opposition it was voted that until Congress should provide a temporary government all the military, civil, and judicial powers should be exercised by persons to be appointed by the President, without the advice or consent of the Senate. This act was approved by the President on October 31, 1803. It was a temporary measure intended to apply to the taking possession of the new country rather than to its permanent occupation. The formal act of taking over Louisiana was the next step in this eventful history.

1 With this the work of the American negotiators was practically ended. Livingston resigned his post the next year and retired from public life; but the rest of his days were full of a usefulness which included his encouragement of Robert Fulton, the father of the steamboat. Monroe, continuing in public life, rose to the presidency of the United States.
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2 Now the boundary between Florida and Alabama.
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3The ultimate cost would include not only the par value of the bonds but also ten years’ interest and the costs of surveying, of government explorations, and of selling lands, etc.
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4Later the right to annex territory was upheld by the Supreme Court. Professor McLaughlin, "History of the American Nation," p. 264, cites the case of Am. Ins. Co. v. Canter, 1 Peters, 511.
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5"This broad interpretation of the treaty-making power by the strict constructionist and state rights party itself, paved the way for an imperial expansion of the United States. Not only that, — it laid the foundations for a readjustment of sectional power within the Union." — Professor Frederick J. Turner, in the Review of Reviews (May, 1903). This article, which has been consulted in the preparation of this chapter, in addition to Adams, McMaster, and others, is a remarkably clear and concise presentation of political and constitutional phases of the purchase.
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Chapter 8

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman