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Collection Louisiana: European Explorations and the Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase

Napoleonic France Acquires Louisiana

On October 1, 1800, within 24 hours of signing a peace settlement with the United States, First Consul of the Republic of France Napoleon Bonaparte, acquired Louisiana from Spain by the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. To the distress of the United States, Napoleon held title to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans.

Napoleon I, Emperor of France, full portrait, ca. 1812. From an engraving by Laugier, after the painting by Jacques Louis David, 1812. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-17088
Médaille pour les sauvages de la Louisiane [Medal struck for North American Indians], ca. 1802. From Villiers du Terrage, Les Dernières années de la Louisiane Fran├žaise, Paris, [1904], p. 380. General Collections, Library of Congress. Call number: F373 .V75

With the signing of the Treaty of San Ildefonso, Napoleon sought to reestablish an extended French maritime and colonial empire in the West Indies and the Mississippi Valley. He planned to develop a commercial bloc in the Caribbean Basin that consisted of the strategically important West Indian islands of Guadalupe, Martinique, and Saint Domingue, which in turn would be linked with Louisiana. France would export manufactured goods to the islands, whose plantations would produce sugar, molasses, rum, coffee, and cotton for France. Flour, timber, and salted meat from Louisiana would sustain French troops stationed in the West Indies. Furthermore, French goods were expected to find a ready market at New Orleans, a stepping-stone for settlers into the Mississippi Valley.

To round out his imperial presence in the region Napoleon intended to pressure Spain into ceding the Floridas to France. Apparently anticipating the success of his plan, he ordered struck 200 copies of a medallionbearing his profile for distribution to Native American chiefs in a gesture of grassroots diplomacy. Napoleon's plan did not succeed.

The chief impediment to Napoleon's designs for a North American empire lay in Saint Domingue, France's most valued trading resource in the Caribbean and the gateway to the Gulf approaches to Louisiana. In 1791 the island's slaves, inspired by the French revolution, revolted under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture. After several years of fierce conflict, L'Ouverture and his army of former slaves had driven colonial forces from the island.

Because Napoleon did not have enough troops to reconquer Saint Domingue and occupy Louisiana simultaneously, he decided first to subdue the rebel slaves and reestablish French authority on Saint Domingue. In the fall and winter of 1801 he despatched to Saint Domingue an army of 20,000 men under his brother-in-law, General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc. Toussaint surrendered to Leclerc in three months. Napoleon also assembled an expedition at a Dutch port in the winter of 1802-03 for reinforcing Leclerc's army and, with Saint Domingue as it base of operations, took possession of Louisiana.

"There is on the globe one single spot"

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, full portrait, facing front, n.d. From an engraving by Cornelius Tiebout, after the painting by Rembrandt Peale. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-75384
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Robert Livingston, Washington, April 18, 1802. Letterpress copy of autograph letter signed, 4 pp. (with transcription). Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson Papers
Robert R. Livingston, seated portrait, facing right, n.d. From an engraving by E. McKenzie, after the painting by J. Vanderlyn. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-16708

Rumors of the secret retrocession of Louisiana from Spain to France prompted anxiety in Washington city. By May 1801 the American minister to Great Britain, Rufus King, had apprised President Thomas Jefferson with some certainty of the transaction, an event that Jefferson said was an inauspicious circumstance to us.  10 Painfully aware of the potential difficulties in having Napoleonic France as a neighbor, Jefferson informed William C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Mississippi Territory, that he regarded Spanish "possession of the adjacent country as most favorable to our interests, & should see, with extreme pain any other nation substituted for them. Should France get possession of that country, it will be more to be lamented than remedied by us ¦"  11 In November 1801 Secretary of State James Madison received a copy of the Treaty of San Ildefonso from Ambassador King, confirming the diplomatic transaction previously denied by France.

Over the course of several years President Thomas Jeffersonprepared to handle an impending French presence in the Mississippi Valley and his administration's first great diplomatic crisis. Jefferson was probably America's foremost geographical thinker and a student of the American West. The plight of the western farmers evoked his empathy and his support. He was also a long-time friend of France; his stint as ambassador to Paris (1784-89) had familiarized him with French diplomacy and politics. A political veteran of the American Revolution, Jefferson was also an Anglophobe.

By early 1802 events in Europe led Jefferson to reappraise and reformulate American relations with France, especially in light of her intended occupation of the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans. War between France and Great Britain was expected. Jefferson realized that if France claimed Louisiana, Great Britain would try to capture and occupy the region. In a April 18, 1802, letter to Minister Robert R. Livingston, Jefferson revealed that the prospect of potential war with France and the unpleasant consequence of an alliance with Great Britain completely reverses all the political relations of the U.S.

Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison had hoped to fashion a foreign policy congenial to French interests. They disapproved of the slave uprising in Saint Domingue, intimating through diplomatic channels that the United States might assist France in subduing L'Ouverture. They appointed the pro-French Robert R. Livingstonas American minister to Paris. In May 1802 Madison instructed Livingston to negotiate for the purchase of New Orleans. Livingston was also directed to ascertain whether the cession included East Florida and West Florida, and, if so, to negotiate a price for acquiring them, or at least the right of navigation and deposit on one of the rivers feeding into the Gulf.

10. Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., Washington City, May 14, 1801, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. (Return to text)

11. Thomas Jefferson to William C. C. Claiborne, Washington City, July 13, 1801, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. (Return to text)

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