Jefferson, Bonaparte and the Louisiana Purchase

Two years earlier, President Thomas Jefferson had learned of a secret treaty between Spain and France returning Louisiana to French control. Jefferson was greatly alarmed.

He could not allow the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, to control the vital port city of New Orleans, “through which the produce of three eights of our territory must pass to market.” Author and historian Stephen E. Ambrose, in Undaunted Courage, outlines Jefferson's position and Napoleon's unexpected offer.

He let the French know of his resolve. He suggested that Napoleon cede Louisiana to the United States, to eliminate the possibility of war between the former allies, a war, which Jefferson warned, would “annihilate France on the ocean.” And he flatly declared that his government would consider any attempt to land French troops in Louisiana a cause for war.

That was the kind of blunt talk Americans liked to have their president use when it came to America's national interest in a clash with any foreign nation. Also persuasive was that it was based on facts. Napoleon's expeditionary force was being devastated in Santo Domingo. It was obvious France could not reconquer that colony, much less send an army to New Orleans. The British and Americans in combination would have sunk the French navy and merchant fleet. Napoleon could not defend what he owned; he could only lose in Louisiana; why not give it to the United States and be done with the problem, and in the process re-establish the alliance between the two countries?

But Napoleon had not become emperor of France by giving things away. Though he agreed with the logic, he would rather sell than give.

Jefferson began working on a plan to send James Monroe over to Paris as a minister plenipotentiary with specific instruction for the purchase of New Orleans for two million dollars. As he talked this up among Republican leaders, Jefferson indicated he would be willing to ask Congress for up to ten million for New Orleans.

The thought that Napoleon might be willing to sell all of Louisiana had not occurred to anyone.

Napoleon was delighted, and rightly so. He had title to Louisiana, but no power to enforce it. The Americans were sure to overrun it long before he could get an army there — if he ever could. “Sixty million franc for an occupation that will not perhaps last a day!” he exulted. He knew what he was giving up and what the United States was getting — and the benefit to France, beyond the money: “The sale assures forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a rival who, sooner or later, will humble her pride.”

(This article can also be found on National Review Online.)

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