The Louisiana Expansion in Its World Aspect


“MY intention is to take possession of Louisiana with the shortest delay, and that this expedition be made in the utmost secrecy, under the appearance of being directed against San Domingo.”

These words were addressed by Bonaparte to Decrès, his Minister of Marine, who was directed to draw up plans and figure out the cost of an expedition from France to New Orleans. The date was June 4, 1802, two months after the peace of Amiens. After ten years of war, in which, at one time and another, most of the nations of Europe had been involved, the hands of France, the foremost military nation in the world, were freed, and Bonaparte was France. The First Consul despised republics, although theoretically France was still a republic. He had an especial contempt for a country, republic or absolutism, which had only a small army and navy. The United States had but 5,000,000 inhabitants at that time, while France had 27,000,000. It was controlled by a party which thought that even the little army and navy which the country possessed at the retirement of John Adams from the presidency were a peril to liberty, and started to abolish both. The country was presided over by a philosopher and philanthropist, Thomas Jefferson, who would have been an admirable head of the state during a period of tranquillity, but who was as poorly calculated to deal with the cyclonic conditions generated in the wars between Bonaparte and his world foes as Leo XIII. would have been to control the Robespierres, Couthons, and Saint-Justs of France’s reign of terror. It was a fateful hour in the life of the United States.

Why did the First Consul want to take possession of Louisiana? Because Louisiana would have aggrandized France at the expense of her old rival England, which was also believed to be anxious to get a foothold in it, and because its possession would restore to France a province which formerly was hers, and which Bonaparte and the other French statesmen of his day believed had been needlessly sacrificed in the war of 1756— 63. From Champlain’s days in 1608 down to 1763, France, by exploration and occupation, owned Canada. By La Salle’s descent of the Mississippi to its mouth in 1682, supplemented by the planting of a few colonies on the banks of the Mississippi, the Illinois and other streams running into the Mississippi, by La Salle, Iberville, Bienville, and their successors, France claimed the entire watershed of the Mississippi, from the Alleghanies to the Rocky Mountains, and called it Louisiana. As a result of the French and Indian War, which was the American extension of the Seven Years’ War (1756—63), but which began two years earlier, France, then under the shiftless and pusillanimous Louis XV., lost all her possessions on the American continent, ceding the region west of the Mississippi, with New Orleans and its district on the east side of the river, to which collectively the name Louisiana was afterward restricted, to her ally Spain, in the secret treaty of Fontainebleau on November 3, 1762. France gave Canada and all her territory between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi, except the New Orleans district, to England by the treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763.

The Duke of Choiseul, Louis XV.’s minister, probably had two secret objects in ceding Louisiana to Spain : to keep it out of England’s hands, and to place it where, when the opportune time arrived, France could get it back again. Spain had been under French influence during most of the time since 1700, when Louis XIV. placed his Bourbon grandson on the Spanish throne as Philip V., and abolished the Pyrenees. The opportune time came when, by the secret treaty of San Ildefonso, October 1, 1800, Bonaparte, on the promise to give Tuscany to the young Prince presumptive of Parma, the son-in-law of Charles IV. of Spain, deluded that weak monarch into retroceding Louisiana to France. Probably Bonaparte did not intend to carry out his promise. He very likely knew he could not carry it out if he wanted to; and he knew also that if it were carried out, it would be an absurdly small compensation for the territory which Spain ceded to him.

Technically, therefore, Louisiana had been French soil a year and two thirds at the time that the First Consul told Decrès he intended to send an expedition to New Orleans. Why did he not send the expedition in 1800 or 1801 ? Because he wanted to conceal from England and the United States the fact that France had obtained a title to the territory : from England, because he was at war with her then, and by her command of the sea she could prevent him from taking possession, and she might capture it herself; from the United States, because he knew this country would object to France as a near neighbor, and might be inclined to join the combination with England against him. Why did he delay taking possession after his announcement to Decrès ? Because when the treaty of Amiens of March 25, 1802, brought peace with England, a rebellion, under the lead of Toussaint L’Ouverture at the outset, was raging against France in Santo Domingo. In various phases it continued for years, and was ultimately successful. The skill of Toussaint and that of his successors, the courage of their black soldiers, but chiefly the yellow fever, which swept away the French troops by the thousand, blocked Bonaparte’s purpose to use Santo Domingo as a base in his projected operations at the mouth of the Mississippi, and temporarily affected the current of the world’s history.


“ The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence that is to restrain her forever within her low-water mark. It seals the union of two nations, who, in conjunction, can maintain exclusive possession of the ocean. From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”

These were Jefferson’s words, in a letter, dated April 18, 1802, to Robert R. Livingston, the American Minister to France. They were called out by two facts of vital consequence to the American republic. One was the confirmation — by a letter of Rufus King, the American Minister at London, dated November 21, 1801, to Madison, the Secretary of State — of the reports which had been floating around the United States for several months at that time, that France had obtained Louisiana from Spain. The other was the news that General Leclerc, about the end of January, 1802, had landed in Santo Domingo with a French army.

The second fact confirmed the fears aroused in Jefferson’s mind by the first fact. Bonaparte had not only recovered Louisiana, but he intended to occupy it at the earliest possible moment, using Santo Domingo as a base of operations. These were the facts which called out Jefferson’s warning letter to Livingston. About the same time, Dupont de Nemours, a French friend of both Jefferson and Bonaparte, was prompted by Jefferson to assist Livingston in persuading Bonaparte, through threats of an Americo-English alliance, to desist from occupying his new territory. Right here the beginning of the United States activity in the struggle for the possession of Louisiana may conveniently be placed.

As Jefferson and the rest of the world well knew, a rebellion against France was under way in Santo Domingo, incited by the First Consul’s decree to restore slavery there, which had been abolished by the French National Assembly in 1793. The war and the yellow fever swept away the French armies sent to the island, including Leclerc. A large force was designed to leave France for Louisiana at the end of September, 1802, to be commanded by Victor, one of Bonaparte’s ablest marshals, but the blacks and Yellow Jack blocked its way.

While Jefferson and Bonaparte, with widely different emotions, were watching the conflict in Santo Domingo that was affecting the history of two great nations, the alarming news reached Washington from Claiborne, the governor of Mississippi Territory, on October 2, 1802, that Morales, the Spanish intendant at New Orleans (the actual transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France did not take place until 1803), had rescinded to Americans the right of deposit for their goods at that port. This privilege was one of the most important features of the treaty of San Lorenzo of 1795, negotiated by Pinckney, the American Minister to Spain, and Godoy, the Prince of Peace, Spain’s Prime Minister. In it Spain had stipulated to allow Americans to deposit their merchandise at New Orleans, on its way down the river to the markets of the Eastern states and of Europe, free of duty for three years, and agreed that if this entrepôt were withdrawn, some other place of deposit on the Mississippi should be provided. Morales, however, furnished no other place of deposit.

Jefferson, though seriously disturbed at the turn events had taken, concealed his alarm from the country by a mere incidental mention of the burning issue of the day in his annual message to Congress on December 15, 1802. The cession “ of the Spanish province of Louisiana to France . . . will, if carried into effect, make a change in the aspect of our foreign affairs which will doubtless have just weight in any deliberations of the legislature connected with that subject.” This minimizing of the gravity of affairs by Jefferson was done to quiet, as far as possible, the popular apprehension, and to delay matters with the hope that Bonaparte’s fears might ultimately be worked on by threats of an American league with England.

To placate the enraged West, Jefferson, on January 11, 1803, nominated, and the Senate on the 13th confirmed, James Monroe, who was especially popular in the West, because of his championship of its interests, to be Minister Extraordinary to France and Spain, to assist Livingston and Pinckney in " enlarging and more effectually securing our rights and interests in the river Mississippi, and in the territory eastward thereof.” Monroe started for France on March 8, 1803, and arrived there on April 7, carrying with him instructions to buy, at a price not exceeding $10,000,000, New Orleans and East and West Florida, — West Florida being a narrow strip stretching from the present state of Florida on to the Mississippi. The two Floridas were still Spanish territory, but Jefferson supposed that France, by the acquisition of 1800, had obtained both of them as well as Louisiana.

The draught of the proposed treaty carried by Monroe read thus : “ France cedes to the United States forever the territory east of the Mississippi, comprehending the two Floridas, the island of New Orleans, and the islands to the north and east of that channel of the river which is commonly called the South Pass, together with all such other islands as appertain to East or West Florida; France reserving to herself all her territory on the west side of the Mississippi.”As a means of inducing the First Consul to sell New Orleans and the Floridas, Monroe was instructed, if this concession were necessary, to go as far as to offer a guarantee by the United States of the west side of the Mississippi to France. If Bonaparte were still obdurate, Monroe, by instructions agreed upon by Jefferson and the Cabinet April 18, 1803, was directed to delay matters as long as possible, with the hope of arranging an Anglo-American alliance to bring pressure against him.

Happily, neither the delay nor the British alliance was necessary. Before these instructions were written, the First Consul had decided to sell Louisiana to the United States. “ They ask of me only one town in Louisiana, but I already consider the colony as entirely lost, and it appears to me that in the hands of this growing power it will be more useful to the policy, and even to the commerce, of France than if I should attempt to keep it.”

These were Bonaparte’s words to Marbois, his finance minister, on Sunday, April 10, 1803. That is an important date mark in Louisiana’s annals. It was the day of Bonaparte’s first definite disclosure of his purpose to sell Louisiana to the United States. The reason he assigned to Marbois for this course was his dread that England would seize the territory in the war which other developments about that time showed he had already determined upon, and which began in May of that year. Having decided to give up the territory, with his characteristic energy he started to carry his purpose into immediate effect. “ Irresolution and deliberation are no longer in season,” he declared to Marbois next day, April 11. “ I renounce Louisiana. It is not only New Orleans that I cede ; it is the whole colony without reserve. Have an interview with Mr. Livingston this very day.”

Livingston heard from Bonaparte that day, but it was through Talleyrand, the foreign minister. With calm duplicity Talleyrand asked Livingston how much he would give for Louisiana, but pretended he spoke without authority. Livingston, as well as Monroe, to whom he communicated Talleyrand’s offer, was startled. Well they might be. The offer was far beyond their instructions and plans. It was beyond their wildest hopes.

The negotiations between Talleyrand and Marbois on the one side, and Livingston and Monroe on the other, culminated in a treaty dated April 30, 1803, by which, for the payment of $15,000,000 by the American government, Louisiana, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and including New Orleans on the east side of the river, was added to the domain of the United States.


Why did Bonaparte cede Louisiana to the United States? There were several reasons. Some of them are part of world politics. Like Sheridan, he felt that the treaty of Amiens settled nothing and pleased nobody. Lord Grenville said that by the terms of that adjustment “ England gave up everything, and France nothing.” But the terms were not carried out by either side. England distrusted Bonaparte and kept Malta, which she had stipulated to surrender. March 12, 1803, a month before the First Consul announced to Marbois that he would sell Louisiana, he said to Lord Whitworth, the British Ambassador at Paris, “ I must either have Malta or war.” Whitworth told Livingston about this immediately afterward, and at once notified the London government. Unquestionably Bonaparte knew at that time that war was inevitable. War was declared by England in May, shortly after the Louisiana cession was signed. Bonaparte was aware that French occupation of Louisiana would make the United States an enemy of his at a time when most of the nations of Europe were to be arrayed against him. He felt that if he attempted to hold the territory, England, by her command of the sea, might wrest it from him. He needed money to prosecute his war. By selling Louisiana he would keep it out of his old rival’s hands, would gain the friendship of the United States, and would get money.

These were some of the obvious reasons for the transfer. There were other reasons, which were not so obvious to the average person then, but which can be made plain now. Some of them were undoubtedly grasped by Bonaparte. The Americans belonged to a world-conquering race. As Bonaparte knew, their ancestors, eighteen centuries earlier, in the Teutonberg forest, under Arminius, destroyed Varus and his army, drove the Romans out of Germany, and kept them out, though Rome, then under Augustus, its greatest emperor, was at the summit of its power. In the fifth century, the descendants of Rome’s conquerors, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, landed in England, exterminated or drove out the Celts and the other Romanized inhabitants of Britain, and took possession of the country. These victors’ descendants landed in Jamestown and Plymouth in the seventeenth century, exterminated the Indians or brushed them out of their path, held the Spaniards at bay at the south, helped England to drive the French out of Canada, and then drove England out. For eighteen hundred years their march had continued without interruption, and that march had been westward. No ground which they occupied was ever lost. Wherever their flag went up, it stayed up. Their march’s momentum, moreover, was constantly growing. Eleven and a half centuries passed between the landing in Britain and the landing at Jamestown. A century and three quarters took them from Jamestown to the Alleghanies. And now, just as the older branch of the race, with which Bonaparte’s country had been warring for over seven centuries, had carried its flag from Canada to India, encircling the globe, the younger and more vigorous offshoot of the family, bursting through the barriers of the Appalachians, had pushed its vedettes to within sight of the Mississippi. Terror at this menacing movement was one of the reasons which incited Spain, as a protection to her Mexican territory, which she valued far more highly than Louisiana, to throw France as a barrier across the path of the American advance.

To the imagination of Bonaparte, the soldier and the fatalist, this march without retreat or reverse was majestic, tremendous. On the banners of this oncoming host, headed by the men of the western wilds, he read Crécy, Agincourt, and Quebec. And, still more imminent and portentous, there were the names of Bunker Hill, King’s Mountain, and Vincennes. The Hengist, Horsa, and Cerdic of the western legions were there, — Boone, Robertson, and John Sevier. There, too, he discerned the westerners’ Arminius, George Rogers Clark. Jefferson, the civilian, had seen in the shouts of the Kentuckians and the Tennesseans for immediate war against France, upon the news of the transfer of Louisiana by Spain to France, only a restlessness and an irritation which the possession of the Floridas and New Orleans by the United States might appease. If he could get possession of the east bank of the Mississippi, Jefferson would be willing to guarantee to France the west bank. Bonaparte, clearer-eyed and larger-visioned, knew that the west bank would be wrested from France within a few years, even if circumstances permitted him to occupy it then. It was not Jefferson who gained the territory west of the Mississippi. Nor was it Santo Domingo’s war, or the war then about to open between France and England, which was destined to last a dozen years, and to end at Waterloo. These merely determined the time and the conditions of its acquisition. It was the might of the American people, particularly of their western contingent, the heirs of the traditions and fortunes of a world-mastering race, which won Louisiana for the United States.


“ We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our lives ! ” exclaimed Livingston to Monroe and Marbois, — one of the framers of the Declaration of Independence to a man even then seen to be in the line of succession to the presidency, and to one of Bonaparte’s most experienced and most trusted ministers, — after their signatures had been put to the treaty of cession. Livingston did not exaggerate the importance of the transaction. It was the first and greatest step in national expansion ever taken by the United States, and it made all subsequent steps — the acquisition of Florida, Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines — inevitable. To a country comprising 827,844 square miles it added 1,171,931 square miles. Within this region there are now, in whole or in part, chiefly in whole, twelve states and the territory of Oklahoma and the Indian Territory. One of Louisiana’s states, Missouri, ranks fifth in population among the forty-five states of the Union, and one of its cities, St. Louis, stands fourth on the roll of the country’s cities. The Louisiana region has to-day about 15,000,000 of the 75,000,000 population of the United States.

But the strictly physical effects of the acquisition were in themselves less important than were the moral consequences. “ The Constitution,” said Jefferson in a private letter written after the acquisition, “ has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our Union,” and he proposed amendments to legalize the transaction. His political friends, however, had none of his constitutional scruples, and the proposed amendments were never presented in Congress. John Randolph, Wilson Cary Nicholas, John Taylor, and others, all as ultra strict constructionists as Jefferson himself, contended that the President and Congress had ample authority to make the purchase ; Gallatin and some of the others found it in the treatymaking power, just where Chief Justice Marshall afterward declared it to be. But if these men had promulgated this doctrine a year or two before 1803, they would have landed themselves in the Federalist camp. On this theory the treaty was ratified by the Senate, and the appropriation to put it in operation was carried through Congress, in both branches of which Jefferson’s party was overwhelmingly predominant. Jefferson himself became reconciled to this exercise of power before Congress acted, and said he should “ acquiesce with satisfaction ” in the views of his friends, “ confiding that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects.”

Thus, in 1803, did the author of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 “acquiesce ” in the exercise of governmental powers far more sweeping and destructive to his own particularist theories than were those against which that deliverance was directed. The strict constructionist theory of constitutional interpretation broke down long before the first term of the first strict constructionist President was ended. As Jefferson’s Republican (Democratic) party controlled the government, with only two short periods of interruption, from 1801 to 1861, the change of front which the Louisiana legislation forced had mighty historic consequences for the country.

In many concrete ways the Louisiana acquisition has profoundly altered the current of political and social thought in the United States down to the present hour. The states carved out of it (like, of course, all the states except the original thirteen), being creations of Congress, had none of the old state sovereignty notions which threatened to destroy the Union many times, and which attempted to do this in 1861-65. The abundance of fertile lands at low prices in the territory which France sold to us attracted millions of emigrants from Europe, all of whom were nationalists in sentiment; all of whom, by settling in the northerly part of the region, helped to give the free states their preponderance over the slave states, when the inevitable conflict came, and contributed their quota to the armies of the Union. The country saw the nationalizing effects of the Louisiana legislation and ideas when, during the strike in 1894, President Cleveland, of the state rights party, sent soldiers into Illinois to enforce federal laws, against the fierce protests of that state’s executive, Governor Altgeld. By one of the ironies of politics, the state sovereignty party established the policy which destroyed state sovereignty.

The necessity that the Mississippi River should be controlled through its entire length by one nation was one of the demands which would have forced the annexation of Louisiana ultimately. Jefferson told Dupont de Nemours, just before the annexation, that the control of the Mississippi is so “indispensable to us that we cannot hesitate one moment to hazard our existence for its maintenance.” “ The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” exultantly exclaimed Lincoln in 1863, when Grant at Vicksburg supplemented the work done by Farragut and Butler at New Orleans in 1862. Without the nationalizing influences generated by the purchase of this new territory, there was a chance that Hayne instead of Webster would have been the recognized interpreter of the Constitution ; that the ideas of Jefferson Davis, and not those of Abraham Lincoln, would have triumphed in 1861-65 ; and that the little country shut in on the east side of the Mississippi might have been split up into two or three diminutive and discordant nations like those of Central and South America.

Even Jefferson, one of the most sanguine men of his day, had some doubts regarding the success of the democratic experiment which was being tried in this country ; for he said in 1804, before the effects of his purchase began to reveal themselves, that “ whether we remain in one confederacy or divide into Atlantic and Mississippi confederations I believe not very important to the happiness of either part.” The possession of the western territory ultimately banished all peril of a dismemberment of the Union, and made real democracy — the spirit which, radiating from the United States, incited the Central and South American countries long ago to expel Spain ; which has registered itself in the political reforms of the past half or two thirds of a century in England, France, Germany, and other nations ; which established a confederation in Canada in 1867, and in Australia in 1899 ; and which has just brought Japan into the family of modern states — for the first time in the world’s history a working principle in government. At the same time, it gave us a purpose and a strength which enabled us to round out our territorial boundaries to conform to the demands of physical geography, by compelling Spain to give up Florida ; by peopling Texas and making that republic a part of the United States; by sending settlers into Oregon who won that region for the nation ; and by acquiring, through conquest and purchase, the territory of New Mexico and California which placed our boundary line along the great western ocean.

These expansions and triumphs have in the lapse of time profoundly changed American ideas as to the country’s ultimate place and purpose among the nations. The country which had 827,000 square miles of territory at the time of Washington’s first election has 3,600,000 now, exclusive of the accessions made in 1898. The population of 3,000,000 at that time has been increased to 75,000,000 at present, and the national wealth, which was about $1,000,000,000 at that time, has expanded to $90,000,000,000 to-day. No other civilized nation except Russia has so many inhabitants as the United States. This country’s wealth equals that of the United Kingdom and France combined, the nations which stand second and third respectively on this roll. A trip round the world occupied over two years at the time when, in 1792, the Yankee skipper Gray sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River, and the United States obtained its first claim to Oregon. When the Trans-Siberian railroad, now in process of construction, is completed, the globe can be encircled in thirty-three days. In time required for transit, the Philippines are as near New York as Missouri was when Jefferson bought it.

In his first inaugural, Jefferson said that the United States, then bounded on the west by the east bank of the Mississippi, and shut off from the Gulf of Mexico by the Spanish territory of East and West Florida, had room enough for our people to the “ thousandth and thousandth generation.” A United States three times larger than the one Jefferson had in mind has filled up most of its waste places in three generations. Jefferson, who was thought to be a visionary in his time, did not, and could not, foresee the steamboat, locomotive, and telegraph. The sweeping changes of conditions which have taken place in the United States since the beginning of the century have rendered obsolete some of the counsel appropriate for the early days, and have altered the entire perspective of the American people.

Frémont, hoisting the stars and stripes at San Francisco in the later forties, and looking through the Golden Gate at the broad Pacific, probably asked, “ Is this the end of the westward march of the American race ? ” Dewey’s guns in Manila Bay on that fateful May day of 1898 were the answer. A new pathfinder has blazed new paths to the spread of American civilization, influence, and power. “ The settlers in Oregon wdll open to us the North American road to India. It lies through the South Pass and the mouth of the Oregon.” The spirit voiced in these words of Benton when the nation was striving for a boundary on the Pacific is more vital than ever, but the goal has been advanced. A richer prize than India lies before us. Dewey has opened to us, by way of the Philippines, the gateway to China. The world’s future is in the keeping of three countries, — Russia, England, and the United States. In the race for universal empire, the two AngloSaxon nations, whose paths henceforth are likely to lie parallel, have an immeasurable superiority over Russia, and the larger, more progressive, expansive, and resourceful branch of the race is the American people, —

“ The heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time.”

In this story of the continuous advance of the American race and its progenitor and present collateral branch across the continents there are no accidents. All the triumphs are the result of the operation of clearly recognized forces. No link in the chain of occurrences could have been spared. Midway, not in time, but in the sequence of events, between Arminius’ liberation of the Teutonic family of men from Roman thralldom and America’s enfranchisement in 1898 of the last of the peoples subject to the nation which was once the most powerful of Rome’s progeny, stands Jefferson’s territorial acquisition of 1803. The Louisiana expansion was a step in the conquest of a world.

Charles M. Harvey.