The Louisiana Purchase: Chance or Destiny?

“Pondering the degree to which accident could overturn the schemes of wise men, Prince Bismarck once concluded that there was a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States. Indeed there is much to be said for the argument that America has survived and grown strong by a miraculous streak of luck that, at one turning point after another, has directed fortune its way.”So writes OSCAR HANDLIN, Professor of History at Harvard and author of The Uprooted, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1951. This is the second of a series of five articles, each focused on a major event in American history.



AMERICANS faced west in the year 1800. A driving energy had spilled them across the Alleghenies and they now edged over the open plains toward the western extremities of the country. The Mississippi set a limit to the explored territory. Beyond the Mississippi was undisturbed space. In the vast interior of the continent cities would arise, a bountiful soil would yield crops of unparalleled magnitude, and stores of mineral wealth would ultimately come to light. As yet, however, the most fertile imagination could not conceive the future of these immense spaces. Louisiana from the great river to the unknown mountains remained empty. Only the occasional bands of roving Indians disturbed its primeval calm.

Perhaps it was the destiny of this land to be American — to await the conglomerate hosts from New England and the South and from all the ends of Europe who were to make its potentialities real. But without the avarice of a woman, the miscalculations of an emperor, and a trick of the climate, Louisiana might long have remained foreign soil, an imposing barrier in the way of any future thrust to the Pacific.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, Louisiana was Spanish. It had been handed over to Spain by the French after the French and Indian War as part of the price of alliance. In Madrid little value was put on the new province, except as a kind of buffer state covering the approaches to the northern border of Mexico. Only the city of New Orleans was considered of any importance at all. Here as elsewhere, the Spanish Bourbons were no longer prepared to recognize opportunity in the New World. An inexorable paralysis had settled upon the court, and its lack of ability would shortly lose it the whole of its American empire. The royal family was foredoomed to futility and knew it. From a description of a royal hunt sent back to London by the English ambassador emerges a fleeting insight into the blankness of the Bourbon lives. Before a large crowd, the king, surrounded by his household, stood for hours at the railed enclosures and stolidly pumped bullets into the herd of two thousand deer as the chasseurs drove them in. A little later the pleasures of the chase were further simplified when six fieldpieces, fired at the royal command, relieved the king of the necessity for holding his gun.

In the family portraits, though nowhere else, the monarch, Charles IV, stood in the foreground. He was in his forties when he came to the throne, and the best years of his manhood had been wasted. Neither the regalia of his office nor the elaborate uniforms he occasionally affected could give dignity to his irresolute stance, his paunchy figure, and the sagging muscles of his face.

Charles lived in a constant state of indecision. Conscious of his heritage, he was wrapped up in a ceremonial veneration of the past. The corridors of his mind, like the corridors of his palaces, were packed with the gloomy mementos of a once glorious history. Lost in the dim past, he was disposed to overlook the present.

Yet Charles had strange flashes of awareness of the events that had been shaking Europe for a decade. He respected the achievements of the French Revolution and had unbounded admiration for the young Napoleon, who was now moving to the head of the French state. Charles in fact was torn by conflicting romantic reveries. One minute he dreamed of emulating his ancestors; the next, of putting himself at the head of the new popular forces of revolution. Vacillating between the two courses, he almost never acted of his own accord, but allowed himself to bo pushed about as the pawn of others.

He was certainly not the husband for Maria Louisa, his queen. His weak will could hardly curb a woman of violent passions. In this relationship, too, resignation and indecision were his predominant characteristics.

With Maria Louisa herself it was altogether another matter. Born a Bourbon, she had been married to her cousin at the age of fourteen. Essentially of a wilful, sensuous nature, she had grasped avidly at pleasure and power. The man in her husband had never satisfied her; although she used fits of jealous temper to keep him under her thumb, she had left herself free to move through a succession of lovers in the court. In Goya’s famous portrait of her, she stares out at us, bold and unashamed. There is a coquetry in the glimpse of her tiny shoes, and the jeweled arm that holds a fan is strong and vigorous. Yet the flouncy, low-bosomed gown does not conceal the middle-aged shapelessness of her figure. And her mouth is firmly shut. For by this time Maria Louisa has lost all her teeth; and although the artificial set made for her sparkles with jewels, she prefers to see herself portrayed in the full flush of unblemished youth.

In any earlier era, rigid rules of etiquette and religious sanctions would have set restraints upon the emotions of such a woman. But the revolutionary disturbances in ideas as well as politics had overthrown the world of stable patterns of behavior. Without the guidance of external rules, Maria Louisa became a creature of capricious selfindulgence, prepared for her own gratification to betray both Charles as wife and Spain as queen.

Louisiana was nothing to her; a corner in Italy was more precious than the whole of America. At the moment, her main concern was to find an Italian throne for her brother, the Duke of Parma. Ever since the French had become the masters of northern Italy she had plotted an accommodation with them that would fulfill her desires. And there were few considerations Maria Louisa allowed to stand in the way of gratification of her desires.

In the entourage of the court she found an ally physically and temperamentally more her type than the indecisive Charles. In the shadows behind both monarchs moved the indistinct figure of Manuel de Godoy. Here indeed was an example of the deterioration in Spanish statesmanship. Godoy had come to Madrid a round-faced boy of seventeen, to serve in the royal Garde de Corps. He had attracted the queen’s fancy and, though many years her junior, had become her lover. His devotion was amply rewarded, for in 1792, at the age of twenty-five, he became his sovereign’s chief minister.

An unprincipled adventurer, Godoy treated men and states as pieces on a chessboard with which he played for his own advantage and for the sake of the game itself. Shrewd enough to know the weakness of his own side, Godoy had correctly assessed the insecurity of the Spanish state as well as the faults of his king and the vanity of his queen. As he made his moves, he kept in mind the positions on the board, but also the possibility that at some point in the game he might prefer to sell out.


WHAT was Louisiana to those who guided the destiny of the Spanish state? A useless expanse of unknown wilderness, costly to administer and populated only by fifty thousand rude and resentful colonists. In Madrid the territory seemed serviceable only in so far as it might be traded off for some more valuable possession.

By contrast, in the French scheme of things Louisiana had again and again reflected the gleam of imperial dreams. The Mississippi region had been the stake of a great colonial contest that the French Bourbons had bitterly fought and lost. For a century their intrepid soldiers and priests had struggled against desperate odds to link the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi in a vast French dominion reaching from Quebec to New Orleans. The most extravagant hopes had been attached to this truly majestic conception: that the English colonies might be confined to their narrow, precarious coastline; that a thriving French population might grow in Louisiana; and that valuable stores of furs and other raw materials might flow back to enrich the mother country.

Military failures had knocked apart the whole brilliant design. In the successive wars against England, the maritime provinces had been lost, then Canada and the Lakes, and finally Louisiana itself.

Now the Bourbons were gone, but the old dreams had not disappeared. The revolutionary Directory that had assumed power in 1795 was aggressive and dynamic, determined — out of self-interest and zeal — to expand the power of France. And the English remained foes of the French at every point at which their interests collided. Once again, as the century drew to a close, Louisiana became a factor in the strategic pattern of Anglo-French conflict.

In the war which began in 1792, the French had hoped for American assistance and had been disappointed. The struggling young republic was apparently not ready to sacrifice its own interests out of gratitude for French aid in the War of Independence. On the contrary, it was establishing ever closer ties with England. Jay’s treaty of 1795 between the United States and Great Britain revealed the extent to which America had shifted from a French toward an English orientation. Two years later, Yankees and Frenchmen were engaged in undeclared war at sea.

The threat of an Anglo-American alliance, or even of a rapprochement, frightened the Directory. Should those two powers draw together, France would confront an unbeatable combination of naval strength. If the Americans could not he won over to an alliance, they must at least be prevented from joining forces with the British.

None knew this better than the new French minister of foreign affairs, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who had just returned to France to take up that post after thirty months of exile in the United States. Two careers were already behind him. The younger son of a noble family, he had hobbled through life as a cripple. While he was still a youth, his parents, despairing of a more active future for him, had thrust him into the Church. As Bishop of Autun he had seemed destined to live out his days in the charge of a provincial see, occupying himself with its petty administrative business and enjoying its moderate serenity.

The Revolution had been the opportunity his fierce ambition craved. Flouting convention and disregarding his own clerical position, he had plunged into the violent struggle for political place that followed the collapse of the old regime. But the man was wary; the guillotine piled up too much evidence of the consequences of failure. And although Talleyrand showed a striking ability to recognize the winning side, he had reckoned it healthier to leave the country in 1792.

Before too long, however, he was back, prepared to take a hand in the diplomatic game. Like Godoy, he was not one to allow conceptions of morality or reasons of state to complicate the rules for him. But unlike Godoy, he played the pieces of a great power. If he had also the finesse and suavity of an experienced player, these characteristics by no means concealed the iron determination with which he made his moves.

Talleyrand had become convinced that the interests of France, and his own, were antithetical to those of the United States. His own stay in the New World had persuaded him that American democracy was a danger to the society of the Old World, and that the manners and customs of the American people would inevitably make them allies of the English. American friendship, he concluded, was of little value, and the expansive tendencies of the Yankees threatened France. The best defense under such circumstances was attack. Possession of Louisiana would give France a base from which to hold the presumptuous Americans in check.

Shortly after the conclusion of Jay’s treaty, therefore, the French began to plan the reacquisition of Louisiana. In principle, the Spaniards were quick to consent; by 1796 the draft of a secret treaty was ready. As to the details, however, Godoy and the queen would still have something to say.

Few diplomatic negotiations in the eighteenth century were, after all, concluded as easily as that. Even though both sides agreed as to ends, there was ample opportunity for haggling over the proper terms of payment. In the maneuvering that followed, Talleyrand had the advantage of superior forces. Godoy, on the other hand, could take refuge only in the evasiveness at which he was a master. The bargaining proceeded at a snail’s pace throughout the next four years. The French, preoccupied elsewhere, found the Spanish tactics annoying, yet not enough so for an open break; and Godoy, urged on by the queen, continued to hold out for the highest price for Louisiana. The key to these intricate moves was the pourboire for Maria Louisa’s needy brother, the Duke of Parma.


OF THESE negotiations the Americans were aware. For them, however, Louisiana was more than a mere pawn on the diplomatic chessboard. The pioneers had come over the mountains, following the river valleys which were their lines of advance to the West. The cleared-out farmlands and the towns along the way were the evidences of their steady progress. But they depended on communication with the outside world for disposal of their raw material and for the import of those goods that lifted their lives above savagery.

The river system was the vital artery of interior trade for the United States. The mountains cut off all easterly traffic in heavy commodities. Down the Ohio drifted the flat boats and rafts, laden with provisions that were the products of the year’s labor of many families. Many a farm lad, perched wide-eyed on the barrels of pork, watched the stream’s twisting course, saw it merge with the Mississippi, and found himself, weeks later, entranced by the sight of New Orleans across the marshes.

This was the great metropolis of the West. It held the imagination of Americans because of the fascination of its Creole culture, because of its exotic flavor, and because of the crucial part it played in their economy. For here western produce was unloaded and transferred to the vessels that would carry it over the world. Upon the free flow of goods through this entrepôt hung the welfare of every farm in the West.

New Orleans had always been foreign territory for Americans. But since it guarded the gateway to the Mississippi, the United States had long struggled to secure trade through the city against arbitrary interruption. In 1795, as the result of an arduous mission to Madrid, Thomas Pinckney had broken through the procrastination of the Spanish court and had negotiated a moderately favorable commercial treaty. The pact recognized the right of Americans freely to navigate the Mississippi, and extended to them the privilege of depositing their goods in New Orleans for transshipment. These concessions, anxiously anticipated and highly valued in the new republic, thereafter were fixed points of American diplomacy to be defended at almost any cost.

As the American envoys in Paris and Madrid got wind of the dealings that might restore Louisiana to France, they recognized the threat to the position in New Orleans that American merchants had laboriously won. France could resist pressure from the United States as Spain had not; and the Directory, already hostile, might be tempted to strike at America by choking off the Mississippi trade. If the cession could not be avoided, it was of the utmost importance to secure some advance recognition from the French of the special American interests in Louisiana.


THIS atmosphere of relative stalemate persisted throughout the closing years of the eighteenth century. In Madrid, in Paris, in Washington, the diplomats continued to compose their crafty notes. Godoy, the Queen of Spain, Talleyrand, and Robert R. Livingston, the American envoy to Paris, weighed their calculating words as if these alone would be decisive. Only along the frontier of Louisiana was there movement, as impatient men sifted in along the border whether the Spaniards wished it or not.

The apparent calm was shattered by the initiative of the most decisive actor in the drama. As the new century began, Louisiana acquired a place in the calculations of Napoleon, the First Consul of France.

Imperial visions had always dazzled the Corsican. As he looked back over the distance he had already come in a decade, his mind leaped ahead in eager expectation to what might be in store for him. The Revolution had made everything possible. It had turned a corporal into the ruler of France. It might yet do more.

One dazzling military success after another inflated his dreams, which became increasingly spectacular, and his steadily growing power fixed the image of empire in his ambitious mind.

At first, the empire of his imagination had been situated in the exotic East. Napoleon saw himself as the liberator and master of the fabled Orient, successor to Alexander the Great and the Caesars. But the failure of his Egyptian expedition and the likelihood of conflict with England in that area changed the direction of his thoughts. Now his visions focused upon an American setting. Josephine, herself a Creole, may have fired his imagination with her descriptions of the lush islands set in the azure seas of the Caribbean. Or, it may be, he suddenly realized that the New World might offer more scope for his rising star than the Old. In any case, Napoleon set about building an American empire for France.

Napoleon’s vision of a New France differed significantly from that of the Bourbons. it was not to the frozen St. Lawrence or to the remote forests of Canada that Napoleon’s mind turned, but to the tropical islands of the West Indies. Santo Domingo was already in his hands. Guadeloupe and Martinique had once been French and could be made so again. And as Spain’s hold on her Caribbean possessions weakened, other prizes would readily drop into the grasp of the strongest power on the spot.

In the past, the weakness of these islands had lain in their lack of a continental base. Rich in sugar, they were nevertheless compelled to depend for food and supplies on trade; and their remoteness from France rendered them vulnerable to naval attack. But suppose they were to be supplied with such a base! All the problems of the past would vanish!

It was in this form that Louisiana acquired a place in Napoleon’s dreams. His New France would extend its sheltering arms round the whole Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, taking in not only the islands but also Louisiana and the Floridas. Resting on a fulcrum at New Orleans, the two great areas of the empire could balance one another. The West Indian islands could produce the tropical staples precious in the markets of Europe. At the same time, a thriving French population in Louisiana could afford the islands military protection and also produce the grains and foodstuffs to feed them. Strong ties of commerce would hold the whole empire together and would attach it economically as well as militarily to France. This creation would be a counterweight to the perennial threat of superior British sea power.

Napoleon proceeded vigorously to make this imaginary empire a reality. The first step was to regain Louisiana.

Napoleon viewed the leisurely diplomatic negotiations in Madrid with impatience. The prospect that Godoy and the queen might continue to draw upon a seemingly endless series of pretexts for delay was intolerable. At Napoleon’s insistence, the Spaniards at last agreed to cede Louisiana to the French in the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. This stage of imperial aggrandizement was now complete.

The Americans were immediately affected. The prospect that the territory would shortly fall under Napoleon’s control lent urgency to the efforts of the Americans to secure the right of deposit for their goods at New Orleans. A special mission with that objective was now entrusted to Robert R. Livingston of New York.

Livingston was an excellent choice. He came from a distinguished family and had ably served the state and nation in several capacities. As a member of the Continental Congress, he had organized its department of foreign affairs. Although his name had not been attached to any of the spectacular negotiations of the past, he had had considerable diplomatic experience. Alore than that, he was animated hot h by a st rong sense of his country’s interests and by a feeling for the proprieties. He was attracted to the best in French culture and was as likely as any American to know his way about Paris.

Since his retirement from politics he had been living at Clermont, his estate on the Hudson, where he led the life of a country gentleman, patron of the arts and of agriculture. Without political ambition, he nevertheless understood the importance of the task now assigned him. He assumed the mission as a duty, knowing that its fulfillment would call for his most earnest efforts.

Livingston sailed with instructions either to prevent the retrocession of Louisiana to France, or, failing that, to attempt to purchase New Orleans and West Florida, He had not the least prospect of success. On arriving in Paris, he soon found that his every approach to the foreign ministry seemed doomed to futility. Talleyrand hardly bothered to be courteous, for there was no likelihood that Napoleon would give up the least part of his holdings in the Caribbean.

Indeed, the First Consul’s determination to establish his American empire was stronger than ever. The peace that was made with England in 1801 restored to France the West Indian islands which the British had previously captured. At the same time, an imposing expedition of twenty thousand men under General Leclerc was dispatched to restore order in Santo Domingo, where the violent Negro uprising under Toussaint L’Ouverture had by now run its course. By a combined display of force and cajolery the French were finally able to reach an understanding with the leaders of the Blacks. There remained only the matter of taking actual possession of Louisiana, of establishing a government there, and of making the territory permanently French. To this task, too, the First Consul energetically devoted himself.

In the summer of 1802, Napoleon prepared a great expedition to cross the Atlantic and to plant the French flag in New Orleans. In Holland, on the river Scheldt, a sizable armada of ships, thousands of soldiers, and vast stores of equipment were gathered under General Victor. In all, some 2 million francs were expended in the effort.

The expedition readied itself during the summer at the little Dutch town of Helvoet Sluys. But the occasions for delay seemed almost endless. Materials were difficult to come by and wore assembled slowly. Then, it seemed, no definite sailing date could be set, because the Spanish court continued its intolerable evasive tactics and had not yet actually issued the order to cede the territory to the French. Godoy and Maria Louisa apparently had not yet come to the end of their efforts to extort the maximum price in the bargain. Not until the middle of October, 1802, fully two years after the treaty had been signed, were the minister and the queen compelled to yield. At that point, General Victor’s expedition was instructed to prepare to depart.

Godoy’s evasive tactics had proved costly for the French. The months spent in waiting for action from Madrid had seen the summer and fall go by. Now the northern winter was beginning to close in. General Victor hastened his final preparations. One morning, as he was almost in readiness, he woke to find an advancing edge of frost moving across the harbor of Helvoet Sluys. Before he could act, the whole expedition was icebound.

The Dutch winter and the ice lasted through January and February, while Victor’s men consumed the supplies that should have carried them to Louisiana. Sitting idly in their quarters, the French commanders still planned the occupation and the government of the new territory; and when spring released the harbor from the grip of ice, the fleet once more prepared to set sail.

A violent storm occasioned a new delay of two weeks. But at last, in April, the troops were embarked. The pilots boarded the ships and were on the point of taking the fleet through the estuary to the open waters when a halt was called. Word had come that a courier bore dispatches from Paris. General Victor now learned to his amazement that the whole expedition had been recalled. Louisiana had been sold to the Americans. The delay had altered the plans of his government.


IN PARIS, the months had gone fruitlessly by for Livingston, idle against his will. He made no perceptible progress in his mission. In October, 1802, he had reached an impasse from which there was no apparent exit. Then, too, the whole problem was complicated by an act of deliberate mischief on the part of Godoy — an act directed against Napoleon but one that injured mostly the Americans.

Godoy had come bitterly to resent the pressure put on him by the French; and the queen not too delicately played upon his wounded vanity. Maria Louisa had been granted her Italian lands. But they were not the provinces for which she had hoped. Furthermore, they went not to her brother but to her nephew; nor had they yet actually been handed over. In the whole transaction, Maria Louisa and Godoy felt that Napoleon had been highhanded and arbitrary. Subtly they found an occasion for getting back at the First Consul by embroiling him with the Americans. If France was to have Louisiana, let it be with as many vexing problems as possible. A few days after Spain ordered the cession of Louisiana to the French, the governor at New Orleans, no doubt at Godoy’s instigation, withdrew the right of deposit accorded the Americans by Pinckney’s treaty.

For the farmers of the West, this was disastrous. Colonial produce could no longer float down the inland waters and be transshipped at New Orleans for export. The gates to the open world had been slammed shut. This was a blow not only at American trade but at America’s capacity to expand. Although the privilege was before long restored, the incident revealed dramatically that the Americans were right to fear their dependence upon an alien power at the mouth of the Mississippi. His earlier experiences with Talleyrand gave Livingston little ground for the belief that the French might be more tractable or more considerate of American interests.

Livingston had offered to pay 20 million francs for New Orleans and Florida. As an alternative, he was willing to let New Orleans become a free port. But he was still not hopeful that either proposal would be accepted, although James Monroe was on his way to assist in the negotiations. Yet as the winter passed in casual interchanges with Talleyrand, he found the rebuffs fewer. His suggestions were received with moderate politeness, and somehow conversations drifted to discussions of concrete terms. This was the most encouraging sign the Americans had yet had.

The change in attitude reflected a change in Napoleon’s plans. The ice that held his ships in the harbor at Helvoet Sluys altered his view of the whole situation. The winter went by and his American empire was no nearer reality. In January came disastrous news from the West Indies. Yellow fever had stricken General Leclerc’s army, swept away a substantial part of his manpower, and left him open to a defeat by the resurgent Negroes. The troops that should by then have been available in Louisiana to reinforce him were still in Holland. To establish the New World colony would now entail higher cost, more imposing difficulties than anyone had imagined a few months back.

Napoleon’s finance minister, François BarbéMarbois, was himself a Creole and knew at first hand the difficulties of establishing control in Santo Domingo. For years he had labored to bring order into the fiscal affairs of the French state, and his calculating mind was distressed by the prospect of new expenditures. Millions of francs would have to be devoted to a new expedition. Was it worth the cost ?

It was Napoleon’s strength neither to admit defeat nor to be trapped by stubborn adherence to a ruinous course. When confronted by a mistake, he had the consoling capacity to persuade himself that it was something else he had really wanted all along. So now, as the difficulties of establishing an American empire became clear, he concluded that the stakes were too high. His thoughts shifted back to Europe. Why should not his empire be in the Old World rather than the New? Shortly he would become emperor of the French, and already he was thinking of the entire continent as his domain.

Louisiana suddenly became a useless encumbrance. Napoleon might have restored it to the Spaniards. But the actions of the court, in Madrid had so antagonized him that any alternative seemed preferable. It was almost certain that his developing European ambitions would embroil him in difficulties with the English. And in the new war which would shortly break forth, there might be some value to American good will. In March, 1803, he determined to hand over the whole of Louisiana to the Americans.

Talleyrand waited until April to act. Then, in the midst of a casual conversation with Livingston, he proposed the sale of the whole territory. It took the startled envoy only a few minutes to leap at the suggestion, once he was sure his cars had not deceived him. Before the month was over, before General Victor could leave Helvoet Sluys, Louisiana was American for some $15 million.

The vast expanse between the Mississippi and the mountains was thus joined to the young American republic. President Jefferson realized at once the import of the windfall. Certainly as to the necessity of the purchase overcame whatever doubts he may have had as to his constitutional powers to effect it.

Shortly Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike would penetrate the unknown spaces of the territory. After them would come the bands of trappers and traders, and at last the numberless legions of husbandmen. Thanks to the ice that had formed across the waters of a remote Dutch harbor, the advancing host of American settlers moving westward towards the Pacific at a turning point in our history now found the way open before them.