Effects of the Louisiana Purchase|March 26, 1804

On March 26, 2024

Thomas Jefferson is most famous for eloquently articulating three natural rights that belong to “all men”—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But Jefferson held that humans had more than just those three rights; in 1803, he was particularly worried about “the natural right we have always insisted on with Spain; to wit that of a nation holding the upper part of streams, having a right of innocent passage thro’ them to the ocean” (Jefferson to Breckinridge, August 12, 1803). The Mississippi River was the stream to which Jefferson referred: stretching more than 2,300 miles, the Mississippi in 1803 formed the western border of American lands, flowing through Spanish territory to end in the Gulf of Mexico. In a 1795 treaty, Spain had recognized the right of Americans to float their goods down the Mississippi to land at the port city of New Orleans, before transferring those goods onto seagoing vessels for further trade.

In an 1802 letter, Jefferson commented that “Spain might have retained [New Orleans] quietly for years. Her pacific [peaceful] dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there, so that her possession of the place would be hardly felt by us.” Spain’s “feeble state” was a great comfort to America, since, as Jefferson put it, “there is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural & habitual enemy. it is New Orleans.” The territory of New Orleans, by which Jefferson also meant the Louisiana region stretching from the Gulf of Mexico up into the heartland of North America, was of vital importance to the United States, for through it “the produce of three eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from it’s [sic] fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants” (Jefferson to Livingston, 18 April 1802).

Jefferson hoped that Spain might soon be induced to transfer control of its North American territories to the United States. But feeble Spain instead signed over the Louisiana Territory to ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte in October 1802, and even before their official handover to the French, the Spanish government in New Orleans revoked American access to the port. Jefferson had long been a Francophile, but if Napoleon were in control of the Louisiana Territory, enmity would inevitably follow: it was “impossible that France and the US. can continue long friends when they meet in so irritable a position” (Jefferson to Livingston, 18 April 1802). Jefferson therefore sent emissaries, including young James Monroe, to France. Their instructions: attempt to purchase the city of New Orleans and all or part of the Floridas for $10 million.

In an incredible moment of providence, Monroe arrived in Paris just as Napoleon was changing his mind about Louisiana: the armies Napoleon had sent to re-conquer the formerly enslaved sugar laborers of Haiti were dying in droves, victims of tropical diseases spread by mosquitos. If French troops could not reestablish control over the sugar plantations of Haiti, it made little sense for France to keep hold of Louisiana—land which had been meant to produce food for the Haitian slaves, and which could be vulnerable to an invasion from British Canada. Thanks to the mosquito, Napoleon therefore decided to sell not only New Orleans, but the entire region of Louisiana—some 827,000 square miles—for the bargain price of $15 million. The Americans could not refuse.

The only complication caused by Napoleon’s impulsive offer was the chance that he might change his mind; Jefferson was pressed to overcome any constitutional scruples he may have had and complete the purchase as quickly as possible. As a strict constructionist, President Jefferson hated to make any move unless it was specifically authorized in the Constitution. However, knowing that negotiations regarding borders could drag on with Spain and England for years, Jefferson’s Cabinet persuaded him to abandon his plan for a constitutional amendment that would have given him the authorization to add Louisiana to the United States. Ultimately, Jefferson reasoned that “it is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; & saying to him when of age, I did this for your good” (Jefferson to Breckinridge, August 12, 1803). If the American people believed Jefferson had overstepped his bounds, they could let him know in the next election.

The people did not object, however; and the Senate ratified the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by a vote of 24 to 7. Although Jefferson’s amendment proved unnecessary, it is still a noteworthy document because of the insight it gives us into Jefferson’s hopes and concerns for the future of Native Americans. The draft amendment is almost entirely devoted to the rights of Natives; for example, the second sentence reads “The rights of occupancy in the soil, and of self-government, are confirmed to the Indian inhabitants, as they now exist.” Jefferson wished to ensure that Native people would maintain full legal title to the lands that they were currently settled on, and any lands not inhabited by Natives would be the property of the United States—settlers would need to purchase land directly from the American government, rather than being able to seize from or make treaties with Natives. Jefferson wished the government to form a protective barrier between the weakening Native tribes and the land-greedy American settlers.

Moreover, Jefferson saw the Louisiana lands as a sort of safety valve for the Native people living east of the Mississippi, who were also being increasingly squeezed by white settlers. From early in his political career, Jefferson had admired Native peoples and defended them against detractors, arguing that “the proofs of genius given by the Indians of North America, place them on a level with whites in the same uncultivated state” (Jefferson to Chastellux, 7 June 1785). Jefferson at first foresaw a future in which Native people would become more “civilized,” abandoning hunting as impractical and choosing instead to farm, most eventually becoming—through intermarriage and neighborly affection—one people with the European-descended Americans.

In a February 1803 letter to Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison, President Jefferson remarked that Natives “will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the US. or remove beyond the Missisipi [sic]”—or, if Natives attacked white Americans, the Natives should be forcibly driven “across the Missisipi, as the only condition of peace.” Jefferson was here attempting to balance his commitment to Natives’ natural right to self-government on their traditional lands with his commitment to the safety of American citizens. Ultimately, this balancing act would prove unsustainable.

On March 26, 1804, Congress passed a law regarding government of the newly acquired territory, with a section giving the president power to exchange Native lands in the east for U.S.-owned territory on the western side of the Mississippi. Some Native peoples did indeed sell their lands in the eastern United States for land in the Louisiana Territory. But not all Native people wanted to sell, and the small federal government proved unable to protect all American citizens from Native attacks, or to stop white settlers from encroaching on Native lands. Within a few years, Jefferson’s idealistic vision was replaced by more aggressive policies, such as the forced relocation of the Cherokee by President Andrew Jackson. What began as an issue of access to New Orleans became a matter of tremendous import to Native peoples, both east and west of the Mississippi, with consequences far beyond what Jefferson could possibly have foreseen. 


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