In 1803, Thomas Jefferson purchased 828 thousand square miles of land west of the Mississippi River from France. This purchase doubled the size of the existing country. This purchase was considered the greatest achievement of Thomas Jefferson's career. The land stretched from the Gulf of Mexico north to the Canadian border and from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains. It was called the Louisiana Territory.
France began to explore the Mississippi River Valley in the 1600's and had made settlements here and there. By the mid 1700's France controlled more land in what is now the United States than any other European country. In 1762 France gave over this Louisiana Territory to Spain. All other French holdings were given over to Great Britain in 1763. Spain did not settle or develop the Louisiana land, however.
In 1801, Spain signed a treaty to return the territory to France. This made the Americans worried. During the late 1700's settlers had been traveling west into the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. They wanted to be able to use the Mississippi River easily. Traveling down the Mississippi River gave them easy access to New Orleans.
Americans feared that the new emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, might take over New Orleans and block the way to the Gulf of Mexico. President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the United States minister to France, Frances Livingston, and warned him that if France took over the city of New Orleans, the Americans would join with the British. France and Great Britain were long-time enemies.
Livingston was supposed to contact Charles Talleyrand, the French minister. Yet, France didn't get around to taking over the territory. In 1798, however, the Spanish revoked a treaty of 1795, Pinckney's Treaty, which stated that Americans would be allowed to store goods in New Orleans, but in 1801, this right to store goods was restored to Americans.
President Jefferson sent Livingston to Paris to see if they would sell New Orleans to the United States. Both the Mississippi River and the city of New Orleans were very important for transporting goods out to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, in 1803, the French wanted to know if we wanted to buy the whole Louisiana Territory. It is thought that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France was having financial and other difficulties and just wanted to get rid of the land.
The price was agreed upon, and by December, the treaty was signed in Paris. France turned over all the land to the United States. This was called the Louisiana Purchase. The Americans paid $11,250,000 and took over claims of American against France for $3,750,000.
In 1804, a government was set up for the territory. Westward expansion began from east of the Mississippi River. In 1812, the first state from this huge piece of land, Louisiana, was admitted to the union. This huge tract of land cost the United States less than 3 cents an acre.
At the time of the decision to buy the whole Louisiana Territory, the Federalist Party said that it was unconstitutional to buy more land. President Jefferson said that he had the power to negotiate treaties, so that would be enough. He added that the Constitution did not forbid acquiring more land.
The Americans were negotiating to buy New Orleans and were willing to spend up to $10,000,000 for the city alone. They were astonished when Napoleon asked only $15,000,000 for the whole territory.
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