Buying the Dream

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Spain, France, and England had now and then regarded the youthful republic as a potential ally, or at least a quiet neutral. President Jefferson had worked to establish a foreign policy that would play them against one another and reflect the position he had set forth so succinctly in his first inaugural address: "We see no enemies at home or abroad; we spend little to protect ourselves and we mind our own business."

Madison directed foreign policy along pacific lines also, and Gallatin had minded business so well that the country enjoyed good credit, a bit of budget surplus, and excellent connections with major bankers at home and abroad.

Easter week in Paris, 1803, was truly momentous for the young United States of America. The American Minister to France, Robert R. Livingston, was deep in negotiations – initiated by direct command of the First Consul, Napoleon Buonaparte1 – to discuss the difficult question of New Orleans, the Mississippi and Franco-American relations. A springtime warmth suffused the international atmosphere.

Livingston had been sent to Paris, in Jefferson's words, because "the cession of Louisiana and the Floridas by Spain to France works most sorely on the United States." Spain had held the territory since the end of the Seven Years War (1756-63), or the French and Indian War, as Americans termed it. In secret moves culminating in the Treaty of San Idelfonso, France had reclaimed the area in 1800, but left Spanish officials in charge. For a time, Spain had allowed unfettered commercial traffic on the lower Mississippi River, but royal pique toward both the U.S. and France had led to an abrupt, threatening closure of the river: New Orleans was no longer open to American ships, and Americans west of the Alleghenies were landlocked. Jefferson immediately dispatched his Virginia protege, James Monroe, to Paris to reinforce Livingston. Monroe arrived at Le Havre on Good Friday 1803. On Easter Sunday Napoleon, 100 miles away in Paris, learned of his arrival by semaphore.2

Napoleon possessed an agile mind, imperial demeanor, and an enormous need for money. If the sale of a territory he already considered to be American could bring in some ready cash, why not sell it? These thoughts crystallized at High Mass on that Easter Sunday. Completing his worship, he called for his minister of the treasury, Marquis Francois de Barbe-Marbois (barb-mar-bwah). Marbois had served in the U.S. and married an American woman, and was a good friend of Jefferson, partly because of his friendships in the United States.

Napoleon made it clear that he wanted to sell the whole of Louisiana to the Americans. "They only ask of me one town in Louisiana, but I consider the colony as entirely lost." He was referring to the ongoing American settlement in the Mississippi valley; to his devastating losses in his attempt to reinstate slavery in Haiti; to the might of the British navy, which controlled access to the New World; and to Jefferson's wish to purchase at least a small piece of land near New Orleans where goods coming down the Mississippi could be deposited for transfer to seagoing ships.

At midnight, April 13, Livingston sent a dispatch to Madison: "I have just come from the Minister of the Treasury [Marbois]. Our conversation was so important, that I think it necessary to write it." Livingston and Monroe committed their country to pay France sixty million francs for the Louisiana Territory and twenty million to settle claims American merchants and shippers had lodged against France after the short, bitter naval near-war of 1799. The Mississippi, New Orleans, the vast lands west of the river and the Gulf Coast eastward3 were going to be American. Livingston concluded his dispatch: "every moment is precious."

Indeed it was. Negotiations between the Americans and the French went on for a month; they would have taken at least three months had Livingston and Monroe taken the time to communicate with Washington, D.C. Just a few weeks after that business was concluded, war again erupted between France and England. Old Europe continued to tear itself apart. The American people had taken a giant step toward realizing a cherished dream.


1. In post-revolutionary France, the maelstrom of domestic intrigue and international strife resulted a series of new governments, including, in 1795, a five-man executive committee called the Directory. Four years later, on November 10, 1799, the Directory was overthrown and replaced by three Consuls--administrators. From their first meeting Bonaparte assumed the leading role.

2. Semaphore was a long-distance visual telegraph system invented and named by Claude Chappe in 1794, during the French Revolution. A similar system, developed in 1795 in England, was used in the U.S. until electric telegraphy was introduced by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1837.

3. This was a misunderstanding. The French had no claim to most of the eastern Gulf Coast, nor Florida. During Monroe's presidency, Spain was persuaded, partly by General Andrew Jackson's soldiers, to cede all of Florida to the United States.