Analysis of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty

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The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 represented the time when the United States expanded to the West by buying an area previously owned by France for the price of 15 million dollars.[2] The purchase represented the major diplomatic success of a young nation and an opportunity to double its size and become a leading power. The area purchased would later become “the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, almost all of Oklahoma and Kansas, and large portions of what is now North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Colorado, and Louisiana.”[3] The treaty represented an interesting view of the relations between France and the US that promoted the sale of Louisiana by Napoleon Bonaparte. Additionally, the treaty also served to bring in a major political battlefield between the Federalists and Republicans concerning Article III of the treaty, raising the questions of whether the president can sign treaties and incorporate new people of a gained territory into the union. This research paper will analyze the treaty and delve into the context behind the purchase of Louisiana by dividing it into three parts: the first part devoted to the relations between France and the US, the second to the provision of the treaty and the third to the consequences of the treaty on the constitution and its interpretation.

The Relations between France and the USA

Prior to the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the relations between France and the United States of America in deep rift and experienced setbacks that led the two nations to be at war with each other unofficially. In the American side, it is known that the US received a great help in its war against Britain during the American Revolution, funding and weapons for the revolutionary warrior came directly from France. For instance, one of the major battles of the American Revolution in which America won was Yorktown, a battle that would not have been won without the help of the French navy.[4] This help did not come for free but was transformed into debt which the US agreed to pay to the kingdom of France. However, by 1792 France no longer was a monarchy but a republic exemplified by the execution of the last Bourbon king, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette in 1793.[5] Acting on this political novelty, the US chose to neutralize its country regarding the English-French war by abrogating the Alliance Treaty of Mutual Support between the kingdom of France and the United States of America. Then the US canceled paying the debt that was owed to the kingdom of France and not to the newly formed republic.[6] These two policies angered France and thus induced the two countries to be under unofficial war that was called the Quasi-War. Under these circumstances the Americans were wary when the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso of 1800 retroceded the territory of Louisiana from Spain, under King Charles IV, to the republic of France. What made the Americans feel anxious upon hearing about the secret treaty, was the possibility that French might refuse American access to the Port of New Orleans, which is of utmost importance to the Americans as it is the only way planters in the Ohio valley area could transport their goods to the American cities in the Atlantic coast. Therefore, many voices in the US such as Alexander Hamilton were asking for a military action to seize the port of New Orleans.[7]

Because Thomas Jefferson occupied the post of the American ambassador in France from 1785 to 1789, he was intending to solve the issue peacefully with France. Jefferson found an opportunity to address his fears of the French presence in the Louisiana territory through playing two sides as he accepted to help France during the slave revolution in Santo Domingo[8] to stop trading with the leader of the rebellion of Toussaint L’Ouverture, or at least prevent the slaves from getting any goods and at the same time abandoning his promise in a diplomatic way without igniting any conflict between the two countries. Jefferson`s decision to help France during its struggle can be explained through the fear of the Southerners from a spillover of the slave revolt.[9] However, Jefferson changed his mind when a large French army was noticed in the vicinity of Santo Domingo. As it is stated by Thomas Fleming:

When Pichon (a French diplomat in The US) sought help from Secretary of State Madison, he found himself answering difficult questions: Why was the French army so large? Shouldn’t Paris have explained the first consul’s plans before the expedition sailed? He also mentioned the report from Tobias Lear that part of the army was destined for Louisiana…He asked Madison to cooperate with France by allowing him to publish a letter announcing that trade with Santo Domingo was henceforth limited to ports controlled by France. He hoped Madison would publish a statement in support of this policy. Madison’s answer was a masterpiece of evasion. He said it was very difficult to control the “national spirit” of a nation as commercially minded as the United States. The Southern states might support such an embargo because they feared the rebellious message L’Ouverture personified. But the Northern states, already rather hostile to the South, would violate it with impunity to sell their products to L’Ouverture’s regime[10]

Secretary of State James Madison found a clever of way of both keeping good relations with France and at the same time making sure that the revolt in Santo Domingo would eventually exhaust the French soldiers and prevent them from making their way to Louisiana.

The United States of America at the beginning was not intending to buy the area of Louisiana, on the other hand the basic aim of Jefferson was to convince Napoleon Bonaparte to sell him the city of New Orleans. Jefferson was moved by the fear that foreign countries were intending to obtain the city hence, as the city serves to control the river of Mississippi, would jeopardize the right of America in the river. With Spain refusing to give access to Americans to use the river of Mississippi and access the port of New Orleans in 1798, due to a conflict between the US and Spain even though America signed the Pinckney Treaty, also known as San Lorenzo treaty, with Spain in 1795. Jefferson needed a way to let Americans gain access to the Mississippi River without being compelled to the desires of a foreign country. When Jefferson`s emissary, James Monroe, and Robert Livingston, proposed to Napoleon selling the city of New Orleans to the US, Bonaparte was ready to give not only the city but the whole area of Louisiana. The argument of Bonaparte was according to Thomas Fleming:

I can hardly say I cede it to them,” Napoleon admitted. “For it is not yet in our possession. [But] If I leave the least time to our enemies, I will transmit only an empty title to those republicans whose friendship I seek. They ask for only one town of Louisiana [New Orleans]; but I consider the whole colony as completely lost, and it seems to me that in the hands of that growing power, it will be more useful to the policy and even the commerce of France than if I should try to keep it.[11]

The readiness of Napoleon Bonaparte to not only sell New Orleans but also the whole territory of Louisiana surprised Jefferson and made him interested in buying the land. To his utmost astonishment, Robert Livingston was instructed by Thomas Jefferson to bargain a deal with Napoleon regarding the city of New Orleans and Florida with the price of 10 million dollars. At least, in case the deal was repudiated by Napoleon to at least obtain an agreement on the access to the port of New Orleans and the Mississippi river.[12] France`s Minister of the Treasury, François Barbé-Marbois, played a pivotal role in convincing Bonaparte to sell the territory by pointing to its uselessness without the colony of Santo Domingo. Jefferson as well as Bonaparte were keen on signing the treaty as soon as possible, because Jefferson needed access to the land before any foreign country contesting the treaty, mainly Britain and Spain, would try to invade the territory. While Bonaparte was eager to have money as soon as possible to finance his war adventures in Europe. Both Leaders were aware of the lack of legality in the Louisiana Purchase treaty due to Article III of the Treaty of San Ildefonso which states:

His Catholic Majesty promises and undertakes on his part to retrocede to the French Republic, six months after the full and entire execution of the above conditions and provisions regarding His Royal Highness the Duke of Parma, the colony or province of Louisiana, with the same extent that it now has in the hands of Spain and that it had when France possessed it, and such as it ought to be according to the treaties subsequently concluded between Spain and other states.[13]

The legal issue concerned the phrase that France will not cede the Louisiana territory to any foreign country. However, practicality won over legality and the legal issue was ignored, mainly due to the need of French empire for fund to cover its war expenses. As the United States could not summon the amount of 15 million dollars, Americans propose instead to sell their bonds to France and thanks to Baring and Company of London and Hope and Company of Amsterdam America was able issue 11.25 million dollars to cover its wars and empire building expenses.[14]

The Provisions of the Treaty

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed on April 30, 1803. The treaty includes 10 articles and the audience was the Americana and French public. The treaty begin by mentioning that the misunderstanding, embedded in Article III and Article V of the Convention of 1800 between the French Republic and the United States of America regarding the US claims based on the Treaty of Friendship Between Spain and The United States in October 27, 1795, would be solved upon the signature of the treaty. The American delegated to Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe the task of signing the treaty with Francis Marbois Minister of the public treasury from the French side.

Article I specified the right of France in the territory regardless of the provisions of Article III of St Ildefonso as France was the former owner of Louisiana territory before it was given to Spain. In Article I, France used the adjective “incontestable title”[15] to describe its ownership of the territory. Thus, Spain cannot compel France to not sell the land to any third party or dispute its title to the area. In addition, the treaty is seen as “strong proof of his (Napoleon) friendship”[16] to the United States. Therefore, the territory to be given to the US is the same one given to France by Spain as it was stipulated in the treaty of St Ildefonso with “with all its rights and appurtenances.”[17] Nevertheless, The Louisiana Purchase Treaty angered the Spaniards during its ratification by France and The US. First, because it violated Article III of the Treaty of San Ildefonso, and second, because Spain was not interested in seeing Louisiana under the hands of Americans as it will divert their attention to the silver mines in New Spain[18]. However, due to the military weakness of Spain, it eventually and reluctantly accepted the situation.

Article II stipulates that all the islands and territories, unless they are private property, are going to be in the possession of the US. Article III postulates the right of the inhabitants of Louisiana Territory to be given full rights just like the US citizens, based on the US constitution the federal government will protect the rights of freedom, respect of their property and religion. The fear from the mistreatment of the Louisiana inhabitants, who were predominantly Catholic, was generated from the fact that since the US is predominantly Protestant the right of Catholics will be transgressed. Furthermore, there is also the issue of private property of the inhabitants of the territory once it will be transferred to the US, the concern that the US might usurp them of their rights. In order to make sure that the points agreed on by both the government of France and the US are respected, Article IV states that France will send a “Commissary”[19] to the area of Louisiana to make sure that the provision of the treaty are all done without any problem.

Article V addresses the issue of the soldiers of both Spain and France that are already in the territory during the signature of the treaty. Upon signature of the treaty they will be under the command of the commissary appointed by Thomas Jefferson with the idea that they will be embarked to their countries in the period of three months. The purpose of lingering the stay of both Spanish and French soldiers was issued on the grounds of practicality, as the US did not know the whole region and the deployment of those soldiers will take time to prevent any conflict between the three militaries.

Article VI addresses the right of Indians that live in the territory and asking the US to abide by the treaties signed between Spain and Indians. Although France describes its title to the Louisiana territory as “incontestable,”[20] it is worth mentioning that France did not literally sell the land of Louisiana to the US but instead sold its claims to it, as the area was already inhabited by Indians.[21] The French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, did not even know the exact boundaries of the territory it was just speculated that the area covers “from the Canadian border to the mouth of the Mississippi, and from the western bank of the great river to “the Shining Mountains,” the Indian name for the Rockies.”[22]

Article VII stipulates that both France and Spain have the right to access the port of New Orleans without paying any duties other the one being paid by US citizens in the period of 12 years. At the same time, no other nation other than Spain and France would have the same privileges to the port of New Orleans. The bottom line was to not disturb the economic activities that were already in the territory by the treaty and to allow the people who did business in the area to adjust to the provisions of the treaty without losing their economic activities and protect their way of living. The period of 12 years will start after three months from the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. Nonetheless, even after the period of 12 years, France will still be treated as “the footing of the most favored nations”[23] in New Orleans port according to the words of Article VIII.

Besides the issue of US neutrality during France-England war, the major problem that prompted the Quasi-War, the question over the future of US debt towards France was addressed in the Louisiana Purchase Treaty under Article IX:

The particular Convention Signed this day by the respective Ministers, having for its object to provide for the payment of debts due to the Citizens of the United States by the French Republic prior to the 30th Sept. 1800 is approved and to have its execution in the Same manner as if it had been inserted in this present treaty, and it Shall be ratified in the same form and in the Same time So that the one Shall not be ratified distinct from the other.[24]

Article IX abides the US to continue paying its debt, prior to 1800, to France even though the regime in France has changed from a monarchy to a republic, thus solving a major issue as it was the reason behind the rift in the relations between the two countries after the French revolution took place in France. The agreement reached regarding the debt was of utmost importance to the French as they emphasized that the ratification of the treaty goes hand in hand with the ratification of the debt by making them two face of one coin.

Article X, points to the fact that the treaty shall be ratified in “the Space of Six months”[25] after the signature of the treaty, while bearing in mind that the original treaty is the French version which is understandable as the French are the ones who were selling the land. The treaty was eventually signed by Robert Livingston, James Monroe and Barba Marbois, while the exact date of signature is April 30 in the French version it was written as the tenth of Floreal.[26]

Regarding the English version of The Louisiana Purchase Treaty and apart from the difference in terms of French Republican Calendar, Article I included an excerpt from Article III of the Treaty of San Ildefonso in which the English verb “cede” was the equivalent of “rétrocéder” in the French version of the treaty.[27] The verb retrocede implies that the area of Louisiana was in prior possession of France whereby the verb “retrocede” means return back while the verb cede overlooks the fact that Louisiana was a French territory in the beginning, and instead deems it as a transfer of Spanish territory. In fact, the first settlers in Louisiana were the French, however due to the defeat of France and its allies (Spain) in the Seven Years War against England between 1756 and 1763. France decided to give the area to Spain under the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to compensate for the Spain’s loss of Florida.[28] The use of the word “cede” by Americans implies that Americans were not interested in allowing the French to one day come and ask for the territory again, they had with Spain.

The Consequences of the Treaty on the US Constitution and its Interpretation

Thomas Jefferson might have won the battle over the illegality of the treaty as it transgressed Article III of San Ildefonso Treaty. However a battle was awaiting him internally over the constitutionality of the treaty. The interpretation of constitution was a major issue that divided the two parties in congress. The Republicans were saying that anything that was not included in the constitution is unconstitutional while the Federalists wanted to broaden the constitution to give more influence to the central government. This line of reasoning changed with the Federalist resorting to a narrow and limitless interpretation of the constitution in contrast with the Republicans who were aiming for a broad interpretation of the constitution to allow the integration of Louisiana territory into the union. The origin of the sudden change of both parties has to do with the concern of New England that allowing the US to grow West would hurt its electoral power.[29] They were not against the inquisition of Louisiana as a territory as they were also hoping to enlist Canada into the union but for political reasons the Louisiana Purchase was threatening to the Federalist Party. Ironically, it was the states of New England who paid for the Louisiana Purchase due to its high import duties compared to the South.[30]

Jefferson was faced with a dilemma: he is republican who is strict to label any policy that is not described in the constitution as unconstitutional and simultaneously wanting to find a loophole for the treaty to be constitutional. Basically, Thomas Jefferson wanted to buy the Louisiana territory without the need to ferret the constitution for any provision that would make the purchase legal. President Jefferson faced two options either to search for a constitutional provision that would allow him to make the purchase or sign the treaty without the need of a backup from the constitution. In the end, President Thomas Jefferson opted for the latter choice under the advice of Attorney General Levi Lincoln by playing on words, which is instead of saying adding a new territory the USA, would say expand its territory that already existed.[31] In his eighth Congress speech, President Thomas Jefferson avoided talking about the constitutionality of the Purchase, and as there were more Republicans than Federalists in the house the treaty was signed by the congress. Conversely, many Federalist congressmen opposed the treaty such as Gaylord Griswold who not only tackled the issue of constitutionality of the treaty but also asked for proof that the territory was under French rule and not the Spanish one. Federalists were trying to find any loophole about the treaty as they were afraid that America would be overwhelmed by Louisiana which would result in the loss of their political and economic power. Nevertheless, the Republicans consolidated their case with two arguments: first, if the constitution does not specify the right of the state to sign treaties then not only is The Louisiana Purchase Treaty illegal but also all the treaties that America signed in the past. Second, it is true that the US constitution never stated the expansion of America, yet the constitution cannot be confined to the instance when the constitution was drafted, as the Northwest and South expansion were not settled, thus the illegality of the treaty cannot be viewed from a narrow understanding of the constitution.

Article III of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty stated:

The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according to the principles of the federal Constitution to the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States, and in the mean time they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property and the Religion which they profess. [32]

The constitutional problem of the treaty rested in this Article as it talked about including new people into the Union. The problem of including the population of Louisiana into the Union was based on the fact that America, for the first time in its history, included an area that is diversified in terms of language (French), religion (Catholicism) and race (Creoles) in contrast with the Anglo-Saxon-protestant character of the US.[33] Under Article III of the treaty, the population of Louisiana had the “rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.”[34] However, Jefferson did not keep the promise of the Treaty of Louisiana Purchase to treat them like Americans. What is surprising is that Napoleon did not use this pretext to get Louisiana back as it is stated by Thomas Fleming: “no one seemed to give any thought to the way the legislation violated the treaty with France, which had guaranteed the inhabitants all the rights of U.S. citizens. The Jeffersonians were giving Napoleon a perfect pretext to declare the sale of Louisiana invalid whenever it suited him.”[35] The way the rulers were appointed by Jefferson in Louisiana raised the issue not only of the constitutionality of Article III but also the lack of submission to Article III in the first place. As it is stated by Thomas Fleming:

In New Orleans…the new U.S. rulers were facing a hostile populace…It contained not a trace of democracy. Every official, from the governor to judges, was appointed by the president. There was no provision for trial by jury. Jefferson had decided that the French Creoles lacked the education and experience to participate in democracy.[36]

Therefore, Article III faced two problems: was it constitutional? And was it fulfilled? Eventually, Thomas Jefferson would abide by the provision of Article III when the congress passed an act in March 2, 1805 that would allow the state of Louisiana to have an elective body of 25 members.[37]


The Louisiana Purchase treaty was a major treaty that allowed the US to double its size and become a strong power as well as empowering the central government. Jefferson was a pragmatic person who in spite of his strict definition of the constitution, thought it was for the best interest of the United States of America to seize the opportunity of acquiring a vast land. The constitution issue of the treaty paved the way for the Supreme Court under the chief justice John Marshal in 1828 to regard the powers of the president to sign treaties as a constitutional right, thus ending the issue of illegality of the treaty as both acquiring new territories is allowed in the constitution either by conquest or treaty.[38] In addition to solving the constitutional dilemma, the treaty was a major build-up for peaceful relations between France and the US or to be more accurate the return of the relations between the two countries to be normal in spite of the regime change in France.


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