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Louisiana Purchase of 1803: Background, Negotiation and Outcomes

Info: 3050 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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The Louisiana Purchase Negotiation


The negotiation behind the most valuable land sale in United States history proved to be one of the speediest and greatest land deals the U.S. ever managed. France sold the Louisiana territory to the U.S. for fifty million francs ($11,250,000 dollars) and a cancellation of debts worth eighteen million francs ($3,750,000 dollars) for a total of sixty-eight million francs ($15,000,000 dollars) (Harris 15). The Louisiana territory was approximately 828,000,000 square miles of land, including two Canadian provinces and fifteen current U.S. states. Essentially, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the United States, and gave it control of one of the most important trade ports at the time. This purchase is an excellent example of how leverage can greatly affect the outcome of a deal. This paper will discuss the background, the negotiation, and the outcomes of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.


The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 refers to the purchase of a large tract of land from France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, by the United States. The purchase accounts for about one third of the current United States, and includes major states such as Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, and Minnesota. France controlled the territory from 1699 until it was ceded in 1762 to Spain. In 1800, Napoleon regained ownership of Louisiana from Spain with the hope of re-establishing an empire in North America. France’s Napoleon Bonaparte was a force to be reckoned with, notorious for his many military victories and his great ability to inspire loyalty, even in times where hope seemed lost. His fight against both Russia and the Russian winter is one of those times. His army, having trekked through Russia’s massive prairies in the summer and fall of the previous year, was now struggling to continue in the winter. Even worse for France, slave rebellions and other uprisings were eroding French occupations of the ‘New World’, the North American continent (Tarver 53). Faced with the prospect of renewed warfare with the United Kingdom and other ongoing conflicts, Napoleon was prompted to sell the territory to the United States to fund his military. The U.S. originally sought only to purchase the port city of New Orleans and the adjacent coastal lands, but quickly accepted the bargain.

France had begun experiencing doubt that Napoleon’s numerous war efforts were worth the trouble; they would later go on to exile him, and at the time of the Purchase, Napoleon’s relationship with France was strained, but not yet unsalvageable.

Negotiation Concepts/Methods

Logistical Issues

The logistics of delivering offers and counteroffers back and forth between continents through mail certainly complicated things. Communication at the time was limited almost exclusively to letters, as faster and more efficient modes of communication, such as the telegraph, would not even be conceived until the 1830s. Although the United States Postal Services was technically operational, the first postmaster general had been appointed roughly 14 years beforehand, and the small expanse of the United States had little reason to bother with upgrading (“The United States…”). As such, the United States Post Office was a tiny, often improvised upon piece of the United States government in the year 1803 (“The United States…”). However, despite the tiny and underused mail delivery system in place at the time, in relative terms the deal took place quickly, taking less than a year to complete. For a deal that doubled the size of the United States, this was lightspeed (“Louisiana Purchase”).  When you consider the delay between the countries’ mail systems, this timeframe is even more impressive. Email takes tenths of a second. The telegraph took approximately four minutes to cross continents (“Telegraph…). A letter, in 1803, one way, would have taken roughly two weeks to cross the Atlantic (“Highway History”). Additionally, the person receiving the letter in the 1800s paid for the mail, not the sender. This greatly slowed the person who was delivering the mail as every single letter had to be collected on up until the 1860’s, far past this particular deal. This sale was completed in less than a year. Later in this paper greater detail is used to explain the specifics of why Napoleon needs a quick infusion of cash, but for this page, one only needs to know that he did try to fight the Russians in the winter, his army was already losing people to cold instead of the actual conflict, and he was quickly becoming France’s least favorite general. Money would solve two out of three of those problems, and Napoleon was willing to sell more than one and a half times the total land area of France to get it. Napoleon could not wait. News of this had reached the U.S., and this quickly turned into another way to twist Napoleon’s arm in a situation that was already difficult for him to navigate. The length of time between letters became another factor in the negotiation, as the U.S. knew he could not wait weeks and weeks to send offers and counteroffers back and forth, eventually caving on one of the most used trading ports of the time, and room for another 15 states, for incredibly cheap. The U.S. had stumbled into a perfect exploding offer: sell this land to the U.S. or starve in Russia.

Relative Leverage Between the Countries

After losing the French and Indian war and signing the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French not only lost Canada, but everything to the east of the Mississippi river to the British. This fact and the fact the distance from France and their Western Territories only grows further is a pivotal leverage point in the negotiation. Another point is the slave revolution St. Domingue, or modern-day Haiti, wherein Napoleon wanted the cash flow back for France. General Charles Leclerc of France wanted to re-establish slavery in Saint Domingue in 1802 but was thwarted by the leader of the Haitian revolution Toussaint Louverture. France pulled back in 1803 after losing a whopping two-thirds of their troops. This is because before the revolution France had an enormous cash flow coming from St. Domingue for slavery, but this was stopped in 1795 by the constitution of the French Republic. So, France was not only affected by their loss of troops but by a total loss of cash flow that was needed hence the efforts of sending General Leclerc.

Changing Economic and Political Environments

The Louisiana purchase was completed within a wide array of economic and political environments. The land ranging across 15 modern day states was controlled by Spain until 1802, when it was returned to French control. This brought concern to the United States, as Spain was a weakened power in the early 1800’s while France, led by Napoleon, was much more threatening. Napoleon had threatened to block American access to the important port of New Orleans, which New American settlements depended on to get their goods to market. The blocking of this access was of such importance to American interests that Thomas Jefferson considered an alliance with the British in the war against France just to guarantee they would not lose access. While considering alliances with Britain, Jefferson also sent diplomats to France, in hopes to bargain for continued trade access along the Mississippi.

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Among the diplomats dispatched to negotiate on behalf of Jefferson was James Monroe. Monroe was empowered to purchase New Orleans and West Florida from two to ten million dollars. During this time, France had shown difficulty in their ability to maintain territory in what is now considered modern day Haiti. This in addition to the fact that France was economically unstable due to its war with Great Britain provided Thomas Jefferson the perfect opportunity to purchase New Orleans and parts of the Floridas. However, Napoleon’s offer was much more generous than expected. Desperately in need of money to fund his overextended military and knowing well he would be unable to force Americans out of French ruled land in North America, Napoleon offered all of Louisiana to the U.S. for 15 million dollars. Napoleon’s asking price worked out to be about four cents an acre.

The deal; however, was not met without controversy. While American development was dependent on Western Expansion, it raised concerns that threatened the disunion of the United States. Several New England Federalists began talks of seceding from the United States, as the Louisiana purchase significantly reduced their political power. Jefferson was also criticized for not following his own strict interpretation, as critics stated the constitution did not permit the federal government to purchase new land.

The Role of Third Parties

The purchase of the Louisiana territory would not have been possible without the involvement of many individuals (parties) who pushed for and/or influenced the deal based on their own motives and interests, and in some situations, formed coalitions. Further, if France was not embattled in numerous conflicts straining their financial resources the sell would not have occurred.

Upon regaining ownership of the territory from Spain in 1800, it was Napoleon’s vision to establish an empire in North America. But, Spain procrastinated until late 1802 in executing the treaty to transfer Louisiana to France. Spain’s refusal to surrender Florida to France meant Louisiana would be left indefensible, and the war between France and the United Kingdom appeared imminent. Faced with the prospect of renewed warfare with the U.K., and as France was still engaged in the Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) slave uprisings, Napoleon was prompted to sell the territory to the United States to fund his military. Out of anger towards Spain and seeing opportunity to sell something that was perceived to be useless and not truly his yet, Napoleon decided to sell the entire territory to the U.S. (Herring 101).

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American Robert Livingston, a founding father of the United States, was also a lawyer, politician, and diplomat from New York. In 1801, as a reward for supporting Thomas Jefferson’s presidential campaign, President Jefferson appointed him as the U.S. Minister to France. He was sent to Paris to assume this position. It was Livingston who realized that Napoleon was having difficulties in funding his conquests and saw the potential for this to work in the United States’ favor to advance interests regarding New Orleans and Mississippi river rights. Livingston used his social skills and prestigious connections in France to make himself available to Emperor Napoleon. He befriended the Emperor’s right-hand man, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, and reconnected with France’s finance minister Francois de Barbé-Marbois, whom he had met in in Philadelphia when Barbé-Marbois was there serving as a French diplomat and general consul in charge of the French affairs to the United States. It was Livingston’s connections that led to the deal (Lawson 103).

During this same period, French nobleman Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, began to help negotiate with France at the request of President Jefferson. Du Pont was living in the U.S. and had close ties to Jefferson, as well as prominent politicians in France. He engaged in “behind the scenes” diplomacy with Napoleon on Jefferson’s behalf while visiting France and floated the idea of the much larger Louisiana Purchase as a means to defuse potential conflict between the United States and Napoleon over North America (Duke 77-80).

Desperate to avoid possible war with France, Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris to serve as special envoy assisting Livingston with the Louisiana Purchase negotiations. When Monroe arrived in Paris he informed Livingston the U.S. only intended to purchase New Orleans. However, Livingston told him Napoleon wanted to sell the whole territory for $100 million francs (about $20 million dollars) (Burgan 36). Monroe was not authorized to make the deal, but time was of the essence and they didn’t have time to contact the U.S. for guidance. They were concerned Napoleon would withdraw the deal so, with no authority for their actions and limited information Livingston and Monroe entered negotiations with Barbé-Marbois (Lawson 110-120). It took a couple weeks, but in April 1803 the trio agreed to the $80 million francs ($15 million dollars) purchase price and on April 30, 1803 sealed the deal.  On July 4, 1803, President Jefferson announced the treaty to the American people (Ketcham 320-2).

The Louisiana Purchase was also controversial, as it was questionable whether the Constitution gave the president any authority to make the deal (Lawson 20-22). To some Americans the purchase was viewed as a tremendous abuse of presidential power. However, Congress realized the significance and advised and consented to ratification of the treaty on October 20, 1803.  


The significance of the Louisiana Purchase was enormous. The acquisition of land made westward expansion feasible. The deal also guaranteed the Mississippi River would become a major channel for American commerce, which boosted America’s economic development. The U.S. benefited greatly using the leverage that presented itself through Napoleon’s need of funds to support his conquests. France did not have a strong enough military or the funding to hold back the western frontier from the American pioneers, or to maintain control of the land so far away from France and separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon’s bitterness with Spain and his desire to consolidate his resources so he could focus on conquering England provided even more leverage in favor of the United States. Further, Livingston and Monroe did an exceptional job at realizing the significance of the purchase and seized the moment.

In considering what may have been handled more effectively, there are some issues. One major point, official boundaries of the Louisiana territory were not clearly determined at the time of the sell. As a result, there were boundary disputes after the sell between the U.S. and Spain. If the boundaries had been officially determined prior and included in the official treaty the conflicts could possibly have been avoided.

Overall, the Louisiana Purchase was undeniably an incredible deal for the United States, doubling its size. States that now occupy the land, included in part or whole of the Louisiana Purchase, are: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. What wasn’t known then, as France’s land was mainly unexplored wilderness, is the abundance of fertile soils and other valuable natural resources included with the purchase which were not factored into the cost of the purchase. Shortly after the treaty was signed, President Jefferson sent out Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the territory. Their discoveries enabled the U.S. government to grasp the full value of what had been acquired. Further, the purchase removed France’s colonizing presence from the area and gave the U.S. the port of New Orleans and the trading artery of the Mississippi River. Moreover, the Louisiana purchase led to the eventual acquisition of the Oregon Territory, expanding the United States to the Pacific Ocean (Harris 132).


Works Cited

  • Burgan, Michael. The Louisiana Purchase. Capstone, 2002.
  • Duke, Marc. The du Ponts: Portrait of a Dynasty. Saturday Review Press, 1976.
  • Harris, Joseph A. “How the Louisiana Purchase Changed the World.” Smithsonian.com,
  • Smithsonian Institution, 1 Apr. 2003.
  • “Highway History.” U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration,
  • Federal Highway Administration
  • Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison: A Biography. Newtown CT: American Political Biography Press, 2003.
  • Lawson, Gary & Seidman, Guy. The Constitution of Empire: Territorial Expansion and American Legal History. Yale University Press, 2008.
  • “Louisiana Purchase.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2 Dec. 2009
  • Tarver, Michael, and Emily Slape. The Spanish Empire; An Historical Encyclopedia. ABC CLIO
  • “Telegraph: Early Postal Role.” Connected Earth, USPS, May 2015.
  • “The United States Postal Service: An American History.” Government Relations, United States
  • Postal Service, 2006.


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