This Day in History: April 11, 1803
As the foreign minister to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Talleyrand was one of the most powerful men in the world. Three years earlier, Talleyrand had persuaded Napoleon that he could form a new French Empire in North America. The French had laid claim to the expansive swath of land west of the Mississippi River known as Louisiana Territory. In 1800, Napoleon furtively signed a treaty with Spain that officially gave France complete control of the territory. He then began to ready France’s army to occupy New Orleans.
When President Thomas Jefferson learned of Napoleon’s plans in 1802, he was rightly concerned. Jefferson had long hoped the U.S. would expand westward beyond the Mississippi, but the fledgling American republic lacked the military might to challenge France for the territory. Jefferson hoped that his minister in France, Robert Livingston, might succeed at negotiating an agreement whereby Napoleon would give New Orleans, the gateway to the Mississippi River, to the United States.
Livingston’s initial attempts at reaching a diplomatic agreement failed. In early 1803, Jefferson sent his young Virginia friend James Monroe , the future U.S. president, to Paris to assist Livingston. Fortunately for the U.S., Napoleon was in dire straits. War between France and Great Britain was in the offing and Napoleon no longer had the military resources at his disposal to maintain control of Louisiana Territory. Realizing that the powerful British navy would probably seize the territory by force, Napoleon determined it would be better to sell Louisiana to the Americans than risk having it fall into British hands.
After months of trying to negotiate a favorable deal for the U.S. to no avail, Livingston again met with Talleyrand on this day in 1803. To Livingston’s surprise, this time the French minister asked what the U.S. would pay for the entire territory, not just New Orleans. Quickly recognizing that this offer had huge implications for the future of the country, Livingston and Monroe began to discuss France’s proposed cost for the territory. Several weeks later, on April 30, 1803, the American emissaries signed a treaty with France to buy the territory for $11,250,000.
Roughly two weeks later, Great Britain declared war on France. With the sale of the Louisiana Territory, Napoleon relinquished his dreams of a North American empire, but he also achieved a goal that he considered even more critical: preempting British acquisition of the Louisiana Territory.