The Cession of Louisiana
April 30, 1803
Napoléon signs the cession of Louisiana
Louisiana was once far more than the State that bears that name today. It included the entire western part of the Mississippi basin, that is, an immense territory five times larger than France that covered thirteen American States: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This territory, which had been occupied since the beginning of the 17th century by colonists and French Jesuit missionaries, had been baptized Louisiana on April 9 1682, by Cavelier de la Salle in honour of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In 1762, Louis XV yielded it to Spain. On October 1, 1800, after the battle of Marengo, Napoleon managed to get it ceded back to France through the treaty of San-Ildefonso. During the golden age that France enjoyed from 1801 to the beginning of 1803 - the period of the Amiens treaty with England - Napoleon had mixed feelings about the best course of action to follow. Lafayette spoke to him enthusiastically about the new force that the United States of America represented. He had witnessed the energy, heart, and courage of her people and the value of her leaders, especially George Washington, who had died not long before (December 14, 1799.)
With his global perspective, his goodness of heart, his humanity, Napoleon sincerely wished to aid this young Republic in its development. He knew that freedom of movement on the Mississippi was vital for the economy of the people who lived along its shores. Moreover, his love of peace counselled him to do nothing that might trigger a war with England. He also knew that the French people who resided in the territories would be happy to become American citizens.
However, public opinion in France was in favour of keeping Louisiana and, rather against his will, he allowed Minister of the Navy Decrès to prepare an expedition that set sail from Holland – operation Flessingue. The expedition was cancelled as soon as he learned that President Jefferson was sending him an ambassador, James Monroe, a great friend of France, to discuss the issue of freedom of movement on the Mississippi.
On April 10, 1803, two days before the arrival of Monroe, he confided in Decrès: “I am perfectly aware of what Louisiana is worth, yet I will cede it to the United States.” Monroe offered two million dollars for the city of New Orleans, where the Mississippi flows into the sea. He asked for nothing more, and was authorized by Jefferson and Congress to go up to ten million dollars to conclude this limited transaction.
Napoleon answered him with a smile and in his softest voice: “I do not want to yield just New-Orleans to you, but the whole of Louisiana. I will accept whatever price you offer.” James Monroe was completely dumbstruck and asked permission to withdraw for an hour to confer with his accomplice Robert Livingston, the American Ambassador to Paris. They had no means of communicating with their President to ponder the enormity of what was being proposed, and entirely upon their own initiative, they thought they would be able to propose fifteen million dollars with little fear of rejection. After all, that was only five million dollars more than the sum authorized for the acquisition of the seaport.
Once back with Napoleon, they timidly made their offer.... 15 million dollars... “Perfect!” he declared. “Let’s drink to that!” And they passed on to refreshments and hors d’oeuvres. Napoleon had this sentence added to the terms of the agreement:
“Let them know that we separate from them with regret. Let them always remember that they were French. May our common origin, kinship, language, and customs perpetuate our friendship.”
To use the terms “sale” or “purchase” when talking of Louisiana is to employ inaccurate, or at least exaggerated, words; “donation” would be more appropriate. Napoleon was very happy with the frank symbolism of offering an enormous gift that doubled the surface area of the United States.
However, this is not always what we find in the history textbooks used in American high schools. We have already had occasion to mention Daniel Boorstin, who won the Pulitzer price for his textbook History of the United States. On page 217 he writes: “In January 1798, the United States was threatened with a sea war by the French dictator Napoleon,” and on page 133:
“The upstart Napoleon had overturned the corrupt Directory and, intending to consolidate his power in France and Europe, wanted no problems with the United States. This is why he agreed to sign an agreement that made it possible for the United States to begin the 19th century in a state of peace.” The truth was that in January 1798, General Bonaparte exerted no power in the government of France. He had only just been elected to the Institute. As for the Convention of Mortefontaine, we saw in Chapter 18 the circumstances under which it was signed.
Boorstin resumes his coarse slander about the transfer of Louisiana on pages 146 and 147: “Napoleon decided to sell Louisiana... When the Americans offered to buy the mouth of the Mississippi, they obtained an astonishing answer. Napoleon did not want to sell or even rent the river mouth, but to sell Louisiana in its entirety... It was one of the deciding moments in the history of the United States. It was not surprising that a French dictator could make such a bold decision, but we had a Constitution that stipulated that only Congress may make such important decisions. What could Monroe and Livingston do, isolated as they were in Paris? They decided to accept Napoleon’s offer and offered 15 million dollars for all of Louisiana. Napoleon accepted. When the news arrived in the United States, reactions were mixed. Some complained that these two Americans sent to Paris with the mission of buying a small plot of land had been trapped by an eccentric dictator into buying 200 million acres of wasteland that was of no value to them. The purchase of Louisiana was a triumph in many regards. It was proof that in a confrontation of will between a dictatorship and a democracy, democracy would not inevitably lose. It proved that people could have a Constitution that would protect them from tyrants.”
Such ravings would be simply laughable if they did not defame the image of France in the minds of young Americans. Here are the articles of the treaty:
Whereas by the article the third of the Treaty concluded at St Ildefonso the 1st October 1800 between the First Consul of the French Republic and his Catholic Majesty, it was agreed as follows.
« His Catholic Majesty promises and engages on his part to cede to the French Republic six months after the full and entire execution of the conditions and stipulations herein relative to his Royal Highness the Duke of Parma, the Colony or Province of Louisiana with the same extent that it now has in the hand of Spain & that it had when France possessed it. »
And whereas in pursuance of the Treaty and particularly of the third article the French Republic has an incontestable title to the domain and to the possession of the said Territory - The First Consul of the French Republic desiring to give to the United States a strong proof of his friendship doth hereby cede to the United States in the name of the French Republic for ever and in full Sovereignty the said territory with all its rights and appurtenances as fully and in the same manner as they have been acquired by the French Republic in virtue of the above mentioned Treaty concluded with his Catholic Majesty.
In the cession made by the preceding article are included the adjacent islands belonging to Louisiana, all public buildings & fortifications that are not private property. – The archives, papers & documents relative to the domain and sovereignty of Louisiana and its dependences will be left in the possession of the Commissaries of the United States, and copies will be afterwards given in due form to the Magistrates and Municipal officers of such of the said papers and documents as may be necessary to them.
The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according 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 that they profess.
There shall be sent by the Government of France a Commissary to Louisiana to the end that he do every act necessary as well to receive from the Officers of his catholic Majesty the Said country and its dependences in the name of the French Republic if it has not been already done as to transmit it in the name of the French Republic to the Commissary or agent of the United States.
Immediately after the ratification of the present Treaty by the President of the United States and in case that of the First Consul’s shall have been previously obtained, the Commissary of the French Republic shall remit all military posts of New Orleans and other parts of the ceded territory to the Commissary or Commissaries named by the President to take possession – the troops whether of France or Spain who may be there shall cease to occupy any military post from the time of taking possession and shall be embarked as soon as possible in the course of three months after the ratification of this treaty.
The United Stated promise to execute such treaties and articles as may have been agreed between Spain and the tribes and nations of Indians until by mutual consent of the United States and the said tribes or nations other suitable articles shall have been agreed upon.
(We have abbreviated this article, which discourses at length on the provisions designed to benefit the navigation of American, French, and Spanish trading vessels.)
It has been agreed between the contracting parties that the French ships coming directly from France or any of her colonies and the ships of Spain coming directly from Spain or any of her colonies shall be admitted during the space of twelve years in the Port of New Orleans and in all other legal ports of entry within the ceded territory in the same manner as the ships of the United States coming directly from France or Spain without being subject to any other or greater duty on merchandise than that paid by the citizens of the United States.
During that space of time above mentioned no tother nation shall have a right to the same privileges
In future and for ever after the expiration of the twelve years, the ships of France shall able treated upon the footing of the most favoured nations in the ports above mentioned.
The particular Convention signed this day having for its object to provide for the payment of debts due to the citizens of the Unites States by the French Republic prior to the 30th September 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 rime so that the one shall no be ratified distinct from the other.
The present Treaty shall be ratified in good and due form and the ratifications shall be exchanged in the space of six months after the date of the signature by the Ministers Plenipotentiary or sooner if possible.
In faith whereof the respective Plenipotentiaries have signed these articles in the French and English languages, declaring nevertheless that the present Treaty was originally agreed to in the French language, and have thereunto affixed their seals.
Done at Paris, the 30th of April 1803
Robert R. Livingston [seal]
James Monroe [seal]
Barbé Marboiss [seal]