On Oct. 20th in 1803, the U.S. Senate approves a treaty with France providing for the purchase of the territory of Louisiana, which would double the size of the United States. What was known as Louisiana Territory stretched from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west and from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Canadian border in the north. The purchase greatly strengthened the country materially and strategically, provided a powerful impetus to westward expansion, and confirmed the doctrine of implied powers in the federal Constitution.
The Louisiana Territory had been the object of Old World interest for many years before 1803. Explorations and scattered settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries had given France control over the river and title to most of the Mississippi valley. The first serious disruption of French control over Louisiana came during the Seven Years’ War.
In 1762 France ceded Louisiana west of the Mississippi River to Spain and in 1763 transferred virtually all of its remaining possessions in North America to Great Britain. This arrangement, however, proved temporary. French power rebounded under the subsequent military leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, and on October 1, 1800, Napoleon induced a reluctant King Charles IV of Spain to agree, for a consideration, to cede Louisiana back to France.
Spain would retain some vital control to shipping through the port of New Orleans, prospectively blocking American goods; this threat to American free navigation and shipping on and around the Mississippi, with new settlers arriving apace, spurred the Jefferson administration into action. What transpired was a maddening chess match of a negotiation with the saucy French, with Robert Livingston and James Monroe inducing France’s Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand to ultimately sell for a measly three cents per acre.
The following May, Louis & Clark would depart from St. Louis to explore and map the newly acquired territory, find a practical route across the western half of the continent, and to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. With significant help from Sacagawea and other native guides, theirs was the first recorded overland journey from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast and back, encountering over 70 Indian nations and tribes along the route.
Statistically, the purchase area’s non-native population was around 60,000 inhabitants, half of whom were African slaves, and part or all of 15 states were eventually created from the land deal, including “Bloody Kansas,” the region which would loom so largely in the run-up to the Civil War. Notwithstanding these bitter seeds of injustice, the growth of the infant nation presaged the eventual, wrenching, ceaseless struggle for equality, opportunity, freedom and justice, and is considered perhaps the most important achievement of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, and the fledgling republic he led.