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For most Americans, it’s hard to picture the United States being significantly smaller than its current size. The idea of a country that doesn’t stretch from “sea to shining sea” with 48 lower states and two distant states (Alaska and Hawaii) sounds incredibly foreign. But it’s important to remember that once upon a time, the U.S. was just 13 states. It eventually grew to include what we now consider the Midwest and central Southern states plus Florida.
So, how did this nation expand to double its size and reach the Rocky Mountains? The answer is the Louisiana Purchase, and we’re here to give you a quick history lesson of how this pivotal — and controversial for its time — land deal changed the future of a young nation.
America Before the Louisiana Purchase
After the American Revolution, there were only 13 states, and they were almost all along the East Coast. But as time passed, the nation’s borders expanded with newly ratified states and additional territories. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the U.S. had expanded its land holdings to stretch from the Atlantic coast to the eastern banks of the Mississippi River. There were seventeen states in the Union and four territories before the Louisiana Purchase was ratified by the U.S. Senate in October 1803.
Even before the Louisiana Purchase, America was dealing with issues that we still experience today — specifically population booms and affordable housing. Word had gotten out that the U.S. was a land of opportunity, and people migrated to the young country en masse. But unclaimed land that could sustain farming was hard to come by, and settlers continued west in search of it.
What Was the Louisiana Purchase?
In short, it was one of the most influential land deals to ever take place between two nations. The Louisiana Purchase was a treaty that was drafted in 1803 between France and the U.S. It ceded 828,000 square miles of land from French to American control. The entire area was called the Louisiana Territory and covered west of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the U.S.–Canadian border in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
The Political Scene Before the Treaty
This substantial section of land had many owners before the U.S. when President Thomas Jefferson made a bid to acquire it. The original owner, France, ceded portions of the Louisiana Territory to Britain and Spain after the French and Indian War of 1763. But Spain later gave its land rights back to France in 1801 as an agreement under their alliance that was formed in 1796. However, the French and British were not allies during this time, so relations were still contentious, and Britain maintained its claim over portions of the Louisiana Territory.
Even though the French were allied with the U.S. during the Revolutionary war, that was when there was a monarchy. At this point in world history, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled France, and he made the entire world uneasy with his dreams of domination. The idea of France regaining control of New Orleans, in particular, was concerning because that city was strategically located to control movement into or out of the Mississippi River.
Whoever controlled the river could control the flow of goods and supplies as well as wield military power in the region. So, even though the Louisiana Purchase is considered a non-military diplomatic treaty, there were legitimate defense aspects to the deal. And if a peaceful resolution couldn’t be reached between France and the U.S. that included purchasing New Orleans, President Jefferson was strongly considering realigning the nation with the British for defensive purposes.
The Louisiana Purchase Happened Swiftly
Reconnecting with the British never became an issue, because the U.S. Minister to France, Robert Livingston, received a surprising offer to buy the entire Louisiana Territory in April 1803. By May, a treaty was drafted that stated the U.S. would pay $11,250,000 to the French in exchange for the 828,000 square miles of the Louisiana Territory. Experts believe that the French were motivated to make this deal because of financial woes caused by constant wars and a need to exit the Americas and focus all of its attention on Europe.
The Impact of the Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase made it possible for the U.S. to double its size and gain control of one of the most important shipping routes in the world to this day — the Mississippi River. The Louisiana Territory was eventually partitioned into 15 new states. By all accounts, this controversial land deal served as the nation’s first foray into non-military international diplomacy with a major foreign power, France. Because of the deal, the U.S. was now viewed as a credible political entity that deserved respect. Yet, the nation’s claim on the new land was contested by the British and wasn’t settled until nine years later when the U.S. won the War of 1812.