This Day in History… December 20, 1803

U.S. #1020 depicts the signing of the purchase on April 30, 1803.

Louisiana Purchase is Completed

On December 20, 1803,  the Louisiana Purchase was finalized with a ceremony in New Orleans.

In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte sought to create a great French empire in the New World.  The center of the empire was to be the nation of Hispaniola.  Napoleon envisioned that the Mississippi Valley would be the trade center of the new empire, shipping food and supplies from America to Hispaniola.

U.S. #3782 Marks the 200th anniversary of the purchase.

At this time, Hispaniola was in the midst of a slave revolt.  This revolt had to be put down before French control could be restored.  In an attempt to end it, Napoleon sent a large army to Hispaniola.  Although there were considerable French victories on the battlefield, many soldiers died from disease.  Because of these heavy losses, Napoleon decided to abandon Hispaniola and, in turn, his dream of an empire in the New World.

With Hispaniola gone, Napoleon had little use for Louisiana.  Additionally, war was imminent in Europe and he couldn’t spare troops to defend the territory. This caused Napoleon to offer the land for sale to the United States, which had expressed interest in New Orleans.

U.S. #323-27 picture people involved in the purchase, a map of the territory, and President McKinley who also aggressively sought out new lands.

U.S. #323-27 picture people involved in the purchase, a map of the territory, and President McKinley who also aggressively sought out new lands.

Commerce in the U.S. depended heavily on waterways during the early 1800s.  None was more important to U.S. interests than the mighty Mississippi River and the port city of New Orleans.  Fearful that the U.S. might lose navigational rights along the Mississippi, President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston to Paris to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and its immediate surrounding area.  Jefferson also sent Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a French nobleman living in the United States.  He had political connections in France, so Jefferson asked him to help with negotiations.

Monroe and Livingston were prepared to offer $10 million for the port city, but France offered the entire 530-million-acre area for $15 million.  Concerned Napoleon would withdraw the offer at any time, the representatives agreed without consulting the President, and the treaty was signed on April 30, 1803.

Item #59723A – First Day Coin Cover marking the 200th anniversary of the purchase.

The purchase was the American government’s largest financial transaction to date, and it doubled the size of the United States at a cost of less than 3¢ per acre.  Control of the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans provided a convenient method of transportation necessary for the development of the new region.  The acquisition also distanced France from the young nation, removing the risk that the two like-minded countries would become enemies over conflicting interests.

In spite of the bargain price, the purchase caused controversy.  President Jefferson himself questioned whether he had the authority under the U.S. Constitution to acquire land.  The issue was so divisive, a group of northerners considered forming a separate northern confederacy.

Item #59724A – French coin cover commemorating purchase.

When Napoleon signed the Louisiana Purchase, he said, “This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States.”  America did grow into a world power, as he predicted.

On December 20, 1803, representatives from the U.S. and France convened in New Orleans to finalize the purchase.  They took down France’s flags and raised America’s in a ceremony, officially establishing the Louisiana land as part of the United States.

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