The Louisiana Purchase

How does 3-cents per acre sound? That's how much Thomas Jefferson and the United States paid France for the Louisiana territory in 1803. The total price for effectively doubling the territory of the U.S. was $15,000,000.

According to Economic History Resources, the price in modern dollars would be 49-cents per acre or $242.8-million for all 828,000 square miles of land. The Louisiana Purchase was a great deal by any measure.

Please pass the Louisiana

In 1682, French explorer La Salle claimed the Louisiana Territory for France. While at war with Britain in the Americas in 1762 (The French and Indian War), France gave the territory to Spain. The Spanish Empire, on the verge of bankruptcy and having already over extended herself, gave the territory back to France in 1802.

Certainly Spain and France must have seen the potential of the Louisiana Territory, so why didn't they do anything with it? Probably it was a matter of logistics and priorities. Spain was beginning to feel the rising tide of the coming revolution in Mexico and was having problems hanging on to her other New World colonies. France was in the same boat. Just prior to the Louisiana Purchase, France had been unable to quell a slave rebellion in Haiti. Spain and France had other, more pressing matters to attend to, and neither nation had a presence strong enough in the region to fully explore and exploit the resources of the Louisiana Territory. Finally, both nations were not in particularly good shape economically. That meant that Napolean was going to price the territory to move quick. As the saying goes, one man's trash in another man's treasure.

Why would France give up such a large amount of land for so little? It is hard to get inside the mind of Napolean to figure that out, but the move was probably the result of a combination of things. First, France was about to go to war with Great Britain, the greatest naval power in the world at the time. The likely naval blockade of French ports and trade would mean further economic woes for Napolean's regime. Second, France no longer had a presence in North America sizeable enough to fully explore the territory and exploit the available resources. In short, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Implications of the Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase was HUGE for the United States, literally and figuratively. The acquisition doubled the territory of the U.S. and gave the young nation room to grow. And grow she did. The first order of business for President Thomas Jefferson after the purchase was to explore it. In 1804, he sent Lewis and Clarke on an expedition to explore the new territory. Shortly thereafter, a flood of settlers began going west to make their fortune.

The Louisiana Purchase also helped start three wars. Spain/Mexico disputed parts of the territory involved in the deal between France and the United States. This eventually led to a showdown between Texas and Mexico. Continued disputes over the territory and the idea of Manifest Destiny (the belief that the U.S. was ordained by God to control the land from sea to sea) also led to war between the United States and Mexico in 1846-1848. The continued addition of states in the west also upset the delicate balance between slave and free states. This eventually led to the terribly bloody American Civil War. Futhermore, the Louisiana Purchase was disastrous for Native Americans. Tribe after tribe was forced to give up their land or face annihilation.

What if the Louisiana Purchase never happened?

It is hard to imagine that the United States would not have eventually expanded from coast to coast anyway, but westward expansion would likely have been much slower. The idea does bring up some interesting scenarios though. What if Spain had somehow regained her strength and been able to fully develop California and the Southwest? Without the added cushion of territory and resources, could the loss of the Louisiana Purchase have changed the outcome of the War of 1812 with Great Britain? What if other nations-Russia, Japan, or China-had established a firm foothold in the Northwest? All of these are questions are great food for thought.

The fact remains, however, that the Louisiana Purchase did take place. It was sort of a vitamin shot for the fledgling nation of upstarts, and it played a huge role in shaping the nation's history.

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