The Louisiana Purchase of 1803: Summary, Facts & Importance

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the Louisiana Purchase. Learn more about the most important real estate deal in American history and how it influenced the growth of the United States. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

New Orleans in 1803
new orleans

France Takes Control of Louisiana

Napoleon Bonaparte had visions of a French empire in North America. France's first emperor had already conquered much of Europe, making him one of the most feared and powerful leaders of the early 19th century. The crown jewel of his North American empire was going to be Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean that was known for its sugar plantations. However, Napoleon also had his eye on the United States. The first step to conquering the United States and adding it to his empire was to regain control of Louisiana and the port city of New Orleans. France actually founded New Orleans in 1718. However, France lost control of Louisiana in 1762, following the French and Indian War. France's ally, Spain, took Louisiana as compensation for losing Florida to Great Britain. In 1800, Napoleon took Louisiana back after pressuring Charles IV to sign the Treaty of Ildefonso.

The Importance of New Orleans

New Orleans is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 1800, the river was the main highway of trade and commerce for the United States. Even when Spain had control of New Orleans, the Spanish allowed the U.S. to use the port. This was called the 'right to deposit.' However, that was revoked when France took over New Orleans. That alone was troubling for President Thomas Jefferson. Equally concerning was the issue of national security. New Orleans would have given Napoleon a convenient point for launching an invasion of the United States. Jefferson's solution was to see if Napoleon would be willing to sell New Orleans. This was a dilemma for Jefferson because he believed in strict interpretation of the Constitution, which says nothing about buying land. Still, Jefferson believed it was in the best interest of the country to try to make a deal.

Napoleon's Vision of an Empire Crumbles

Napoleon's plans for a North American empire were derailed after France lost control of Saint-Domingue, which is now known as Haiti. Slaves revolted against the French army that occupied the island and the Haitian Revolution of 1803 left Napoleon wondering if he really wanted Louisiana anymore. He had been told that the population of the U.S. was on the rise. The more people that there were to fight for the U.S., the more difficult a French invasion would be. Even if France did take control of the U.S., the distance between France and the U.S. would have made it difficult for the French to fight off other enemy invaders. Napoleon decided that it would make more sense to try and conquer England instead. To do that, he needed more money, which he hoped he could get by selling not just New Orleans, but all of Louisiana.

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