July 4 – Anniversary of a BIG Birthday Gift

Posted on July 4, 2014

The American people started celebrating Independence Day on July 4 from the country's earliest days (even though Congress voted to declare independence on

July 2, and most scholars believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed in August). In a way, people looked on the Fourth as the nation's birthday.

And on the Fourth of 1803, President Thomas Jefferson – the very fellow who wrote the Declaration of Independence – was able to give a big present to the American people:

The new nation had suddenly doubled in size!

In 1802, the king of Spain had given over the huge territory called Louisiana to France (led by Napoleon Bonaparte) in return for the king's son-in-law gaining power over Tuscany.

Americans greeted the land transfer with very negative feelings. They had had a treaty with Spain giving them rights to use the Mississippi River for transport of goods plus the right to store goods in New Orleans until they could be loaded onto oceangoing ships. But as soon as France gained the Louisiana Territory—which included the important port city of New Orleans—they alerted the Americans to the fact that they no longer could store goods in the port's warehouses.

And when I say “negative feelings,” I mean outrage! Some Americans called for war. When Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison worked to resolve the issue through peaceful diplomacy rather than war, some Americans called for secession by the western territories that were most dependent on the Mississippi! That's right, they wanted to leave the new nation, and create their own nation, so that they could fight for—and hopefully grab control of—New Orleans.

Jefferson responded to the warmongers in two fairly visible ways. First, he sent James Monroe to Paris, France, to help with negotiations – and although Monroe was a trusted friend of Jefferson's, Monroe did own land in Kentucky (which was “the west” back then!), and he had been vocal about the need to safeguard the rights of those living in the western territories.

James Madison - Thomas Jefferson - James Monroe  

The second thing Jefferson did was to work to create an expedition that could explore the vast Louisiana Territory, no matter who owned it. You probably know that the exploratory mission became known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Here's the deal: Monroe was given instructions to purchase New Orleans and maybe West Florida, and he was authorized to spend up to ten million dollars for that land.

But (travel time back in the early 1800s being what it was) by the time Monroe landed in France, France's minister of finance had convinced Napoleon that Louisiana would be less valuable without Haiti (which France was losing to a rebellion by former slaves) and that France couldn't afford to send enough soldiers to keep control of the whole Mississippi Valley, anyway.

So, by the time Monroe arrived, Napoleon had decided to sell the whole thing. A huge amount of territory—obviously worth more than the authorized ten million dollars!

Monroe jumped on the chance, and alongside the other US diplomat in France, Robert Livingston, ended up negotiating the sale price for all of that property at just 15 million dollars!

Making this sale exceeded Monroe's and Livingson's authority – and their spending limit – but it was such a great deal for the United States, nobody complained!

If you want to know how good a deal – it was about four cents per acre!

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