How We Bought Louisiana

by Helen Lockwood Coffin

It is a hard matter to tell just how much power a little thing has, because little things have the habit of growing. That was the trouble that France and England and Spain and all the other big nations had with America at first. The thirteen colonies occupied so small and unimportant a strip of land that few people thought they would ever amount to much. How could such insignificance ever bother old England, for instance, big and powerful as she was? To England's great loss she soon learned her error in underestimating the importance or strength of her colonies.

France watched the giant and the pygmy fighting together, and learned several lessons while she was watching. For one thing, she found out that the little American colonies were going to grow, and so she said to herself: "I will be a sort of back-stop to them. These Americans are going to be foolish over this bit of success, and think that just because they have won the Revolution they can do anything they wish to do. They'll think they can spread out all over this country and grow to be as big as England herself; and of course anybody can see that that is impossible. I'll just put up a net along the Mississippi River, and prevent them crossing over it. That will be the only way to keep them within bounds."

And so France held the Mississippi, and from there back to the Rocky Mountains, and whenever the United States citizen desired to go west of the Mississippi, France said: "No, dear child. Stay within your own yard and play, like a good little boy," or something to that effect.

Now the United States citizen didn't like this at all; he had pushed his way with much trouble and expense and hard work through bands of Indians and through forests and over rivers and mountains, into Wisconsin and Illinois, and he wished to go farther. And, besides, he wanted to have the right to sail up and down the Mississippi, and so save himself the trouble of walking over the land and cutting out his own roads as he went. So when France said, "No, dear," and told him to "be a good little boy and not tease," the United States citizen very naturally rebelled.

Mr. Jefferson was President of the United States at that time, and he was a man who hated war of any description. He certainly did not wish to fight with his own countrymen, and he as certainly did not wish to fight with any other nation, so he searched around for some sort of a compromise. He thought that if America could own even one port on this useful river and had the right of Mississippi navigation, the matter would be settled with satisfaction to all parties. So he sent James Monroe over to Paris to join our minister, Mr. Livingston, and see if the two of them together could not persuade France to sell them the island of New Orleans, on which was the city of the same name.

Now Napoleon was the ruler of France, and he was dreaming dreams and seeing visions in which France was the most important power in America, because she owned this wonderful Mississippi River and all this "Louisiana" which stretched back from the river to the Rockies. He already held forts along the river, and he was planning to strengthen these and build some new ones. But you know what happens to the plans of mice and men sometimes. Napoleon was depending upon his army to help him out on these plans, but his armies in San Domingo were swept away by war and sickness, so that on the day he had set for them to move up into Louisiana not a man was able to go. At the same time Napoleon had on hand another scheme against England, which was even more important than his plans for America, and which demanded men and money. Besides this, he was shrewd enough to know that he could not hold this far-away territory for any long time against England, which had so many more ships than France. He suddenly changed his mind about his American possessions, and nearly sent Mr. Monroe and Mr. Livingston into a state of collapse by offering to sell them not only New Orleans but also the whole Province of Louisiana.


There was no time to write to President Jefferson and ask his advice, and this was before the days of the cable; so Monroe and Livingston took the matter into their own hands, and signed the contract which transferred the Louisiana territory to the United States for a consideration of $15,000,000. They were severely criticized by many of their own countrymen, and they had some doubts of their own about the wisdom of their action. You see, nobody knew then that corn and wheat would grow so abundantly in this territory, or that beyond the Mississippi there were such stretches of glorious pasture-lands, or that underneath its mountainous regions were such mines of gold, silver, and copper. Americans saw only the commercial possibilities of the river, and all they wanted was the right of navigating it and the permission to explore the unknown country to the westward.

But Jefferson and Monroe and Livingston builded better than they knew. All this happened a hundred years ago; and to-day that old Louisiana territory is, in natural resources, the wealthiest part of the whole United States. Without that territory in our possession we should have no Colorado and no Wyoming, no Dakotas, or Nebraska, or Minnesota, or Montana, or Missouri, or Iowa, or Kansas, or Arkansas, or Louisiana, or Oklahoma, or Indian Territory.

For all these reasons we owe our most sincere and hearty thanks to the patriotic and far-sighted men who were concerned in buying this territory for the United States.