The United States did not always extend “from sea to shining sea.” In its early years, it was largely confined to lands east of the Mississippi River, with the bulk of its population east of the Appalachian Mountains. And, although it had won its independence from Great Britain, it was still threatened on its frontiers by mighty foreign powers such as Britain and France.
All that started to change with the greatest real estate deal in history, which took place very early in the 1800s during the Administration of President Thomas Jefferson.
Here’s five crazy-but-true facts about one of the biggest real estate purchases ever – The Louisiana Purchase (Wanna read more? Check it out in A Patriot’s A to Z of America):
1. The Louisiana Purchase encompassed almost one MILLION miles.
The most powerful man on Earth, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and the president of a small, fledgling power, Thomas Jefferson, were in a quandary over related pieces of real estate
In 1802, Americans were shaken by news that Spain would transfer ownership to the French of its vast Louisiana territories, stretching for 828,000 square miles from New Orleans up to modern-day Montana. New Orleans was the port through which America’s Western states shipped much of their commerce. But Napoleon was seeking to reestablish French sway in North America and the nearby Caribbean. If the ambitious French leader denied New Orleans to U.S. ships, he could strangle America’s economy.
2. New Orleans was so important of a city, we quadrupled our offer for it.
Worried that he might lose port access to New Orleans, President Jefferson gave his Minister to France, Robert Livingston, instructions to try to buy New Orleans, and if possible the Florida territories to the east, for $2 million. When the Spanish blocked American cargo from New Orleans, Jefferson upped the ante to $10 million. He also sent his protégé, future president James Monroe, to Paris to aid Livingston. The president wrote Monroe: "All eyes, all hopes, are now fixed on you, for on the event of this mission depends the future destinies of this republic."
3. A man named du Pont (yes, the same du Pont name that would later own the material, chemical, and engineering American conglomerate) negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.
Napoleon, meanwhile, had his own concerns. He was ever at war in Europe, and badly short of funds. Knowing this, Jefferson engaged in “backdoor diplomacy.” A friend of his, French nobleman Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours--whose progeny would found the U.S. chemical firm of that name—worked behind the scenes in Paris. Du Pont de Nemours presented Napoleon’s aides with a novel idea whereby the Emperor could replenish his depleted treasury.
4. The United States of America almost ended at the Mississippi River.
On April 12, 1802, when Monroe arrived in Paris, Livingston gave him startling news. The day before, the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, swayed by Du Pont, had offered the U.S. all the Louisiana territories, for $15 million. The American envoys knew it would take weeks, via slow-moving sailing ships, to get approval from home. So they leapt at Napoleon’s offer on their own authority.
When word reached America, the nation was split. Jefferson’s foes in the opposition Federalist party saw the purchase as a power grab to benefit his allies in the West and South. Jefferson himself doubted the Constitution gave him authority to purchase new lands. Faced with such a bargain, however, the “Red Fox” noted:
“It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.”
A divided House of Representatives approved the deal by a vote of 59-57.
5. We paid only four cents an acre for the Louisiana Purchase.
The Louisiana Purchase was paid for with $3 million of U.S. gold, the rest in American bonds. The bonds were discounted by the cash-starved French; in the end the transaction totaled only $8.8 million.
It brought the United States, along with New Orleans, all of present-day Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma--as well as portions of Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
The price, in today’s dollars, was about $200 million, under 4 cents an acre. Revolutionary War hero Gen. Horatio Gates informed Jefferson: "Let the Land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a Song…"
And soon after, the President sent off an expedition, led by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, that would reach all the way to the shining sea of the Pacific.