Jefferson’s Revolutionary Louisiana Purchase

Thomas Jefferson cultivates a plan to buy the Port of New Orleans, but got much more than he bargained for. See more in this clip as we celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Thomas Jefferson, first and foremost, was a naturalist and explorer and somebody who thought in terms of an empire. He was the visionary who saw from Atlantic to Pacific, and he started finding ways to implement that.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: The United States in 1803 is comprised mostly of a thin sliver of population right along the Eastern seaboard, and they’re moving out to the west slowly. Less than 10% of the country lives in a city, and the majority of people are farmers. It’s overwhelmingly rural, and the western part of the United States out in the territories is entirely dependent on the Mississippi River.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: And at the bottom of the river was the great port city of New Orleans, and Jefferson wanted it.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: But the French controlled the port, and there are rampant rumors they’re going to shut down the access of the Mississippi River for Americans and presumably start charging them high tariffs and pinching them in, squeezing them like an anaconda.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Jefferson was obsessed with the future of the country, thinking that the country would not be safe. As long as there was territory that European powers were on, there would always be potential trouble for Americans.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: It’s the biggest issue of the day. If they’re not going to let us send our stuff through that port, that’s going to devastate our livelihood. And so everyone is absolutely up in arms. And now tensions start to rise. Thomas Jefferson doesn’t want to go to war with France. He’s a Francophile. He was the ambassador to France. He likes the French. So Jefferson, trying not to go to war, has an idea. He’s going to send his friend James Monroe, the guy who will be president eventually. And he says, I want you to go to France, and I’m going to authorize you $10 million to buy the port of New Orleans. You go over there, and you see if they’ll sell it to us.

JON MEACHAM: Now Napoleon, having been defeated in Haiti, wants to get rid of his new world holdings. He wants to focus on Europe.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: He needed money to fund his perpetual war with Great Britain, and this was a way for him to get money to do that.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: Napoleon decides to get as much money as he can and just sell the whole thing to the United States. So Monroe shows up.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: And lo and behold, to his utter surprise, Napoleon was willing to sell the whole kit and caboodle– not just New Orleans but the entire Louisiana Territory for a cheap price of $15 million.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Napoleon’s brothers are shocked, and they get into an argument. How could you do this? This doesn’t make any sense. His brothers must have thought of this as sort of a twilight of their empire. And he is, of course, Napoleon, and this is his choice to make.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: Napoleon says, you give us $15 million, and we’ll give you the entire parcel, doubling the United States, OK? The entire landmass of the United States at that time is basically equal in area to what’s in the Louisiana Purchase. But it’s touchy because Thomas Jefferson has run for president on a platform. The federal government should not do one iota of a thing beyond what is specifically written down in the Constitution. There’s nothing in there about take $10 million and go buy the port of New Orleans.

JON MEACHAM: Mr. Small Government, Thomas Jefferson, was undertaking the doubling of the country, shifting the destiny of the country, changing it forever. So if you’re looking for irony in American life, you don’t have to look very hard.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: But it ends up being totally worth it. In today’s dollars, that’d be $348 million for a thing that’s now worth about $1.7 trillion. And just to put some context, the Harrah’s Casino that is in New Orleans, they paid $350 million just to renovate the casino. So they bought the entirety of what are all or part of 15 different states of the United States.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: There is no United States as we envision it today without Mr. Jefferson’s incredible purchase.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Basically, what Jefferson bought was the middle part, what we call the heartland, of the United States of America. And then, of course, Jefferson sends Lewis and Clark out on an expedition to see what’s out there.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: It’s a tremendous bounty for the United States– the oil, the timber, the farmland that proves to be perhaps the most productive farmland anywhere on the planet, plus the resources, the wildlife, everything. All of that moves us from tangential player in the world economy to something that even the historic powers of Europe are looking over, going, whoa, wait a second. What just happened? But it also comes with a kind of a curse on the other side.

JON MEACHAM: There are two original sins in American life– the removal of Native American people and African-American slavery. The Louisiana Purchase was a critical part of that. It expanded the agricultural markets, which expanded the demand and the plausibility of slave labor. It helped lead to this division of the country into north and south and slave and free, which created what William Seward called the irrepressible conflict.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: It was an amazing deal, but in the end, the price of the Louisiana Purchase is not paid in dollars to the French. It’s paid in blood in the Civil War.

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