Louisiana Purchase Manuscript Goes on Public Display

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
April 19, 2002
The greatest land deal in history. That's the historical
consensus on the Louisiana Purchase, a real estate deal in which the
United States paid France $15 million for around 828,000 square miles
of land.

With the stroke of a pen and a bank loan, the
United States nearly "this.href='javascript:popup(\'\')'"
onMouseOver="self.status='Photo Gallery';return true"
onMouseOut="self.status='';" title="Photo Gallery">doubled in
, acquiring land that stretched from the Mississippi River
west to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to the
Canadian border.

The original handwritten proclamation signed by President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, that informed the American public of the landmark deal is going on public display for the first time.

The 16-page document, from the private collection of Walter Scott, Jr., of Omaha, Nebraska, contains the complete text of the treaty and the two conventions that together constitute the agreement known as the Louisiana Purchase. The Proclamation bears the original, official United States seal embellished with silk ribbons.

The document will be on display at the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, April 20 through May 12. The exhibit coincides with the premiere of Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West, a large-format film produced by National Geographic Television and Film and distributed by Destination Cinema, Inc., at the Lozier IMAX Theatre at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.

The film, celebrating the bicentennial of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, was brought to the IMAX screen by National Geographic supported by a grant from the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation.

It was largely the territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase that Lewis and Clark set out to explore when they began their epic Western adventure in May 1804.

Rivalries, Secret Treaties, Spies

The 1803 purchase took place in a stormy cauldron of international power plays, as England, France, and Spain vied for supremacy both in Europe and North America, in a stew rife with political rivalries, secret treaties, spies, personal ambition, and the always looming specter of war.

It changed the course of history for several nations. It cleared the way for the Lewis and Clark expedition that opened the rest of the western United States, allowed Napoleon to concentrate on his campaign in Europe, sowed the seeds of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain, and spelled the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire in North America.

"The United States was interested in acquiring New Orleans, and the Floridas, particularly western Florida, from France, in order to control the Gulf Coast and the terminus of the Mississippi. They wound up with a western empire," said Bob Moore, a historian at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri.

The deal was criticized at the time as overly costly and probably unconstitutional. The boundaries of the purchase were undefined and title to the land cloudy. Many Americans considered the purchase senseless—why pay money the nation didn't have for land characterized as a vast swampland and a howling wilderness.

But President Thomas Jefferson wanted the land, and the prospect of acquiring it without war was irresistible. Ignoring its questionable legality, he rushed the U.S. Congress to ratify the treaty, then issued a proclamation announcing the deal.

After nearly two centuries in the hands of private collectors, that original proclamation is being unveiled to the public for the first time April 20 at the Joslyn Art Museum. Following the Paper Trail

The original treaty, signed by France's Minister of Finance François Barbé-Marbois, and Jefferson's two envoys, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, is at the National Archives. The proclamation announcing the deal was handwritten by an unknown aid of Jefferson's. It contains exact copies of the treaty document and two conventions that outline the terms of the deal, along with comments by Jefferson acknowledging its accuracy and the importance of the transaction.

The document was sent to the publisher of a Washington, D.C. newspaper, Samuel Harrison Smith, who duly printed it on November 2, 1803 in his newspaper, the National Intelligencer. He did not return it, nor was there any particular reason to do so; the newspaper article was the vehicle of public record at the time.

The original Louisiana Purchase Proclamation was not seen again for 145 years. Since it was acquired by a Detroit doctor in 1948, it has exchanged hands several times. The current owner, Walter Scott, Jr., acquired the document in 1996.

Battling Over the New World

The land that ultimately became known as the Louisiana Territory changed hands several times before its incarnation as the greatest land deal ever.

First explored and claimed for France by Renè-Robert Cavelier La Salle in 1682, the territory was named in honor of the French king. Louis XIV did not consider the land a particularly impressive acquisition, as he was busy building Versailles and warring with Spain.

French colonists began to settle the territory in 1699, largely to prevent the British from taking over. The port city of New Orleans was built to serve the fur trappers, boatmen, farmers, and traders who settled along the Mississippi River, but the interior of the territory remained unknown, unexplored, and occupied by Native Americans.

France and Britain battled for supremacy in the New World from 1753 to 1763 in the French and Indian War. France ultimately lost and the British claimed all territory from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico east of the Mississippi River. Land west of the Mississippi was considered useless, uninhabitable, and worthless.

King Louis XV gave what remained of the Louisiana Territory—the presumably useless land west of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains—to his cousin, the King of Spain, Charles III as a kind of "thank you for being our ally, sorry for losing, know this isn't enough," apology for the war in North America.

Spain's king wasn't that keen on accepting the giant piece of worthless land, but his ministers convinced him that it was the best he would get as compensation for backing a loser. Title to the land was transferred from France to Spain in 1763. When the first Spanish governor arrived in New Orleans to take over in 1766, he was chased out of town by angry mobs. Eventually an uneasy informal truce was achieved; Spain ruled a territory populated by the French, and the English, who owned the east side of the Mississippi, dominated trade, smuggled goods, spied on the Spanish, and incited Native Americans to cause problems for the Spanish.

Both France and Spain provided help to the colonists during the American Revolution, but not because they were enthralled with the idea of an independent United States. They were, however, interested in a weakened Great Britain. Under the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, the United States received all lands south of Canada, north of Florida, and east of the Mississippi. The river became the boundary between Spanish holdings and the new American republic.

Prior to the revolution, the colonists were concentrated on the east side of the Appalachian Mountains. The end of the war saw a surge of migration westward. The Spanish felt threatened as more and more people settled in the lush valleys along the Mississippi, and in 1784, closed the lower Mississippi to all foreigners.

Settling the West: A Political Firefight

Closure was in direct violation of the 1783 treaty, but politicians in the new American republic did not agree on the direction the nascent country should take.

Political power rested with the 13 original colonies, and trade was focused on the ports of the Atlantic, and many were opposed to the westward expansion. Congress appointed John Jay, a New York politician favored by eastern merchants and ship owners, to negotiate a treaty with Spain. His treaty, which would open trade routes for east coast merchants and give complete control of the Mississippi to the Spanish for 25 to 30 years, brought to the fore the rising tensions between the eastern states and western settlers.

Spies, intrigue, talk of seceding from the United States, and plots to overthrow Spanish rule of the territory dominated political discussion.

In 1795 Spain and Britain separately negotiated treaties with the U.S. to define land boundaries and navigation rights on the Mississippi. France, worried about the balance of power but unable to fight a full-scale war because of problems at home and Napoleon's battles in Europe, continued its policy of harassment, seizing hundreds of American ships.

When Napoleon ascended to power in France, a treaty to end the quasi war with the U.S. was signed on September 30, 1800. On October 1, France and Spain signed a secret agreement. In exchange for a small part of northern Italy and six warships, Spain gave France the Louisiana Territory.

"When the territory belonged to the Spanish, Jefferson wasn't too worried," said Moore. "But the French were another matter altogether." Napoleon was determined to take his drive to conquer the world to North America, and in October 1802 New Orleans was once again effectively closed to American shipping interests.

This enraged westerners who depended on the river as a major trade and traffic route, easterners who had begun establishing shipping routes there, and southerners who worried about the French presence. President Thomas Jefferson had been hoping that the exodus west would lead to acquisition of the territory almost by default, without war. Caricatured in the press as weak, and frustrated by the lack of progress of Robert Livingston who was in France trying to negotiate with Napoleon, he appointed James Monroe as a special envoy.

Monroe departed for France with instructions to offer to buy New Orleans and possibly Florida; his fallback position was to negotiate merely to keep the port open to Americans. If all negotiations failed, he was to go to Britain and begin plans for an alliance against the French.

In the meantime, Napoleon's crusade to conquer the world had stalled. Thousands of men had been lost to yellow fever and guerilla warfare in his attempt to secure St. Domingue (now Haiti), a Caribbean colony that provided a great deal of wealth to France. His ships were iced in by bad weather, and Britain was threatening war. Stunning both his advisors and the American diplomats, he decided to cut his losses and sell. After several weeks of negotiations, Livingston and Monroe agreed to purchase Louisiana for $15 million. A British bank had to loan the U.S. the money, at 6 percent interest, 15 years to pay.

Tumult at Home

Problems with the treaty were legion. Neither Livingston nor Monroe had the authority to agree to the purchase. Napoleon had not honored his agreement with Spain to trade northern Italy for the North American territory, so it was unclear whether he actually had the right to sell the property. The boundaries of the property were undefined. Opponents of the purchase questioned its legality, cost, and the wisdom of going into debt for worthless wilderness.

Even Jefferson questioned its constitutionality, but he desperately wanted the land. As Napoleon wavered, Jefferson pushed the treaty through Congress. It was ratified by a vote of 24 to 7 on October 20, 1803.

Within months of issuing the proclamation announcing the treaty, Jefferson authorized Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the lands, rivers, flora and fauna of the newly acquired territory. National Geographic brings the amazing story of adventure, danger and the exploration of the unmapped west to the large screen in Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West, which is premiering in Omaha in conjunction with the museum exhibition.

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