Calendar Features

March & April 2003 Feature

Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase

Stacey Bredhoff
Senior Curator
Office of Museum Programs

Exchange copy of Louisiana Purchase Treaty
"Let the land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a Song."
—Gen. Horatio Gates to President Thomas Jefferson, July 18, 1803

Robert Livingston and James Monroe closed on the sweetest real estate deal of the millennium when they signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in Paris on April 30, 1803. They were authorized to pay France up to $10 million for the port of New Orleans and the Floridas. When offered the entire territory of Louisiana—an area larger than Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined—the American negotiators swiftly agreed to a price of $15 million.

President Jefferson had long been captivated by the West and dreamed of a United States that would stretch across the entire continent. Although he was a strict interpreter of the Constitution who wondered if the U.S. Government was authorized to acquire new territory, he was also a visionary. When he heard that Napoleon had threatened to take back the offer, Jefferson brushed his doubts aside and submitted the treaty to the Senate, where it was ratified on October 20, 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase added 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River to the United States. For roughly 4 cents an acre, the United States had purchased a territory with a richness of natural resources that had yet to be discovered. Jefferson's dream of an "empire for liberty" would crash headlong into the reality of the many Indian peoples who had inhabited the land for centuries. But 200 years ago, his ministers signed the document that doubled the nation's size, and the President prepared to occupy a land of unimaginable riches.

About the Documents

The original Treaty File for the Louisiana Purchase, preserved by the National Archives, is made up of many documents—some in English, some in French. Shown above is the French copy of the agreement regarding the financial aspects of the transaction. It is bound in a volume with a purple velvet cover. The initials, "P.F." embroidered on the cover, stand for "Peuple Français." With a flourish, Napoleon, first consul of the French Republic signed his name "Bonaparte" on the final page of the document.

Also contained in the file are the documents written in English that were signed by the American negotiators in Paris and sent to President Jefferson. (Record Group 11, General Records of the U.S. Government)

Original documents from the Louisiana Purchase Treaty File are currently traveling the nation in the exhibition "American Originals—Treasures from the National Archives." For a schedule of the tour visit our web site, www.archives.gov/exhibit-hall/american_originals_iv/traveling_exhibit.html.

The Louisiana Purchase is tied to the Our Documents initiative launched in September 2002 by President Bush to promote public understanding of the importance of rights and responsibilities in our democratic society. Our Documents includes 100 milestone documents, drawn primarily from the holdings of the National Archives. Additional information about Our Documents is available online at www.ourdocuments.gov.

 

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