By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Today I am going to indulge my love of history and channel my pioneer spirit to remember an important event. On this day (April 30th) in 1803, with the dramatic sweep of a quill pen, and a payment of 50 million francs ($11,250,000), President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory on behalf of the United States of America.
In addition to the purchase price, the United States also cancelled debt owed by France in the amount of 18 million francs (or $3,750,000). Contrary to opposing political opinion of the time, and despite the fact the purchase price was quite exorbitant for a country less than 30 years old, there is no denying that paying less than 43 cents per acre for 828,000 square miles of land was quite a bargain.
More importantly, despite his detractors, Jefferson recognized the importance of securing the western border of the United States by buying-out the presence of a foreign power. In 1802, one year before the acquisition, Jefferson wrote: “This little event, of France’s possessing herself of Louisiana, is the embryo of a tornado which will burst on the countries on both sides of the Atlantic and involve in its effects their highest destinies.”
By this statement we can see that the Louisiana Purchase was not just about ‘more land’. Jefferson was greatly concerned with the future security of the United States. The political ramifications of a foreign country bordering the western territory of the United States, combined with mercurial changes in Europe, including murmurings of war between England and France, and concerns involving Spain (the original owner of the territory) seeking to reclaim the western territory, could not be ignored. To Jefferson, all these factors resembled a virtual powder keg.
A man of keen intellect, he worked to pursue diplomatic action with James Madison, and subsequently engaged James Monroe (a personal friend and political ally) to travel to Paris and meet with Napoleon. The importance of Monroe’s mission can be summed up in Jefferson’s own words: “All eyes, all hopes, are now fixed on you, for on the event of this mission depends the future destinies of this Republic.”
Note: Jefferson’s concerns about those murmurings of war between England and France were realized on May 18, 1803. Just 18 days after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, England declared war on France.
Another important factor to consider regarding Jefferson’s reasons for the Louisiana Purchase is that in 1802, Spain ceded Louisiana to France whereupon New Orleans was closed to American shipping. As such, the Louisiana Purchase protected access by the United States and its citizens not only to the Mississippi River, but ensured trade via the port of New Orleans.
As someone who has long admired Thomas Jefferson and studied his papers, it is safe to say he had a brilliant mind, and was also a great visionary. There is little doubt (in my mind) that he also had the foresight to recognize a vast doorway would be opened that promised growth, opportunity, prosperity, development, and strength for the United States, and its people.
Go West, Young Man!
To get a grasp on how much land the Louisiana Purchase brought to the United States, look at the photograph of a 1904 United States postage stamp commemorating the historic acquisition. The land not only doubled the size of the United States (to the right of the shaded area), but comprised 15 new states (or a sizeable portion of the land which makes up those states). Among these states are: Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, parts of Minnesota (specifically west of the Mississippi), most of North and South Dakota, the northeastern section of New Mexico, northern Texas, portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado (east of the Continental Divide). Of course, Louisiana, (specifically the City of New Orleans and west of the Mississippi), is also included. Not pictured, however, were two provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan), originally part of the Louisiana Purchase but which later became Canadian provinces.
Needless to say, as we recall the men and women (many from our family trees) who pioneered the new frontier and journeyed west of the Mississippi River, we need to remember the historic event that made it possible for them to have the freedom and opportunity to do so. They traveled cross-country by foot, on horseback, covered wagon, stagecoaches, and railroads. They journeyed via rafts, boats and barges down the Mississippi, and carved a place for themselves (and us) in a great wilderness.
It should be noted that when Thomas Jefferson ordered Lewis and Clark to make their historic Expedition into the West and report back their findings, great care was given to show respect for the native peoples of these lands with the sincere hope that we could live together with respect and peace as one country. Unfortunately, the ideals and political policies of others were not always the same. Many promises were forgotten or broken. Often in the battles and bloodshed that ensued, the idealistic farmer or pioneer was caught in the middle, forced to stand alone and fight or die.
Every generation dreams and struggles to make its mark, to create a lasting legacy for future generations. Sometimes they fail, and often they succeed. Sometimes the vision remains clear, and sometimes it gets clouded for a while. And sometimes the strength of a land is forged by fire and the iron will of its people.
It’s difficult to think of the United States of America today without the lands Thomas Jefferson acquired for it in 1803. We remember the struggles, the adversity, and even the sins of the past, but we also hold fast with pride to the contributions that generations of people from this 'Louisiana Purchase' section of our country have made, as much as we do the founding fathers and settlers in Colonial America. Teachers, farmers, scientists, physicians, artists, musicians, authors, philanthropists, civic leaders, statesmen and presidents.
Remembering the Past with an Eye to the Future:
Nothing is more important, in my opinion, than learning from the past to appreciate the present, and build for the future. When we look back at history and the doors that were opened to us, we should take a moment to remember the sacrifices of those who had the courage to not only take that leap of faith but make it possible for us to do the same.
On this the 210th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase – it would not be remiss to take a moment to remember what this great land acquisition did for the United States. Not only did it strengthen the size and significance of the United States, but it opened the gateway for dreams, opportunity, and a better life for many people. As much as we must be thankful for the pioneers who went West, we must also remember pioneers like James Monroe and Robert Livingston (emissaries for Jefferson in negotiating the purchase), as well as the man in charge whose vision and strength of purpose made it possible – Thomas Jefferson.
Today, in St. Louis, Missouri, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial exists, named in honor of our third president. And an important part of this memorial is the stunning and inspiring Gateway Arch. In the late 1940s, approximately 144 years after the Louisiana Purchase was made, a nationwide competition was held to select a design for a memorial in honor of the pioneers who settled the West.
A Finnish American architect by the name of Eero Saarinen won with his design of a 630-foot tall stainless steel arch. However, construction of the Gateway Arch did not begin until 1963. Completed on October 28, 1965, the Arch was designed to withstand earthquakes and high winds. With a foundation set 60 feet into the ground, the Gateway Arch stands tall above the skyline of St. Louis and symbolizes the freedom, unbreakable spirit, and hopeful optimism of people who looked to the West.
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial includes the Museum of Westward Expansion. The size of a football field, the museum contains actual quotes from over 150 letters, journals, and diaries written by 19th century men and women, providing visitors with first person insight into the daily lives of these pioneers. In addition, the museum houses extensive information about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, preserves rare artifacts and mounted animal specimens, and “explores the world of the American Indians and the 19th century pioneers who helped shape the history of the American West”.
I hope you enjoyed my tribute to Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, and the opportunities it provided for the United States of America, and the countless pioneers whose dreams came true because of it. As a descendant of pioneers who traveled West, I am grateful for their courage, their sacrifices, and their perseverence. As a writer and someone who loves books, I am grateful as well for all the wonderful books written about the Westward Expansion, and the American West. ~ AKB
Jefferson’s Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Men Behind the Louisiana Purchase, by Charles Cerami (2004), Sourcebooks
The Louisiana Purchase: From Independence to Lewis and Clark, by Michael Burgan (2007), The Heinemann Library
Museum of Westward Expansion, St. Louis, Missouri
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation