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Why did Napoleon sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States?

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thomasrichins | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) Honors

Posted December 22, 2011 at 11:39 AM via web

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Why did Napoleon sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States?

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readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted December 22, 2011 at 11:59 AM (Answer #1)

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This a great question. The Louisiana purchase doubled the size of America. It was the largest land purchase in American history. It took place in 1803. There are several reasons why France offered to sell this land to America.

First, Napoleon was at war in Europe. So, he needed money. America paid 60,000,000 francs for the land and cancelled another 18,000,000 franc, which the French owed. So, this was a decent sum of money that the French sorely needed.

Second, Napolean was a pragmatist. He knew that he could not control that huge tract of land from so far away. He was already losing influence in the West. Moreover, he had enough troubles with the war in Europe.

Finally, Napoleon knew that the American wanted the land. Before, American delegates came to France to ask for New Orleans and France turned them down. So, he knew that he had a willing buyer.

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larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted December 22, 2011 at 9:48 PM (Answer #2)

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The above answer is only partially correct. Napoleon was indeed in need of funds to prosecute his ongoing wars with Britain and other European powers, and the sale of land to the United States did provide some revenue for him; but it was more of a "fire sale" than anything else. The final purchase price was less than two cents per acre, an excellent price even in those days. Napoleon was not so desperate at that point in time that he had to "sell the farm," so to speak. His real motive for selling to the U.S. is still vague, but several circumstances shed light on the issue:

Napoleon had only acquired the territory himself three years earlier in a Treaty with Spain. He had made promises to the Spanish which he frankly did not intend to keep. It is quite likely that Napoleon had no interest in ever retaining the property. In the meantime, Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, was concerned that the French might try to close the port of New Orleans to American traffic. The Mississippi River at that point was the nation's primary port; if the U.S. were to lose access to New Orleans, the country might be strangled economically. Although Jefferson was something of a Francophile and had little use for the British, he realized that such a situation might require him to negotiate with the British, simply because they were at war with France and Napoleon. Jefferson was so concerned that he wrote to his ambassador in France:

The day that France takes possession of New Orleans, we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.

Although Napoleon's true motives are still a matter of conjecture, a major factor was a slave revolt in the French island of Santo Domingue (present day Haiti,) the only truly successful slave revolt in the Americas. It is entirely possible that the loss of this island possession caused Napoleon to further ose interest in North America.

When the American ambassador, Robert R. Livingston, approached Napoleon's foreign minister, Charles Tallyrand, his purpose was to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Contrary to the response above, Tallyrand did not refuse the offer, he rather countered with an offer to sell all of the Louisiana territory to America. Livingston was so excited by the offer that he accepted it before he received authorization from Jefferson. Livingston feared that Napoleon might change his mind.

Whatever the motive, both Tallyrand and Napoleon were very coy about the sale. When asked about the boundaries of the territory, Tallyrand replied:

I can give you no direction. You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose that you will make the most of it.

It would thus appear that both the U.S. and France considered themselves the winner in this situation. France rid itself of lands which it never intended to keep and gained much needed revenue in the bargain; and the U.S. gained enough territory to double the size of the nation.

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