For Kids: Thomas Jefferson was the 3rd U.S. President. He served as president from 1801-1809. It was a time of exploration and trade. Fulton's Steamboat made its first trip on the Hudson River.
At this time in history, France owned the port of New Orleans. Napoleon decided to block the U.S. from using the French port. He knew the United States needed access to a big port for shipping and trade. Napoleon needed money. England and France were at war. Napoleon needed a big chunk of money fast to fight the war.
As Napoleon expected, President Jefferson sent representatives to France to attempt to buy a piece of the port of New Orleans. Napoleon refused. Instead, he offered an all or nothing deal. He offered the United States government a chance to buy the entire French owned Louisiana Territory for very little money per acre. That territory included all of New Orleans and a whole lot more. It included 500,000,000 acres of land. The purchase price was 3 cents an acre! (Today, that would be equivalent to around 40 cents an acre.) With this one purchase, Napoleon would gain the money he needed to fight a war with England, and the United States would gain enough land to double in size.
You might think it would be easy for President Jefferson to get approval from Congress for this purchase. But it was not easy. Congress had many concerns.
- Some critics pointed out that the Constitution did not have a provision for the purchase of land by the federal government from a foreign power. Jefferson countered by pointing out there was a provision to create treaties. The purchase would be a treaty of purchase. Jefferson was not sure if that was a legal argument, but that was what he used.
- Some thought Spain would be upset, and perhaps even declare war on the United States, if the U.S. purchased this land. Napoleon had recently taken the Louisiana Territory from Spain. Spain wanted the land back, and they did not want Napoleon to be able to afford to expand his war with England to include Spain.
- Some feared that settlers moving into the far western side of this purchase would not remain loyal to the United States because the distance would be too great between the settlements and Washington for good management and communication.
- There were questions about what to do with the people who had already settled in the Louisiana Territory. Some were French, some Spanish, some were African who were not slaves. Would they become U.S. citizens?
- Abolitionists were very concerned about the question of slavery. Would slavery be allowed in this huge new territory?
Congress was not able to address most of these concerns with answers prior to purchase. Time was tight. If the United States did not take the deal, Napoleon might find another buyer or change his mind. Congress decided to buy. The House approved the funds. The Senate ratified this treaty of purchase in 1803 by a vote of 24 to 7. Even today, the Louisiana Purchase (in 1803) still ranks as one of the best real estate deals in history.