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We the People: The nation’s pursuit of equality was promoted – and harmed – by the Louisiana Purchase

This map from the 1919 edition of McConnell’s Historical Maps of the United States (available via the Library of Congress) shows the area purchased by the United States from France in 1803 known as the Louisiana Purchase.  (McConnell's Historical maps of the United States via the Library of Congress)
This map from the 1919 edition of McConnell’s Historical Maps of the United States (available via the Library of Congress) shows the area purchased by the United States from France in 1803 known as the Louisiana Purchase. (McConnell's Historical maps of the United States via the Library of Congress)
By Mathew Callaghan The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?

President Thomas Jefferson believed his decision in 1803 to purchase the 828,000 square miles known today as the Louisiana Purchase would spark equality. And while the act did boost the fortunes of many Americans in ways that promoted that ideal, it did the opposite for Indigenous people already living on the land and enslaved people in some of the new states carved from the territory.

The Louisiana Purchase included land west of the Mississippi River in the Midwest, but did not include most of the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest. The purchase of this territory resulted in many Americans moving to the West for myriad religious, economic, agricultural and other personal reasons.

President Thomas Jefferson negotiated with French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to purchase the territory for $15 million. Today, with an adjustment for inflation, the cost of the territory would be about $309 million.

Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University, believes the deal was a great one for America. “It’s pretty cheap,” Neem said, “I mean, it was a steal from the perspective of the United States.”

But why did France sell such a vast expanse of territory at such a discounted rate? In 1791, a slave insurrection took place in French-controlled Haiti. This weakened the French impact on North America, as the Caribbean colonies were the most profitable for European nations, Neem said. Mix this with France facing war in Europe, and it left Napoleon with little choice but to sell 828,000 miles for about $18 per square mile.

Neem says that although the deal was a steal, Jefferson had his doubts.

“Now he was concerned a little bit about the constitutional questions about whether he was authorized to do it,” Neem said, “But he ultimately went for it, because he felt it was too great an opportunity to turn down.”

The Louisiana Purchase effectively doubled the land claims the United States had, according to Brian Stack, a history professor at Spokane Falls Community College. With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, named after King Louis XIV of France, American citizens were able to head west and enjoy the fruits of the unsettled land.

“Access to land, for Jefferson, meant that American citizens would have the means to maintain their independence from each other, and their relative equality, and that would sustain the republic over time,” Neem said.

Neem said a driving factor behind the purchase was Jefferson’s fear of becoming like European nations. Jefferson was afraid of a small group of people controlling and owning all the land, and a large group of poorer people depending on the small group of elites, Neem said.

“Jefferson really worried the kind of inequality we have today would undermine the Republic,” Neem said.

Stack believes that Thomas Jefferson being an agrarian also had a lot to do with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

“He was really big in supporting the farmers. And so opening up all that farmland, and having a way for America to extend itself and sort of continue its greatness; that appealed to a lot of people. And so here’s, you know, open territory, there’s money to be made, it allows people to continue this American spirit,” Stack said.

Despite the opportunity for certain American citizens, Stack says many groups living in the United States suffered from the Louisiana Purchase. The Louisiana Purchase forced newly formed states to decide whether to allow slavery, Stack said. Each state’s decision determined whether that area became a sanctuary for those formerly enslaved or home to the heinous reality for those forced to work under terrible conditions. Either way, it did bring the concept of slavery in the United States into the limelight.

“It pushed America more towards the Civil War; eventually it brought slavery up as an important issue,” Stack said.

Not only did the Louisiana Purchase affect the enslaved population, it also affected Indigenous people, who saw a huge influx of settlers looking for land.

“It also resulted in violence with Indigenous people. As what America and Thomas Jefferson had purchased, of course, was the right to the land,” Stack said. In order to physically attain Native American land, Stack says the U.S. government and its citizens would either create treaties or take the land through violence.

While the Louisiana Purchase gave a lot to many different people, it took so much away from others. The lessons from the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson’s call for what he saw as equality are still applicable today.

“This is really hard, you know, to tell these stories, because the stories have contradictions within them, right?” Neem said. “The expansion of slavery, displacing indigenous people, but also, we don’t want to lose sight of Jefferson’s point, that a society that is deeply unequal will not be able to maintain its liberty.”

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