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The Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase

Napoleon was eager to unload the Louisiana Territory to finance his dreams of empire-building in Europe.
Napoleon was eager to unload the Louisiana Territory to finance his dreams of empire-building in Europe.

Two hundred years ago today, the United States bought perhaps the biggest real-estate bargain of the millennium, the Louisiana Purchase. Signed in Paris on April 30, 1803, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty gave the fledgling United States 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River for a mere $15 million -- or about 4 cents an acre. The incredibly favorable terms of the deal prompted Gen. Horatio Gates to exclaim to President Thomas Jefferson: "Let the land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a song."

Although the purchase more than doubled America's land mass, Jefferson's original plans had been far less ambitious. Anxious to secure a shipping route on the Mississippi River, Jefferson had originally instructed his envoys, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, to offer France $10 million for the port of New Orleans.

But Napoleon, who was abandoning his plans for expansion in America in favor of empire-building in Europe, offered the United States the whole territory instead. Fearing that Napoleon would revoke the offer, Livingston and Monroe closed the deal before they could even inform Jefferson.

The Louisiana Purchase faced strong opposition from Jefferson's political opponents in the Federalist Party, who argued that the deal, made without the consent of the Senate, was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Jefferson held firm in his plans for western expansion, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was ratified in the autumn of 1803. That same year, the Lewis and Clark expedition set off; it would soon help delineate the riches and boundaries of the property the United States had just purchased.

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