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What Territory Did the United States Buy From France in 1803?

Photo of Mississippi River
The Louisiana Purchase included over 800,000 square miles of territory.

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?

Acceptable Answers:

  • the Louisiana Territory
  • Louisiana

The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

What Was the Louisiana Purchase?

The Louisiana Purchase massively increased the size of the United States. The territory of Louisiana (which was much larger than the current state of Louisana) was in French hands. Since France could no longer defend the territory easily, the American government was in position to buy it. This was the beginning of the end of France’s control over regions of North America and was the commencement of America’s long westward expansion.

The Louisiana Purchase was the biggest land deal the United States government ever made. The United States purchased the entire western half of the Mississippi river basin – more than 800,000 square miles – for less than three cents an acre. Napolean Bonaparte negotiated the deal with President Thomas Jefferson. 

From France to Spain and Back Again

In 1800, Napolean Bonaparte was eager to re-establish a French Empire in the Americas. He sought Caribbean islands in addition to territory west of the Mississippi River.

Louisiana had changed hands on a number of occasions. After the French and Indian War in the mid-1700s, France was forced to cede Louisiana to Spain following the Treaty of Fontainebleau. They still had designs on reclaiming it, though, to use as a staging post to defend ‘New France’ in the Americas.

Napolean’s influence was sufficient enough to convince Spain to return Louisiana to French control in 1802 in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso.

The Revolt in Haiti

Inspired by the French Revolution, the enslaved people of Haiti revolted against France, drove French forces from the island after years of war, and declared an independent state. French ambitions in Haiti remained, however, as did their desire to expand into Louisiana.

After discovering a secret transfer of the territory from Spain to France in the Treaty of San Ildefonso, the Americans became concerned as Spain was viewed a much more palatable neighbor than the French.

Secrets Revealed

While France initially denied any treaty, Rufus King (an American ambassador) made President Jefferson aware that the land deal had occurred. King later found a copy of the treaty and delivered it to Secretary of State James Madison and President Jefferson. 

It engendered a palpable fear that if France and Britain went to war, and the Louisiana territory was in French hands, Britain might capture it. 

Consequently, Jefferson and Madison determined to pursue a foreign policy that was reasonably friendly towards France. They decided to appoint a Robert R. Livingston as Ambassador to Paris in order to negotiate a land purchase that would include the port of New Orleans. 

Why Did France Think the Louisiana Purchase Was a Good Deal?

Since selling the Louisiana territory involved giving up a vast amount of land, the question is, why was Napoleon willing to do so? Currently, land in the United States costs $1000 to $4000 per acre – 800,000 square miles is an enormous territory. Was France right to permanently relinquish their control?

Napoleon sold the territory because he needed money to finance his European wars. The Napoleonic Wars had left France in desperate need of funds, and the Louisiana Purchase was too good to turn down. 

Napoleon Realized Louisiana Would Be Difficult to Defend

War between Britain and France might have spread to North America if Napoleon did not sell the territory. He was also unsure if he could defend Louisiana, especially with the possibility of a British naval blockade. 

Napoleon’s troops had been devastated by fighting in Saint Domingue (Haiti), and subsequently France accepted the loss of its North American territories.

The treaty doubled the size of the United States. The land stretched from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to what is now the Canadian border.

What Is Today’s Equivalent of $15 Million in 1803?

Even in 1803, it was a small price to pay for that much land. $15 million then is the equivalent of around $342 million today and small change compared to the roughly trillion dollars that the land is valued at.

Selling the Entire Territory Was France’s Suggestion

When the French and Americans discussed the deal, the Americans planned to only purchase the port of New Orleans or not much more. They were caught off guard when the French representative offered up the entire territory.

American representatives James Monroe and Robert Livingston were pleasantly surprised and immediately agreed to the deal, even though it cost more than their initial budget.

James Monroe and Robert Livingston had been instructed to spend up to $10 million to buy only West Florida and New Orleans. It was by far the biggest increase in United States territory since the American Revolution. 

The Fate of American Indian Territory

Europeans did not yet control the land west of the Mississippi Valley in 1803. After the United States secured the Louisiana Purchase from France, they had to buy or conquer territory from the Native Americans further west. 

Many of the Native Americans were removed by force or via unequal treaties. The United States spent a lot more than the initial $15 million bringing the land west of the Mississippi Valley under their control. Today, there are 15 states that belonged entirely or partly to what was formerly the Louisiana territory. 

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