The Louisiana Purchase was a significant event of monumental proportions in the history of the United States. From the French perspective, just why did Napoleon sell the Louisiana territory to the Americans?
It cannot be understated just how important the Louisiana Purchase was to the United States. The territory utterly transformed the nation over the next decades, in both good and bad ways.
Why would France decide to give up such a crucial territory for only $15 million, or the bargain basement price of 3-4 cents an acre?
Even more puzzling, the French had just reacquired the Louisiana territory and critical port city of New Orleans in the secret 1800 Treaty of San Ildefonso with Spain. To part with the territory so soon after its transfer left many French aristocrats puzzled.
While Napoleon had his reasons for the sale of the Louisiana territory, the treaty has gone down in history as one of the most impactful for the United States.
Why did Napoleon Sell the Louisiana Territory?
French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte ultimately sold the Louisiana territory to the United States for four reasons: the French government needed money, an impending war with Great Britain, the fallout from the Haitian Revolution, and the difficulty in maintaining a North American colony.
While Napoleon’s reasons were valid, his decision to sell the Louisiana territory certainly came as a surprise.
Napoleon dreamed and yearned for a French colonial empire to rival the British. Though viewed as of lesser importance than the colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti), Louisiana and its crucial port city of New Orleans was to play a large role in French colonial dominance.1
Where Saint Domingue would be the crown jewel with its lucrative sugar plantations, Louisiana would be the bread basket supplying the empire with grains.
While the dreams of colonial domination evaporated, Napoleon turned his attention towards establishing an empire across the European continent instead.
French Government Needed Money
The first reason that Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory was that the French government was in need of money.
When Napoleon rose to power in 1799, the French government’s finances were in disarray due to the effects of the French Revolution.
Napoleon brought stabilization to the regime, though direct taxes on the population made up a sky-high ~60% of all government revenues, compared to just 30% pre-revolution.2
In addition, Napoleon’s government maintained a large standing army to protect the nation and ward off enemies. Military expenditures accounted for nearly 60% of the overall budget, a staggering number to maintain.2
In order to lessen the strain of direct taxes on the populace, the French government simply needed more money from other sources. Some of those other sources included the colonies and in this instance, the Louisiana territory.
While Napoleon had grand plans for the Louisiana territory, those dreams were far off. In the early 1800s aside from the city of New Orleans, the Louisiana territory was sparsely populated.
As tensions in Europe continued to grow, the unprofitable territory seemed to be more of a liability than asset. The territory also was only loosely under French control having just been transferred from Spain in 1800.
The French had no active administration over the territory and there were few French settlers. While Napoleon originally tried to sell the territory for $22 million, the two sides eventually agreed to a sale at $15 million.
While 3-4 cents an acre was not a massive deal, from Napoleon’s perspective he received a large sum of money for land he had just received and had virtually no control over.
Ultimately, the French need for more money was a significant factor in Napoleon’s decision to sell Louisiana.
Impending War with Great Britain
At the time of the Louisiana Purchase Europe was held under a temporary peace as a result of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens.
Napoleon inherently knew that the peace would not last and that France needed to prepare for impending war with Great Britain once again.
Knowing that war was imminent, Napoleon sensed two opportunities by selling the Louisiana territory. First, as mentioned before, France needed more money for the impending war and to concentrate its resources on Europe.
Napoleon reported told his Minister of Finance Barbe-Marbois in reference to the Louisiana territory:
“I require a great deal of money for this war, and I would not like to commence it with new contributions.”3
Second, selling the Louisiana territory to the United States could strengthen the nation and thus provide a counterweight against their British foes. Napoleon foresaw the United States as a future ally that could one day match Britain in might.
Napoleon quipped after the Louisiana treaty:
“I have just given to England a maritime rival [America] that sooner or later will humble her pride.”
Napoleon was correct in that the Jeffersonian Democrats favored closer relations with France over Spain.
While the United States kept Napoleon at arm’s length and enacted the Embargo Act of 1807 against both Britain and France, the issue of British impressment led directly to the important War of 1812, thereby indirectly helping Napoleon’s cause by diverting British resources from Europe.
The Haitian Revolution
Perhaps the most important reason as to why Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to the United States was the Haitian Revolution.
The Haitian Revolution began in 1791 and lasted for over a decade. At the time French leaders were preoccupied with the French Revolution and failed to suppress the rebellion quickly enough.
When Napoleon rose to power he recommitted to recapture the colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti) and sent tens of thousands of troops in 1802 to crush the rebellion.
Those troops saw initial success and captured the rebellion’s esteemed leader, Toussaint Louverture, though ultimately they could not fully suppress the rebellion.
The former slaves fought the French forces to a standstill while yellow fever and malaria outbreaks decimated the French invaders. Even the commanding General, Napoleon’s brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, succumbed to tropical disease as did tens of thousands of other troops.1
Ambitions ruined, the French forces admitted defeat and returned home. The failed suppression of the Haitian Revolution also diverted French troops from landing in the port city of New Orleans, a near crisis averted for the United States.
The island colony of Saint Domingue was the most profitable of all French colonies given its vast sugar plantations. Without Saint Domingue, Napoleon’s dreams of a French colonial empire in the Americas were dashed.
The Louisiana territory was now worthless to him, and he immediately sought to offload the territory to the United States.
Difficulty in Maintaining Louisiana Territory
A final reason for Napoleon’s fateful decision was that he foresaw the difficulty in maintaining a French colony in North America across the Atlantic and so close to the United States.
With war in Europe likely, the French did not have the resources to defend and maintain the Louisiana territory. The formidable British navy could easily blockade the territory and seize it for themselves.
This situation would further expand and strengthen the British empire—Napoleon’s worst-case scenario.
Even if the British did not seize the territory, the United States also posed a significant future threat.
Upon word of the Louisiana territory transfer from Spain to France, some hot-headed members of Congress proposed a preemptive strike against New Orleans. The United States was leery of France’s intentions with the territory, and the port city of New Orleans was critical to the US economy.2
Though the strike never materialized, the United States made it clear it would act with the nation’s best interests in mind—including if it came to war.
Furthermore, the French had no administration over the territory and few French settlers lived on the land. Already at the time, American frontier settlers slowly trickled into the territory.
Some French leaders predicted that eventually the Louisiana territory would revolt in a bid for independence following the principles of the American Revolution. This exact scenario is what happened to Mexico with their province of Tejas during the Texan Revolution.
To recap, Napoleon ultimately sold the Louisiana territory for the following reasons:
- French government needed money
- Impending war with Great Britain
- The Haitian Revolution
- Difficulty in maintaining Louisiana territory
In hindsight it is easy for historians to criticize Napoleon’s decision. The resources and land from the Louisiana territory considerably helped the United States become the global power it is today.
However at the time Napoleon traded long-term potential for short-term gain. Napoleon’s spot on the French throne was not guaranteed and he had neither the time nor resources to wait for the Louisiana territory to bear fruit with war in Europe once again looming.
In this light the deal can be seen as a win-win between Napoleon and the United States.
The Louisiana territory would go on to play a central role in the westward expansion of the United States throughout the 19th century. The question of what to do with the territory brought out deep divisions along sectional lines and ultimately helped lead to the Civil War.
Despite the implications of the Louisiana Purchase for both France and the United States, Native Americans were unquestionably the biggest losers in the arrangement.
Native Americans’ way of life was forever changed by the unrelenting encroachment of American settlers.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Sloane, William M. “The World Aspects of the Louisiana Purchase.” The American Historical Review, vol. 9, no. 3, 1904, pp. 507–21. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1833473.
2) White, Eugene Nelson. “The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770-1815.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 55, no. 2, 1995, pp. 227–55. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123552.
3) Deutsch, Eberhard P. “The Constitutional Controversy Over the Louisiana Purchase.” American Bar Association Journal, vol. 53, no. 1, 1967, pp. 50–57. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25723883.