Negotiating for Louisiana

– Cession of Louisiana by Constantino Brumidi, 1875

I shall tomorrow nominate you to the Senate for an extraordinary mission to France, and the circumstances are such as to render it impossible to decline; because the whole public hope will be rested on you.”

– Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, January 10, 1803.

New Orleans was a lucrative prize for all nations interested in trade along the Mississippi River. As president of the expanding nation, Thomas Jefferson wanted Foreign Minister Robert Livingston to negotiate with France for its acquisition, and later appointed James Monroe envoy extraordinary with the same objective. Although Livingston was certainly capable of leading the negotiations himself, Jefferson desired to have a trusted friend at the table who could keep him informed of the deliberations. Monroe sailed to France via the Richmond, unaware that he was about to solidify one of the biggest land purchases in history. First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, desperate after the costly endeavor to retake Haiti and the looming war with Britain, sought to sell not just New Orleans, but the entirety of France’s Louisiana Territory. This proposition was relayed to Livingston and Monroe through Minister of Finance Francois, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois.

Most of the negotiations occurred between Livingston and Barbé-Marbois while Monroe recovered from a back injury and awaited French approval of his diplomatic credentials. Despite these two obstacles, Monroe worked closely with Livingston and Barbé-Marbois throughout April. Livingston, Monroe, and Barbé-Marbois also shared a unique bond that undoubtedly contributed to the success of the Louisiana Purchase. As Barbé-Marbois recalled in his book, History of Louisiana, “the three negotiators had seen the origin of the American republic, and … had established between them… an intimacy, which does not always exist between foreign envoys.” They approved the sale of the Louisiana Territory for fifteen million dollars on April 29, which Napoleon confirmed on May 1. The same day, Monroe dined with the First Consul at the Louvre, where they discussed Monroe’s journey to France, Franco-American relations, and President Jefferson, who Monroe spoke highly of.

The combination of objects and primary sources offers a unique, visual perspective of Monroe’s assignment in France. President Jefferson’s letter reveals his trust in Monroe and the urgency he felt towards the negotiations. The memorandum details Monroe’s presentation to Napoleon. Perhaps due to the passage of time, a slightly different version appears in Monroe’s autobiographical account of the same meeting. The marble bust of Napoleon, a gift from the First Consul according to family tradition, shows Monroe’s unique connection to Napoleon.

Document Based Questions

Louisiana Purchase Negotiations

James Monroe, “Minister to Napoleon: Louisiana Purchase,” in The Autobiography of James Monroe (Public domain) View

James Monroe, James Monroe Papers: Series 1, General Correspondence, 1758 to 1839; -1803 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) View

  1. How do the two accounts differ from one another?
  2. How do the two accounts compare to one another?
  3. In the memorandum, how does Napoleon Bonaparte speak about America’s relationship with Britain?
  4. Why does Napoleon Bonaparte caution James Monroe against proposing the acquisition of Florida to Spain?
  5. Why might James Monroe emphasize American-Franco relations in his autobiography, and conversation about Thomas Jefferson in the memorandum?
  6. What can the passage of time reveal about the record of this meeting?

Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe January 10, 1803 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) View

  1. What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the affair at New Orleans being “stimulated by the mercantile?”
  2. What evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s urgent tone is identifiable in this letter?
  3. How might James Monroe react to receiving this letter?

Marble Bust of Napoleon (Courtesy of Highland and the James Monroe Museum) View

  1. Why would Napoleon Bonaparte gift a bust of himself to Monroe?
  2. Why might James Monroe display this bust in his home?
  3. What does this gift reveal about the connection between James Monroe and Napoleon Bonaparte?

Fauteuil en Cabriolet (Courtesy of Highland and the James Monroe Museum) View

  1. How would you describe this chair?
  2. What can the choice of furnishings tell us about James Monroe and French culture?
  3. What might people visiting Highland think of this chair?

Essential Questions

  1.  How significant was James Monroe’s role in the Louisiana Purchase?
  2. Did James Monroe succeed in the mission President Thomas Jefferson assigned him to do?
  3. How can historical objects complement primary documentation?
  4. What can the passage of time reveal about how history is recorded?

Virginia Standards of Learning

CE.1    The student will demonstrate skills for historical thinking, geographical analysis, economic decision making, and responsible citizenship by

d) determining the accuracy and validity of information by separating fact and opinion and recognizing bias.

USI.7  The student will apply social science skills to understand the challenges faced by the new nation by

c) describing the major accomplishments of the first five presidents of the United States.

USI.8  The student will apply social science skills to understand westward expansion and reform in America from 1801 to 1861 by

a) describing territorial expansion and how it affected the political map of the United States, with emphasis on the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the acquisitions of Florida, Texas, Oregon, and California;

National Standards for Social Studies

Era 4 Expansion and Reform

Standard 1A

Grades 5-12     Analyze Napoleon’s reasons for selling Louisiana to the United States. [Draw upon the data in historical maps]

Grades 7-12     Compare the arguments advanced by Democratic Republicans and Federalists regarding the acquisition of Louisiana. [Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas]

Grades 9-12     Analyze how the Louisiana Purchase influenced politics, economic development, and the concept of Manifest Destiny. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

Grades 9-12     Assess how the Louisiana Purchase affected relations with Native Americans and the lives of various inhabitants of the Louisiana Territory. [Explain historical continuity and change]

Bibliography & Suggested Readings

Ammon, Harry. “The Louisiana Purchase,” in James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990. pp. 203-224.

Kukla, Jon. “Midnight in the Garden of Rue Trudon,” in A Wilderness so Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. pp. 259-283.

McGrath, Tim.”You Have Been Here Before,” in James Monroe: A Life. New York: Dutton, 2020. pp. 230-247.

Monroe, James. “Minister to Napoleon: Louisiana Purchase,” in The Autobiography of James Monroe. Ed. Stuart G. Brown. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017. pp. 178-211.