In 1803 the United States got an amazing offer on a land deal, originally planning to offer $10 million to Napoleon for control of New Orleans and Florida (if the negotiators could get it) – if not they were to settle for just control over New Orleans and its amazingly valuable port. The negotiations began in 1802 and Napoleon’s representative to the negotiations offered a counter-deal, if the United States was willing to pony up $15 million they could have the entire Louisiana Territory now technically controlled by France, a land deal that would roughly double the size of the United States and at a rate of only $0.03 per acre of newly acquired land. The American commissioners – trying not to poop themselves with excitement – had a brief discussion about the fact the purchase exceeded their original mandated purchasing limit of $10 million but, as notifying Washington and getting approval would take several weeks, and the deal might vanish, they went ahead on their own authority and agreed to the deal. A treaty was inked and it was sent to the United States government, two levels of Congressional approval were needed, the Senate needed to approve the treaty itself and the House of Representatives had to approve the funds to pay for the newly acquired vast tract of land. The Senate ended up ratifying the treaty with only token opposition, because the deal was simply seen as incredible. The House however proved a bit more difficult.
The House was divided between the two major political parties of the early 1800s, the Democratic-Republicans (the party of Thomas Jefferson, United States President) and the Federalists. The Democratic-Republicans generally supported the idea of the purchase, although some had concerns about the constitutionality of the purchase as the Constitution did not approve the government explicitly buying a huge tract of land. (Thomas Jefferson had run on the idea of a strict adherence to the Constitution and some of his supporters, such as John Randolph of Roanoke, opposed the purchase potentially on these grounds.) Randolph, pictured above, ended up a key leader of the opposition to the Louisiana Purchase, an opposition based mainly upon the Federalist party not wanting the country expanded because it was feared that this new territory would:
- Undermine the power of the Atlantic seaboard and New England states, Federalist strongholds, in the newly expanded United States
- Expand the “slave power” of the south further west, undermining another delicate regional balance of power
- Make the Democratic-Republicans look really cool and make it extra hard for the Federalists to win future elections
These conditions inspired the House to divide on the issue sharply, a special bill was put forward denying the funds to purchase the land but that bill was defeated by two votes, 59-57, meaning that the funds would be released and the land purchased. (Mainly due to the fact, it was argued, the treaty obligated the United States to pay for the land and therefore the House would have to actively refuse to pay for it.)
There was also the technical problem that Napoleon, by a strict reading of the treaty between him and Spain, the original holders of the Louisiana Territory prior to France gaining administrative oversight on the territory (don’t ask, you really don’t want to know), Napoleon technically sort-of couldn’t sell the land. But he wanted to and the United States apparently wanted it. (Later Spain protested the sale on these same grounds and was told by the United States that life is full of sadness. Also no backsies.)
The United States government did eventually gain the land and began to properly divide it up and many of the issues the Federalists feared did come to pass. However should you ever feel your particular government is being difficult on an issue just remember, the United States Congress came within two votes of not doubling the country peacefully at rock-bottom prices not out of a fear they couldn’t pay for it, not out of a fear they couldn’t hold it, but because it would make one political party loose position compared to the other.
Sources: Wikipedia entries on the Louisiana Purchase and John Randolph, the Monticello entry on the Louisiana Purchase, and two entries (here and here) from The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia