Real Estate History: All About the Louisiana Purchase

Thomas Jefferson made a real estate decision while president that doubled the size of the United States, redefined the understood meaning of the doctrine of implied powers written into the Constitution, and changed the path of American history. It's also considered one of the greatest deals in real estate history, considering that when he made the purchase in 1803, about 828,000 square miles of land were secured for about three cents an acre. Jefferson made this deal with France, which held the land at the time.

The Louisiana Territory Under French and Spanish Rule

France gained control of what was then known as the Louisiana Territory through exploration and settlement throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. However, it wasn't easy for France to maintain control of the territory. They lost control over this land as a result of the Seven Years' War, which led to France giving Spain control of the area west of the Mississippi and Great Britain control of their other land holdings and settlements in North America. When Napoleon Bonaparte took over leadership of France, he set his sights on regaining the country's colonial holdings. In October 1800, Spain agreed to give control of the Louisiana Territory back to France under the Treaty of San Ildefonso, with the understanding that France would never cede control of the area to any other country. The American government wasn't happy with this: The young country was expanding westward, and the port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River were quickly growing into huge resources for economic development for the country. A 1795 treaty with Spain gave the U.S. access to the Mississippi River and its ports without paying duties, but that agreement was showing strain by 1800.

Negotiations With France

Robert R. Livingston was the U.S. ambassador stationed in Paris when France took control of the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson ordered Livingston to approach Napoleon's government about the territory. The initial overtures didn't go well, but Livingston had one very good card to play: Napoleon didn't want the United States and Great Britain to form an alliance, and at that moment, the two countries were reestablishing a relationship. Napoleon was staring down the fact that war with Great Britain was imminent, and he didn't want the United States to side with the British. James Monroe sailed to France to help with the negotiations, and soon, a very large real estate deal was brewing between the two countries.

Defining the Louisiana Purchase

The treaty between the two countries that defined the sale of the territory was signed on May 2, 1803, but backdated to April 30. The United States paid France $11,250,000 and assumed outstanding debts of $3,750,000. After interest was added in, the United States paid $27,267,622 for the territory. In exchange, America took over the entirety of the Louisiana Territory that France had gotten from Spain. However, unlike in modern real estate contracts, the wording that described exactly what the United States was receiving for its money was unclear. There were no definite descriptions of property or boundaries, and control of areas like the western part of Florida was left up in the air. Monroe and Livingston were aware of these issues, but unclear boundaries weren't the biggest issue facing the sale. There were serious questions about whether Jefferson had had the constitutional authority to let Monroe and Livingston make this deal. It would have to go before the Senate for approval, as all other treaties did. There was a lot of debate and consideration, but the Senate finally confirmed the treaty by a vote of 24 to 7.

Once the deal was approved, the government now had to establish exactly what land they now controlled. This required negotiations with both Great Britain and Spain. It wasn't until Florida was purchased from Spain in 1819 that the most vexing border questions were settled. However, the general consensus was that the Louisiana Territory ran from the Mississippi River to the east to the Rocky Mountains to the west. Its northern border was firmly established by an 1818 convention between the United States and Great Britain. The territory was resource-rich and helped fund the economic development of the United States in the 19th century.