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The Letter That Bought An Empire
Written in haste, on an April midnight in 1803, the unedited text of the message that led to the Louisiana Purchase is printed for the first time.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
I told him I should receive with pleasure any communication from him, but that we were not disposed to trillle, that the times were critical & tho” I did not know what instructions Mr. Munroe might bring, I was perfectly satisfied that they would require a precise & prompt notice. That I was very fearful from the little progress I had made that my Government would consider me as a very indolent negociator, he laughed & told me that he would give me a certificate that I was the most importunate he had yet met with. There was something so extraordinary in all this that 1 did not detail it to you till I found some clue to the labyrinth which I have done as you will find before I finish this letter, & the rather as I was almost certain that I could rely upon the intelligence I had received of the resolution to dispose of this country. This day Mr. Munroe passed with me in examining my papers & while he, & several other gentlemen were at dinner with me, I observed the Minister of the Treasury walking in my garden. I sent out Col. Livingston to him, he told him he would return when we had dined. While we were taking coffee he came in, & after being some time in the room, we strolled into the next room, when he told me he heard that I had been at his house two days before when he was at St. Cloud, that he thought I might have something particular to say to him & had taken the first opportunity to call on me. I saw that this was meant as an opening to one of those free conversations which I frequently had with him; I accordingly began on the subject of the debt & related to him the extraordinary conduct of the Minister 1 &c. He told me that this lead to something important that had been cursorily mentioned to him at St. Cloud but as my house was full of Company he thought I had better call upon him any time before eleven that night. He went away & little after Mr. Munroe took leave, I followed him. He told me that he wished me to repeat what I had said relative to Mr. Talleyrand requesting a proposition from me as to the purchase of Louisiana I did so and concluded with the extreme absurdity of his evasions of the day and stated the consequence of any delay on this subject as it would enable Britain to take possession—who would readily relinquish it to us—he said that this proceeded upon a supposition of her making so successful a war as to be enabled to retain lier conquests. I told him that it was probable that the same idea might suggest itself to the United States, in which case it would be their interest to render her successful, & asked whether it was prudent to throw us into her scale. This led to long discussions of no moment to repeat, we returned to the point. He said that what I had told him led him to think that what the Consul had said to him on Sunday at St. Cloud (the day on which I told you the determination had been taken to sell) had more of earnest than he thought at the time that the Consul had asked him what news from England? As he knew he read the papers attentively, he told him that he had seen in the London papers the proposition for raising 50,000 men to take New Orleans. The Consul said he had seen it too, & he had also seen that some thing was said about 2,000,000 of £ being disposed among the people about him to bribe them &c then left him. That afterwards when walking the garden, the Consul came again to him & spoke to him about the troubles that were excited in America & enquired how far I was satisfied with his last note. Here some civil things were introduced for which I presume I am more indebted to the Minister’s politeness than to his veracity, so let them sleep. He (Marbois) then took occasion to mention his sorrow, that any cause of difference should exist between our countries. The Consul told him in reply, “will you have the charge of the treasury let them give you one hundred million & pay their own claims 2 , & take the whole country. Seeing by my looks that I was surprised at so extravagant a demand, he added that he considered the demand as exorbitant, & had told the First Consul that the thing was impossible, that we had not the means of raising it, that the Consul told him we might borrow it. I now plainly saw the whole business. First Consul was disposed to sell, next he distrusted Talleyrand on account of the business of the supposed intention to bribe and meant to put the negotiation into the hands of Marbois whose character for integrity is established . I told him that the United States were anxious to preserve peace with France, that for that reason they wished to remove them to the West Side of the Mississipi, that we would be perfectly satisfied with New Orleans & the Floridas & had no disposition to extend across the River, that of course we would not give any great sum for the purchase, that he was right in his idea of the extreme exorbitancy of the demand which would not fall short of one hundred and twenty five millions that however we would be ready to purchase provided the sum was reduced to reasonable limits. He then pressed me to name the sum. I told him that this was not worth while because as he only treated the enquiry as a matter of curiosity any declaration of mine would have no effect. If a negotiation was to be opened we should, Mr. Munroe & myself make the offer after mature reflection. This compelled him to declare that tho’ he was not authorized expressly to make the inquiry from me yet that if I coidd mention any sum that came near the mark that could be accepted he would communicate it to the First Consul.