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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
sixty million & take upon us the American claims to the amount of twenty more he would try how far it would be accepted. I told him that it was vain to ask any thing that was so greatly beyond our means, that true policy could dictate to the First Consul not to press such a demand that he must know that it would render the present government unpopular, & have a tendency at the next election to throw the power into the hands of men who were more hostile to connection with France, & that this would probably happen in the midst of a war. I asked him whether the few millions acquired at this expense would not be too dearly bought? He frankly confessed that he was of my sentiments, but that he feared the Consul would not relax. I asked him to press this argument upon him together with the danger of seeing the country pass into the hands of Britain. I told him that he had seen the ardour of the Americans to take it by force, & the difficulty with which they were restrained by the prudence of the President, that he must easily see how much the hands of the war party would be strengthened when they learned that France was upon the eve of a rupture with England. He admitted the weight of this, “but, says he, you know the temper of a youthful conqueror—everything he does is rapid as lightening; we have only to speak to him as an opportunity presents itself, perhaps in a crowd when he bears no contradiction; when I am alone with him I can speak more freely and fie attends, but this opportunity seldom happens, & is always accidental. Try then if you can not come up to my mark. Consider the extent of the country, the exclusive navigation of the River, & the importance of having no neighbors to dispute with you, no war to dread. I told him that I considered all these as important considerations, but there was a point beyond which we could not go, & that fell far short of the sum he mentioned.I told him that we had no sort of authority to go to a sum that bore any proportion to what he mentioned, but that as he himself considered the demand ;ts too high he would oblige me by telling me what he thought to be reasonable. He replied that if we should name
I asked him in case of a purchase whether they could stipulate that France would never possess the Floridas, & that she would aid us to procure them & relinquish all right that she might have to them. He told me that she would go thus far. I added that I could now say nothing more on the subject but that I would converse with Mr. Munroe, & that I was sure I should find him disposed to do everything that was reasonable or could be expected to remove every cause of difference between the two countries, that, however, if any negotiations should go on, I could wish that the First Consul would depute some body to treat with us who had more leisure than the Minister for foreign affairs (I said this to see whether my conjectures relative to him were well founded) he told me that as the First Consul knew our personal friendship, he having several times had occasion to speak of me & my family, & the principles that we held he believed, that there would be no difficulty when the negotiation was some what advanced to have the management of it put into his hands . He earnestly pressed me to make some proposition that was so near the First Consul’s as to advise his mentioning it to him. T told him that I would consult Mr. Munroe, but that neither he nor I could acceed to his ideas on the subject—thus, Sir, you see a negotiation is fairly opened and upon grounds I prefer to all other commercial privileges and always to some simple money transaction is infinitely preferable. As to the quantum I have yet made no opinion; the field opened to us is infinitely larger than our instructions contemplated, the revenue increasing and the land more than adequate to sink the capital, should we even go the proposed by Mr. Marbois; nay, I persuade myself that the whole sum may be raised by the sale of the Territory West of the Mississippi, but with the right of sovereignty to some power in Europe whose vicinity we should not fear .
I speak now without reflection & without having seen Mr. Monroe, as it was midnight when I left the treasury office, it is now three o’clock. It is so very important that you should be apprized that a negotiation is actually opened even before Mr. Munroe has been presented in order to calm the tumult which the news of war 3 will renew, that I have lost no time in communicating it. We shall do all we can to cheapen the purchase, but my present sentiment is that we shall buy I trust it will be necessary to put some proposition tomorrow; the Consul goes in a few days to Brussels & every moment is precious.
Mr. Monroe will be presented to the Minister tomorrow when we shall press for as early an audience as possible from the First Consul.
I am Dear Sir, with the most respectful consideration.
Your most Ob t hum. Serv t Rbt. R. Livingston
The hon ble James Madison Esq.
1. In this remark to Barbe Marbois, Livingston refers to Foreign Minister Talleyrand, whose evasive attitude is described in the letter.