Study Guide

Robert R. Livingston in Louisiana Purchase Treaty

By Robert R. Livingston, James Monroe, and François de Barbé-Marbois

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Robert R. Livingston

Know who would've made a great vice president? Robert R. Livingston.

At least, that's what Robert R. Livingston thought.

And on paper, we tend to agree. This guy had the education, the credentials, the hair, the experiences, and even the household name that usually spell victory for any wannabe political bigwig.

But Livingston's dreams of being America's No. 2 were never realized, a thorn that stuck in his side until the day he died. And really, after all the guy had done for the country, we can't blame him for being a little bitter.

So, what did he do for the country?

Oh, just a few things here and there. NBD.

Best Resume Ever

Livingston started out as a lawyer after graduating from King's College—some folks in the audience might know this school better as Columbia University—and one of his besties was the soon-to-be-really-really-famous John Jay.

After doing that for a while, he got all excited about America's quest for independence, so he started getting involved in politics. His first political gig was as the representative for his home state of New York to the First Continental Congress.

Yeah, kind of the exact opposite of NBD.

But that wasn't even half as cool as when he and four of his Second Continental Congress colleagues were drafted to actually write the Declaration of Independence.

That's right—the Livster was right there with the likes of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Sherman when one of the most important documents in the history of the United States was written.

In 1789, America's first POTUS, George Washington, was sworn into office. Guess who actually swore him in? That's right—Chancellor Robert R. Livingston.

More like Robert R. Livingthedream, amiright?

Anyway, after running for governor of New York in 1798 and losing to his old buddy John Jay, he turned his attention to supporting Thomas Jefferson's presidential campaign. He was rewarded for his efforts by being made America's minister plenipotentiary (read: really powerful diplomat) to France, and off he went to Paris.

Livingston Enjoys April in Paris

Once situated in the City of Light, he realized that Napoleon was starting to have some conquest-related cash flow problems…and that this could end up working out really well for American interests regarding New Orleans.

The United States badly wanted to buy it. And it looked like maybe France might be motivated to sell it.

So Livingston, who'd always circulated in prestigious circles, put his social skills to use. He made himself available to Emperor Napoleon. He befriended Napoleon's right-hand man, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. He even reconnected with a Frenchman he'd met back in the day in Philly, François de Barbé-Marbois, who was now France's finance minister.

All of Livingston's ducks were settling into a pretty little row. All he needed now was instructions from Washington…and this is where everything kind of started to fall apart for him.

Meanie Madison

Back in D.C., James Madison was Jefferson's secretary of state and secretary of war, and this made him Robert R. Livingston's boss.

Which would have been fine, except apparently Madison didn't really like Livingston (he definitely wasn't Madison's first choice for the Paris assignment), and he kind of made it pretty much impossible for Livingston to be effective in France.

Like, here's RRL, shaking hands and kissing babies like mad in Paris, learning all kinds of super helpful insider information and passing it along to Washington, laying the groundwork in a big way for the United States to get its paws on New Orleans. But even though he sent bajillions of letters to Madison asking for direction, assistance, information, anything, Madison pretty much ignored him.

Literally just didn't respond to his letters or answer his questions.

Not only did this frustrate the Livster, but it also made him start to question himself: what had he done wrong? What was he supposed to do? Why wouldn't anyone just answer him?! And furthermore, was this going to hurt his VP chances when he got back home?

Anyway, when he finally did hear back from Madison, it was a letter telling him that they'd decided to send this young guy named James Monroe to Paris, and that Monroe would explain the whole situation to Livingston when he got there.

"Well, I never," Livingston said. (At least, that's what we would have said.) But being the gracious and diplomatic guy that he was, he welcomed Monroe when he arrived, and he even made an effort to keep his trash talking about his new partner to a minimum.

The Art of the Deal

Monroe told Livingston that he'd been authorized to offer Napoleon and the French Republic about $2 mil for New Orleans, and a little over $9 mil for New Orleans plus Mississippi River rights.

Livingston told him that was great and all but Napoleon didn't want to sell New Orleans, with or without Mississippi River rights. He wanted to sell the whole darn Louisiana Territory, and he wanted to do it now. Napoleon was asking for 100 million francs, or about $20 million, for the entire area; he'd asked Barbé-Marbois to start negotiating the sale with Livingston (and, okay, he could bring in his new partner, too).

Monroe was shocked. He certainly didn't have the authorization to spend that kind of money, not to mention Jefferson hadn't said anything about what to do if he was offered the entire Louisiana Territory. And it's not like he could just shoot off a quick email to him, either; letters took weeks—and sometimes months—to get back and forth between France and the United States, and they just didn't have that kind of time.

And so, with no authority for their actions and no clue what they were doing, Livingston and Monroe entered into negotiations with financial mastermind Barbé-Marbois. It took a couple weeks, but on April 28th, 1803, the trio agreed on a purchase price of 80 million francs, or $15 million. Over the next two days, they burned the midnight oil and hashed out the details of the Louisiana Purchase treaty and its two conventions, and on April 30th, 1803, they signed, sealed, and delivered all three documents.

And the deal was done.

Sadly, so were Livingston's political aspirations.

Livingston to the World: "I'm Not Done Yet!"

It's not clear why James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were so Mean Girls toward Robert R. Livingston, but one theory is that he was a New Yorker and so not part of the cool-kids clique that was running the show in those days: the old boys' club of Virginians. (Monroe, BTW, was part of that club, albeit a member of the younger generation.)

Anyway, even though Livingston had done most of the legwork to make the Louisiana Purchase happen, Jefferson and Madison pooh-poohed his vice-presidential designs and made it impossible for him to secure the office.

It bears mentioning that Livingston didn't do himself any favors in that area either when he got home, talking all kinds of trash and making snide comments all over the place about how he wasn't getting credit for his extreme awesomeness in France.

But regardless of his dashed VP dreams, Robert R. Livingston wasn't done doing great things just yet.

While in Paris, he'd befriended a fellow American named Robert Fulton. They had several things in common, but the biggest was a love for…steamboats.

Yes, steamboats.

Unfortunately, steamboats really weren't a thing at that time; no one had really been able to make the technology work.

Fulton had ideas on how to change that. And Livingston had money. And when Fulton's ideas and Livingston's cash came together—BAM! In 1807, the Clermont, the world's first successful steamboat, named after Livingston's home on the Hudson River, was born.

And the face of commerce was forever changed.

He may not have gotten to be vice president—or a Supreme Court justice, which he'd also thought would be a great gig—but we think Robert R. Livingston left enough of a legacy without either of those positions clouding up his resume.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...