Study Guide

Louisiana Purchase Treaty Themes

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

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  • Friendship

    Timon and Pumbaa. Maverick and Goose. Brennan and Dale. France and the United States.

    What do all of these dynamic duos have in common?

    That's right: they're besties.

    They have the same interests, they have the same enemies, they do fun stuff together, and sometimes they trade ginormous pieces of land for fat stacks of cash in order to further cement their bonds of friendship.

    Okay, maybe that last one is kind of rare. But that's exactly what happened with France and the United States.

    Back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, both countries were going through some revolutionary hard times, and their similar experiences—and similar distrust of Great Britain's intentions—brought them closer together. We see a bunch of evidence of their warm fuzzies toward one another in the language of the Louisiana Purchase documents; the word "friendship" itself is used three times.

    So while maybe our own friendships don't involve a lot of $15 million real estate transactions, we can still relate to the sentiment being portrayed in the Louisiana Purchase. Because no matter how much moolah changes hands (or doesn't), true friendship? That stuff is priceless.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Why are touchy-feely words like "friendship" used in treaties, anyway?
    2. Was the driving force behind the Louisiana Purchase friendship, necessity, or something else? Explain.
    3. According to your definition of friendship, were France and the United States friends in 1803? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The Louisiana Purchase was less about friendship and more about international politics and positioning. The parties probably went home and trash talked the other side.

    The Louisiana Purchase never would have happened if France and the United States hadn't been buddies; their good relationship made the whole thing possible.

  • Westward Expansion

    Fate. Destiny. In the stars. Meant to be. We use these words and phrases to describe things that we see as inevitable, as the natural conclusion to a chain of events.

    And from our comfy 21st-century chairs, it can seem like the current borders of the United States were a totally inevitable byproduct of the nation's history and its changing needs. But back in 1803, the borders and boundaries we have now were anything but a foregone conclusion.

    It made sense to Thomas Jefferson and other like-minded folks that the young country would have to expand to ensure its continued economic, political, and geographic freedom. And it made further sense that that expansion would occur to the west.

    But how far would that expansion go? Where would it stop? Would it stop? These were all unknowns.

    The Louisiana Purchase stretched the nation's borders northward, southward, and westward, and it set the stage for further expansion to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. We don't get a lot of the romanticism and pioneering spirit in the Louisiana Purchase docs like we do in other essays and letters written during this time. This is, after all, a set of binding government documents, which really aren't known so much for their poetic flair. But we can still pick up pieces of America's expansionist vision, which would find its flowering later in the 19th century in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

    America's westward journey of a few thousand miles began with a few giant-sized steps, and the biggest step of them all was the Louisiana Purchase.

    Questions About Westward Expansion

    1. What was the effect of westward expansion on the continent's Native American population?
    2. Do you agree with the sentiment behind Manifest Destiny? Why or why not?
    3. How do Canada's and Mexico's paths to independence compare to that of the United States? Did either of them have their own version of westward expansion going on?

    Chew on This

    Thomas Jefferson was a little paranoid; the United States totally could have remained independent and been prosperous if it had stuck with its pre-1803 geographic boundaries.

    Without the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent land deals, there is no way the United States would have become as powerful and prosperous as it did.

  • Rules and Order

    Sometimes deals are made on a handshake and a smile, and sometimes they require loads of complex contractual language and terms.

    Guess which kind of deal the Louisiana Purchase was?

    For anyone paying attention, the answer is clearly "complex contractual language and terms."

    The treaty document may be full of big words and name- and title-drops, but the convention documents are where we really get into the nitty-gritty of how this whole Louisiana Purchase thing is really going to go down. Our plenipotentiaries weren't playing around.

    Convention 1 deals with how the United States is going to pay France for the Louisiana Territory, and it is laid out in crazy detail.

    The same goes for Convention 2, which outlines how France is going to pay back Americans to whom it owes money.

    We're talking interest rates, payment locations, payment timing, who's eligible to make or receive payments, and even processes for applying for or appealing payments.

    When things are laid out in explicit detail like this, it makes it easier for everyone involved to follow the rules, and it gives them a recourse if those rules aren't followed. When it comes to international treaties and cooperation, making sure everyone clearly understands instructions and expectations not only preserves that warm, fuzzy international friendship thing, but it also makes it way less likely that misunderstandings will escalate into something ugly like, say, war.

    If two convention documents and a set of detailed rules can help keep the peace, we say this: rules, keep on with your bad self. We'll save the handshakes and smiles for deals with a little less international significance.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Was it really so necessary to get so exact with stuff like interest rates, payment locations, etc.? Why or why not?
    2. What's the story behind Convention 2? How did France end up owing a bunch of random Americans money, anyway?
    3. Do you think the payment terms outlined in Convention 1 were more beneficial to France or the United States, or were they totally neutral? Why?
    4. What were some of Congress' concerns about the convention terms when they were talking about ratifying the Louisiana Purchase?

    Chew on This

    Good on Livingston, Monroe, and Barbé-Marbois for setting up specific payment terms so there wouldn't be any confusion or unnecessary tension between France and the United States when it came time to pay up.

    Holy micromanaging. It would have been fine for Livingston, Monroe, and Barbé-Marbois to just write out the treaty part of the Louisiana Purchase and leave out the boring financial details; France and the United States were friends, and they would have figured it out.

  • Sovereignty

    Ever heard someone say, "My house, my rules"? Sure you have. When we own something—a car, a house, whatever—we pretty much get to dictate how things run in it.

    And nations work the same way: the land and people within a country's borders are subject to its laws and regulations.

    That, in a nutshell, is the concept of sovereignty.

    Since the Louisiana Territory changed hands so many times after it was claimed by French explorers in 1682, the authors of the Louisiana Purchase apparently decided it was a good idea to emphasize the changing of the guard from French sovereignty to American sovereignty, and to outline some of the specific ways those changes would be implemented.

    From citizenship to military outposts, Livingston, Monroe, and Barbé-Marbois put some serious thought into this whole idea. Guess they didn't want there to be any confusion about who was in charge this time around.

    Questions About Sovereignty

    1. How did the population of America change due to the Louisiana Purchase? What effect did this have, if any, on the country's understanding of national sovereignty?
    2. POTUS Jefferson was concerned at the time that he didn't have the authority to acquire land and make it American. Was this issue ever resolved? If so, what was the resolution?
    3. If France secretly owned Louisiana from 1800 until 1803, why did they let Spain continue to act all sovereign over it?

    Chew on This

    It kind of goes without saying that everything in Louisiana would be subject to American rules and regulations once the sale of the land was complete; some of the details were probably not necessary to include.

    With all of the past confusion about who was really in control of Louisiana (was it France, or was it Spain?), it was a smart move to assert American sovereignty right there in the purchase documents.

  • Language and Communication

    It couldn't have been easy, negotiating a deal like this.

    Aside from the obvious—hello, biggest real estate deal ever—there were other factors mucking things up. Like the fact that Livingston and Monroe didn't exactly have the authorization to blow $15 mil for the entire Louisiana Territory. And it wasn't like they could pick up the phone or send a text to Jefferson real quick to get more information.

    And there was also the question of language.

    There's evidence this may be changing today, but for a really, really long time, French and English were two of the most commonly spoken languages on the planet.

    This worked out well in 1803 considering François de Barbé-Marbois was a native French speaker who also spoke English while Livingston and Monroe, both Americans, also spoke French.

    We have to assume it made negotiations and the actual writing of the purchase documents a lot easier.

    And we can see several nods to both languages and cultures—and monetary valuations—throughout each of the three purchase documents.

    Our authors were going for detail and clarity, and they definitely nailed it there. But they also nailed it in another category: communicating effectively in different languages from the perspective of different cultures. (It's a long category title, we know.)

    Whether we read the French version or the English version, all of the dates and mentions of money are in both languages, and we just think that's très cool.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What life experiences led to each of our purchase authors being able to speak both English and French?
    2. Why do you think each document stresses that its original was written and agreed upon in French?
    3. How do French and American cultures influence each other today?

    Chew on This

    Countries around the world should just agree that all international documents should be written in one universal language to avoid confusion; some things just don't translate.

    If we were Monroe and Livingston, we'd agree to any language to close the deal before Napoleon had second thoughts about it.

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