Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase

Time: 1 Block period (1:45)

Standards: RH1


  • Analyze the foreign policy decisions of Thomas Jefferson.
  • Understand the major events which led to the Louisiana Purchase.
  • Recognize the debate over whether purchasing Louisiana was Constitutional.
  • To clarify how the Louisiana Purchase is connected to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
  • To examine the viewpoints of both Indian and non-Indian Americans in regard to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


Present the students with the following scenario orally or on the board as a warm-up:

Imagine your mother gave you $20 to go to the store and buy a short list of groceries for dinner. Before you left, she told you, “This is only for groceries – don’t buy anything that’s not on this list!” When you get to the store, however, there is a huge sale going on and you see your mom’s favorite food is 75% off! It’s not on the list and you’ll spend more than she gave you, but do you buy it anyway?

Learning Activities:

  1. After giving the students 5 minutes to write down an answer in their notebooks, discuss with the warm-up scenario with your students for about 5 minutes. How many of them would go ahead and buy the sale item? How many of them would stick to their mother’s directions only to buy items on the list? Tell them that in the days before instant communication, ambassadors were sometimes presented with similar scenarios. In fact, today they will be learning about 2 American ambassadors who were and their decision changed the face of America forever.
  2. Place students in 6 groups and give each group a different character and the “Figures of the Louisiana Purchase” worksheet. Instruct each group to read their character biography and fill in the chart with his name, role (American ambassador, president, etc), goal, and reasons for that goal.
  3. After giving the students 10 minutes to read, discuss, and complete their section, have one volunteer from each group come up to the front of the room. The volunteers will then read their character’s name, role, goal, and reasoning and the teacher will lead a short discussion with the class. Questions should be asked such as:  “What do you expect this person to do?”; “What would this character have to say to these other ones?”; “Which 2 characters are most likely to be in agreement?”; “Which characters might have a hard time coming to an agreement?” Etc. As the students progress through the characters, have them complete the chart with each character’s information. This should last about 20-30 minutes.
  4. After the class discussion, have all students return to their desks and give a brief 15-20 minute lecture on the results of the meeting between America and France’s ambassadors. Points should include the following:
    1. Livingston and Monroe signing the Treaty to purchase Louisiana before securing word from President Jefferson that it was allowed.
    2. How the Haitian Revolution completely scuttled France’s plans for an empire in the New World, paving the way for their sale of the territory.
    3. Jefferson’s ethical dilemma in terms of increasing presidential power.
    4. Was the purchase Constitutional?
    5. The final purchase price after forgiveness of debts and Napoleon’s sale of American bonds.
    6. The Federalists opposition to the Purchase
    7. The number of current states encompassed in the Louisiana Purchase.
  5. After completing the lecture an answering any questions, distribute the maps of American territorial acquisitions (Attachment D). Have students create a color-coded key based upon when each region was added. Regions should be labeled: Original colonies, Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Territory, Annexation of Texas, Adams-Onis Treaty, Mexican Cession, and Gadsden Purchase. Years of addition should be included in the key as well. This can be done as a whole class activity, individual assignment from the textbook, or homework.



As a concluding activity, have the students answer the following question to turn in as their “exit slip”:

Do you feel that Ambassadors Livingston and Monroe were right in purchasing the Louisiana Territory without conferring with President Jefferson and was it Constitutional? Why?

Other Primary Sources:

Louisiana Purchase: Primary Documents in American History (Library of Congress)

Thomas Jefferson on the Constitutionality of the Purchase: http://www.lva.virginia.gov/lib-edu/education/psd/nation/louisi.htm

Further Reading:

A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America by Jon Kukla

So Vast So Beautiful a Land: Louisiana and the Purchase by Sprague, Marshall

Jefferson's Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon and the Men behind the Louisiana Purchase by Charles A. Cerami

The Louisiana Purchase: Jefferson's Noble Bargain? by James E. Lewis

Napoleon Bonaparte

A young military genius, Napoleon Bonaparte restored order of a sort in France after the chaos of the French Revolution. He was only 28-years-old when he forcibly took over the government in 1799. During the next few years, he brought a great deal of Europe under his rule. As his power grew, so did his ambitions.

He began to dream about regaining France's colonial possessions in North America. In 1800, he made a secret deal with Spain (the Treaty of San Ildefonso) to take back the Louisiana Territory. He also began sending troops to the French West Indies in the Caribbean Sea.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States in 1801. He was a strict constructionist of the Constitution. He and his Democratic-Republican Party believed in limiting the power of the federal government. In that respect, he was not interested in increasing presidential power or doing acts that the Constitution did not expressly allow him to do.

By 1802, the secret had leaked out that France had regained the Louisiana Territory. To make matters worse, Spain closed the Port of New Orleans so that frontier farmers and traders could not store their products there before shipping them to market. Even though Napoleon had nothing to do with this act, many Americans blamed him and wanted to go to war with France. To avoid war and help frontier farmers, Jefferson sent a message to Ambassador Robert Livingston in Paris. He wanted Livingston to discourage France from taking over Louisiana, but if that didn't work, to try to buy New Orleans and Florida. A short time later he sent another ambassador, James Monroe, to help Livingston.

Robert Livingston

Robert Livingston was the American ambassador to France in 1802. He was ordered by President Jefferson to discourage France from taking over Louisiana, but if that didn't work, to try to buy New Orleans and Florida. He tried to carry out his instructions, but the French foreign minister, Talleyrand, made the task very difficult. Talleyrand, a wealthy aristocrat, was vain and corrupt. He was often very discourteous but Ambassador Livingston continued to do his duty.

At a meeting on April 11, 1803, Talleyrand asked Livingston if the United States would consider buying the entire Louisiana territory as well as New Orleans and Florida-and if so, what would they be willing to pay for it? Livingston was astonished. He said he had not thought of such a thing, but he would discuss it with Ambassador James Monroe, who had just arrived from America.

James Monroe

President Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris in 1803 to help Robert Livingston negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. When Monroe arrived, Livingston informed him of France’s proposal to sell all of Louisiana, not just New Orleans. He and Livingston thought Talleyrand might be bluffing until they learned from a reliable source that Napoleon might decide to sell Louisiana at any moment. The two ambassadors however were not authorized to buy the entire Louisiana Territory. Jefferson had only authorized them to purchase New Orleans. There wasn't time to consult President Jefferson back in Washington, however. Monroe talked it over with Livingston and together they decided to buy Louisiana if Napoleon offered to sell it.

François Barbé-Marbois

François Barbé-Marbois was the French Minister of Finance in 1803. He was also one of Napoleon's closest advisors. He wanted Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory. Barbé-Marbois argued that it would be more costly to defend and maintain the vast North American territory than the profit that could be made from it. He also reasoned that Napoleon was preparing for war against England and a great deal of money would be needed for the military operations.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was the French Foreign Minister. He knew that Napoleon's plans to re-establish France in the New World were unraveling. The French army was suffering defeats in a slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in  Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti). In fact, Napoleon’s armies suffered more casualties fighting in Saint-Domingue than he would at his famous defeat at Waterloo. Without Saint Domingue’s profitable sugar plantations, Tallyrand saw the Louisiana Territory as worthless.

Tallyrand, however, knew the value of secrets. He refused to admit to the American ambassadors that France even owned the Louisiana Territory for a long period of time. When he did, he wouldn’t let them know that he thought the territory wasn’t worth the cost to defend it. When Tallyrand and Barbé-Marbois were able to convince Napoleon that he should sell the territory, Tallyrand asked a stunned Livingston how much the US would pay for it.