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date: 13 December 2017

Liberty, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

On December 20, 1803, residents of New Orleans gathered at the Place d’Armes in the city center to watch as the French flag was lowered and the flag of the United States was raised in its place. Toasts were made to the U.S. president, the French first consul, and the Spanish king (whose flag had been lowered in a similar ceremony just twenty days earlier), and the celebrations continued throughout the night. The following day, however, began the process of determining just what it meant now that Louisiana was a part of the United States, initiating the first great test of the ability of the United States to expand its borders and incorporate both territories and peoples. The treaty ratifying the transfer, signed in Paris the previous April 30th, promised that “the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States,” where they would experience “the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.” These inhabitants included thousands of people of French and Spanish descent, several thousand slaves of African descent, and about fifteen hundred free people of at least partial African ancestry; most of these inhabitants spoke French or Spanish and practiced Catholicism. In addition, the territory was home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, many of whom still lived on traditional territories and under their own sovereignty. For a few inhabitants of the Louisiana territory, incorporation did lead to “the enjoyment of all these rights” and gave some small grain of truth to Jefferson's hope that the trans-Mississippi region would undergird the United States as an “empire of liberty,” although even for Europeans of French and Spanish ancestry, the process was neither easy nor uncontested. For most, however, incorporation led to the expansion of the United States as an empire of slavery, one built upon the violent dispossession of native peoples of their lands and the expropriated labor of enslaved peoples of African descent.