What if... France had not sold Louisiana?

The American republic might have collapsed, and the former colony might have re-joined the British Empire
April 23, 2014

Jaques Marquette—an early French explorer of North America

During the spring of 1803, France agreed to sell the province of Louisiana to the United States for approximately $15m, around $236m in today’s terms. The province, ceded to French rule by the Spanish in 1800, was much larger than the present US state of Louisiana, a vast territory that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, encompassing some or all of 15 US states and two Canadian provinces. All told, the territory transferred to the US was more than 820,000 square miles, nearly doubling the size of the country.

In the summer of 1803, President Thomas Jefferson doubted that the US Constitution gave him the power to negotiate such an agreement. His advisors warned him that France, ruled by Napoleon, was having misgivings about the sale, which had been prompted by a need for funds. But Jefferson set aside his scruples and, after a vote in the Senate, the US took possession of Louisiana.

But what if Napoleon had changed his mind and the deal had collapsed? At the time, Britain and France were at war in Europe, and if France had not sold Louisiana that war would most likely have spread to North America. Napoleon may have sought to liberate Quebec from British rule, attacking the British in Upper Canada (modern Ontario). If Napoleon had been victorious, then the map of North America would have looked very different, with a vast Francophone nation stretching in a huge arc from New Orleans to Quebec. In this scenario, it is possible that a Spanish Empire, or an enlarged Mexican Republic, might also have persisted in the Far West.

Alternatively, if Britain had fought and defeated Napoleon in North America, British territory would then have encompassed land profitable for slave-based plantation agriculture. If that labour system had prevailed in parts of an expanded British North America, a stronger slave lobby within the British Empire might have prevented the abolition of slavery in the 1830s. The emergence of a vastly larger British North America might also have made it easier to confine slavery within the southern states. This in turn may have meant that the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, could have been avoided, although another solution to the moral and political challenge posed by slavery would still have been needed.

Native Americans might have benefited from a wider conflict between France, Britain, Spain and the US. While they would have been drawn into such a conflict at great risk and cost, the outcome could hardly have been worse than what came of their relations with the US during the 19th century. Confronted by one aggressive, expansionist, populous power, they were brutally displaced. The possibility of playing various powers off against each other might have provided native peoples with greater autonomy.

What would it have meant for the US itself? In 1802, Jefferson said that if France took full possession of the port of New Orleans, “from that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” The US might well have allied with Britain in a conflict againt France in North America.

Although Jefferson believed Louisiana would sate the land-hunger of the US, he was incorrect. By the mid-century the republic would annex Texas, wage war with Mexico for the Southwest and Far West, and negotiate with Britain to acquire the Pacific Northwest—emerging as a continental and, later, global power. Without Louisiana, that expansion would not have happened—at least not along the same lines. A much smaller American republic would have been confined within its 1803 borders.

Perhaps, as many Britons expected during the early 19th century, the American republic might have collapsed, and the former colony, even at that time, might have re-joined the British Empire.