The period from 1803 to 1812 was a landmark in Louisiana history. In these years, the land that became Louisiana went from a European colony to a federal territory and finally to the eighteenth state in the union. In the midst of these political changes, Louisianians experienced social unrest, racial revolt, and international conflict. Meanwhile, determining what would become of Louisiana and its residents forced people in the United States and in Europe to consider what it meant to be American. Although Louisiana became a state in 1812, that hardly settled the questions unleashed by the Louisiana Purchase.
Acquiring and Defining Louisiana
Nothing reflected the tumult and uncertainly of early Louisiana more clearly than the battle over its borders. In April 1803, France ceded a vast but vaguely defined geographic space to the United State with the Louisiana Purchase. News of the acquisition came as an enormous surprise to the United States. President Thomas Jefferson had sought only New Orleans and access to the Gulf Coast. He now faced the challenge of governing far more territory and, even more daunting, a much larger and more diverse population. Further, the Louisiana Purchase treaty failed to specify clear borders, and it would be almost two decades before the United States had clear title to all of the land that now constitutes the state of Louisiana.
The boundaries of Louisiana took shape as a result of the political conflicts that gripped Europe and stretched across the Atlantic Ocean. These conflicts played out differently in the New World, as the United States exploited Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807 and the subsequent crisis within the Spanish empire to seize West Florida in 1810. The Mexican struggle for independence also made Spain willing to make major territorial concessions in the West, even as the United States abandoned some of its own ambitions in Texas. It was not until 1819 that the Transcontinental Treaty finally established the eastern and western boundaries of Louisiana.
In the midst of these international conflicts, the federal government was also subdividing the land acquired through Louisiana Purchase into manageable political subdivisions. In 1804, Congress created the Territory of Orleans, which included much of the territory that now constitutes the state of Louisiana. Territorial rule was intended to provide a temporary system of government for the region and to prepare Louisiana for eventual statehood and jurisdictional equality alongside the other states of the union. The federal leadership appointed most major offices, while local residents were allowed to elect a territorial legislature. This system of territorial administration constituted a dramatic change from European imperial rule.
Many Louisianans complained about what they considered the slow progress toward statehood. Local residents demanded an increase in the number of elected offices and were particularly keen to see members of the old francophone community elected to those offices instead of the newly arrived Anglo-Americans. Despite these grievances, few sought a return to European rule, in large part because they believed the federal system offered far more benefits to its frontier settlements.
In the years immediately following the Louisiana Purchase, the federal leadership, officials in the Territory of Orleans, and local residents struggled to create the institutions that would make self-government within the federal system secure. In 1812, Congress approved Louisiana statehood, and President James Madison eagerly signed it into law. Statehood actually preceded the final determination of Louisiana’s borders, which underwent minor revisions until the Transcontinental Treaty finally established the boundaries once and for all.
The Louisiana Purchase created confusing political circumstances within the Territory of Orleans. The treaty granted immediate citizenship to white Louisianans, who were eager to enjoy what they considered the rights of U.S. citizenship. However, many people outside the territory claimed that the Louisianans did not know how to act as good Americans.