Robert Livingston had worked hard to get an audience with Talleyrand. He knew that James Monroe was on his way to pitch to the French the idea of purchasing New Orleans and maybe the Floridas. And, quite likely, a bit of pride made him want to be the guy to get the deal brokered. Well, now here he was, on April 11, 1803, in front of the man most able to make it happen.
But when Livingston pitched the sale to Talleyrand, he was rejected out of hand. And that was that…until Livingston stood up to leave. It was then that the French minister asked if the United States wish to own all of Louisiana. Livingston was shocked, but repeated the Administration’s line. “No. Our wishes extend only to New Orleans and the Floridas.” But Talleyrand persisted…make an offer, he said, any offer. Livingston replied with 20 million francs, which Talleyrand rejected immediately. Livingston left the office.
It doesn’t sound like much, but it was the start of a series of negotiations that ended with the acquisition of the most important piece of real estate the United States would buy. One million square miles…at that time, the largest peaceful transfer of property in history. French dictator Napolean Bonaparte had already decided in his mind that he would likely sell the territory. It was tremendously expensive to guard and, frankly, he wanted the money to finance his European ambitions. He would have preferred that one of his other (read: more trusted) ministers do the deal, but getting Louisiana off the books was the bottom line.
And it began here….with a simple meeting that really didn’t go as planned for either attendee.