President Jefferson put the interests of the nation above ideological considerations when confronted with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.
When Robert Livingston and James Monroe returned from Paris with the 1803 Louisiana Territory Purchase Treaty, President Thomas Jefferson was faced with a dilemma. Jefferson had sent Monroe to Paris to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans for $2 million. A treaty selling the United States all of the territory was another matter and posed Constitutional issues for the leader of a party that believed in strict construction (interpretation) of the Constitution. Jefferson and the Congress had already authorized the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but not with the intent of owning the vast lands.
Constitutional Issues and Federalist Opposition
The Constitution did not appear to give direct assent to the purchase of land from another country. To remedy this, Jefferson, not wishing to violate his views of Constitutional construction, drafted two Amendments, the first one being lengthy and detailing all aspects of the purchase. His Cabinet rejected the notion of an Amendment, pointing out that the deadline for ratification of the treaty was October, not nearly enough time to ratify a Constitutional Amendment. Further, the Congress was not in session.
Congress was called into a special session to deal with the issue. It was Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, who pointed out that the Constitution allowed for the acquisition of territory through treaties. Interpreted as an implied power, it allowed President Jefferson to offer the treaty for Senate ratification.
Although Jefferson’s party, The Republicans (or Democrat-Republicans), were in the majority, Congressional Federalists opposed the Louisiana Purchase vehemently. They viewed the additional of western lands as an opportunity to create more states that would invariably align themselves politically with the Republicans (not to be confused with the Republican Party of the 1850s).
Article III of the Treaty
The third article of the treaty clearly stated that the inhabitants of the Louisiana Territory would enjoy “all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States…” Federalists took issue with the implication of this guarantee. Congressman Roger Griswold (CT) firmly stated that Louisiana should hold the status of a colony and not be incorporated into the Union. This argument reflected the notion of the superiority of the original 13 colonies to other states and territories.
Another Federalist, Senator Thomas Pickering (MA), argued that any new state arising out of the territory should only be admitted by unanimous consent. His view was based on the principle that the Federal Union’s power was derived from the states rather than from the people.
Putting the Nation First: The Treaty is Ratified
President Jefferson explained his support of the treaty by putting the national interest before ideological considerations. “The laws of necessity, of self preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.” Jefferson, and Secretary of State James Madison, had been privy to the dangers posed by the machinations of Napoleon Bonaparte. “To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, “Jefferson stated, “would be to lose the law itself…”
Thirteen new states would be formed out of the territory. In 1828, the US Supreme Court would validate Jefferson’s treaty-making power in the case of American Insurance Company v. Canter. Acquisition of the Louisiana Territory would provide further lands for expansion, motivating a westward movement that would continue throughout the century. The Louisiana Purchase was a major accomplishment of the Jefferson Administration.
- Thomas Fleming, The LouisianaPurchase (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003)
- Jon Kukla, A Wilderness so Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America (New York: Anchor Books, 2004)
- Page Smith, The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic Vol. 3 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980)
- John J. Patrick and Richard C. Remy, Lessons on the Constitution (Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., 1987)