Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase

Why Jefferson compromised his beliefs for a huge achievement

Map Of The Louisiana Purchase
Vintage map of the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803;. Getty Images/GraphicaArtis 

The Louisiana Purchase was one of the largest land deals in history. In 1803, the United States paid approximately $15 million dollars for France for over 800,000 square miles of land. This land deal was arguably the greatest achievement of Thomas Jefferson's presidency but also posed a major philosophical problem for Jefferson.​

Thomas Jefferson the Anti-Federalist

Thomas Jefferson was strongly anti-federalist. While he might have written the Declaration of Independence, he definitely did not author the Constitution. Instead, that document was mainly written by Federalists such as James Madison. Jefferson spoke against a strong federal government and instead advocated states' rights. He feared tyranny of any kind and only recognized the need for a strong, central government in terms of foreign affairs. He also did not like that the new Constitution did not contain the liberties that were protected by the Bill of Rights and did not call for term limits for the President.

Jefferson's philosophy concerning the role of the central government can be most clearly seen when investigating his disagreement with Alexander Hamilton over the creation of a National Bank. Hamilton was a staunch supporter of a strong central government. While a National Bank was not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, Hamilton felt that the elastic clause (Art I., Sect. 8, Clause 18) gave the government the power to create such a body. Jefferson completely disagreed. He felt that all powers given to the National Government were enumerated. If they were not expressly mentioned in the Constitution then they were reserved to the states.

Jefferson's Compromise

How does this relate to the Louisiana Purchase? By completing this purchase, Jefferson had to put aside his principles because the allowance for this type of transaction was not expressly listed in the Constitution. However, waiting for a Constitutional amendment might cause the deal to fall through. Therefore, Jefferson decided to go through with the purchase. Luckily, the people of the United States basically agreed that this was an excellent move.

Why did Jefferson feel this deal was so necessary? In 1801, Spain and France signed a secret treaty ceding Louisiana to France. France suddenly posed a potential threat to America. There was a fear that if America did not purchase New Orleans from France, it could lead to war. The change of ownership from Spain to France of this key port resulted in its closing to Americans. Therefore, Jefferson sent envoys to France to try and secure its purchase. Instead, they returned with an agreement to buy the entire Louisiana Territory. Napoleon needed money for the impending war against England. America did not have the money to pay the $15 million outright so they instead borrowed the money from Great Britain at 6% interest.

Importance of the Louisiana Purchase

With the purchase of this new territory, the land area of America nearly doubled. However, the exact southern and western boundaries were not defined in the purchase. America would have to deal with Spain to work out the specific details of these boundaries. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a small expeditionary group called the Corps of Discovery into the territory. They are just the beginning of America's fascination with exploring the west. Whether or not America had a 'Manifest Destiny' to span from 'sea to sea' as was often the rallying cry of the early to mid 19th century, the desire to control this territory cannot be denied.

What were the effects of Jefferson's decision to go against his own philosophy concerning a strict interpretation of the Constitution? It can be argued that his taking liberties with the Constitution in the name of need and expediency would lead to future Presidents feeling justified with a continual increase in the elasticity of Article I, Section 8, Clause 18. Jefferson should rightly be remembered for the great deed of purchasing this enormous tract of land, but one wonders if he might regret the means by which he earned this fame.