Several great American Statesmen were pivotal in shaping and molding the government of the United States. History has since forgotten some of these founding fathers. The ones remembered throughout history are those we hold up for their accomplishments. Thomas Jefferson is one of the American Statesmen that stands out from the rest as being one of the greatest contributors to our present form of government.
Historian Robert Tucker described Jefferson’s life as being a paradox. He was a slave holder that was not necessarily in favor of this form of servitude. He also associated himself with the yeoman farmer, yet he traveled in company with a cosmopolitan flair.
So it is to this President that we look to as he faced one of his greatest dilemmas. Jefferson, the third President of the United States, remembered primarily for two great accomplishments: he authored the Declaration of Independence and made the greatest land acquisition in our nation’s history, the Louisiana Purchase. Both subjects, have been written about extensively, yet one question persists: did Thomas Jefferson exceed his fiduciary duty to the Constitution of the United States when he started the proceedings that led to the Louisiana Purchase?
Thomas Jefferson was a pragmatic, articulate, and, at times, capricious leader of a young nation that had recently gained its freedom from the monarchical Great Britain. Jefferson, a Democratic Republican, made his ascension to the presidency at a time when the Federalist Party was in decline. The Louisiana Purchase would bring a great deal of discomfort to the Party. The only opposition to the purchase would consequently be the Federalist Party which, ironically, had always been in favor of a broad construction of the Constitution.
The broad constructionist believed that the Constitution held implied powers to the central government. The people who interpreted the Constitution in this fashion backed the notion of strong centralization of power. The strict constructionist, like Jefferson, believed that if something in the Constitution was not described then it was unconstitutional. They also feared the abuse of power obtainable by the central government by a broad interpretation of the Constitution.
Since 1493, France and Spain alternately held the Louisiana Territory. Towards the end of the 18th century the jurisdiction of the territory was under Spanish rule. New troubles were brewing on the European continent and the Americans feared that the Louisiana Territory would fall into the hands of the British. This would place the British on three sides of the Americans and they were prepared to go to war to avoid this.
The Spaniards, uncertain of their British ally and fearing an insurrection from within the Louisiana Territory, signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo or Pinckney’s Treaty with the Americans in 1795. Under terms of the treaty, Americans were allowed to deposit goods for overseas shipment at the port of New Orleans free of duty. The Spanish also ceded control of the Ohio River Valley to the Americans. This pleased the majority of Americans who were in favor of westward expansion, many of who were by now settling illegally in the Louisiana Territory. Securing the Mississippi River for commercial purposes was of the greatest importance to most Americans at the time. The desired peace of the country to be protected from outside interference was also the goal of those in favor of expansion.
In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the French government and assumed control of France and her colonies. Bonaparte was anxious to build a western empire, perhaps to make up for his previous losses in Egypt. Bonaparte saw the conquest of the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo as his first step in his western expansion efforts. From Santo Domingo the French could support troops that they intended to post in New Orleans.
By early 1801 American whites made up more than half of the population in upper Louisiana. In 1802 the first migration of Americans west of the Mississippi River begun and by now the Americans looked to wrest the Louisiana Territory away from the Spanish. To this dream of conquest of the Spaniards by Americans is to what Jefferson responded. He was not alone in his supposition of the need for expansion.
Indeed, the one area that Jefferson and his long time nemesis, and staunch Federalist, Alexander Hamilton agreed upon was territorial expansion. In 1798, Hamilton informed a fellow Federalist, Timothy Pickering, of the necessity of acquiring the Louisiana territory. Hamilton suggested to negotiate, and endeavor to purchase; and if this fails, to go to war in order to procure the desideratum. With Hamilton’s desire to maintain a strong militia one perhaps, could draw the conclusion, that Hamilton would have preferred the latter, to go to war.
Jefferson sought to obtain the desired territory through diplomatic channels. Although Jefferson was not beyond using the threat of war or developing an alliance with Great Britain in order to achieve his objectives, he preferred a peaceful means to gain the desired territory.
After the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787, Jefferson entered the federal government by virtue of his appointment by George Washington to the position of Secretary of State. Under this aegis, Jefferson’s duties included diplomatic relations with France. During this time, Jefferson maintained an affinity with France and believed that the two countries shared a common foe in Great Britain. This changed after the ascension of Napoleon Bonaparte to Head Consul, at which time America’s relations with France began to cool.
America and France terminated their alliance during President John Adams’ administration. Since 1798 French vessels had captured American ships and imprisoned the crews. The so called Quasi War with France ended when the Franco-American Convention of 1800 concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Morfontaine. The treaty, designed to protect America’s right of neutrality, allowed for free shipping of American goods, and a restricted contraband list. For France the treaty ended hostilities with America and put American claims of indemnity for spoliation against the French on hold for the seizing of American vessels. The Treaty of Morfontaine was ratified by the United States Senate shortly after Jefferson’s inauguration as President .
One day after signing the Treaty of Morfontaine French diplomats requested the Spanish government to cede the Louisiana Territory to France. In the second Treaty of San Ildefonso Spain ceded the Louisiana Territory to France under French threats of garrisoning an army in Spain with the pretext of invading Portugal. Although Jefferson had always viewed Great Britain as being America’s greatest threat, as the newly elected president, he was now confronted with a powerful belligerent nation poised to move into the Louisiana Territory.
Jefferson, after hearing the news of the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory by France, simply refused to recognize the transfer of the territory. When Jefferson addressed the Seventh Congress in 1802, it was apparent that France had indeed acquired Louisiana, and Jefferson was forced to acknowledge the Treaty of San Ildefonso. Fearing the establishment of a French empire on the western shores of the Mississippi River, American diplomats were dispatched in an attempt to procure the Floridas and New Orleans from the French.
On January 11, 1803 Jefferson requested the Senate to name James Monroe as ‘minister extraordinary’ to France and Spain. Secretary of State James Madison then instructed Robert R. Livingston, United States Minister to France, to try to persuade the French into transferring the Floridas to the United States. If Livingston found that the Spanish still held claim to the Floridas he was instructed to work in concert with United States Diplomat to Spain, Charles Pinckney. Because the United States was not sure which country had dominion over Louisiana and the Floridas, it sent diplomats to both countries in order to achieve their objectives. At the time neither Jefferson nor Madison realized that they had placed in motion the vehicle that would lead to the Louisiana Purchase.
While the Americans pondered the prospect of having the French moving into the area across the Mississippi River, the French were embroiled in a violent struggle on the island of Santo Domingo. The conquest of Santo Domingo was to be the first step in building France’s western empire. The determined resistance of the inhabitants of Santo Domingo made them an unwitting ally of the Americans. The decimation of Napoleon’s troops in this unfriendly environment would be the pivotal point of capitulation for the French Emperor. Napoleon had wasted supplies and man power in the futile attempt to take the Caribbean Island which ended in the defeat of the French.
Coinciding with the calamity on Santo Domingo new aggressions were building on the European continent between France and England. Jefferson was not beyond threatening an alliance with the English as a way to force Napoleon into relinquishing his control over the Louisiana Territory. Little did Jefferson know that such an alliance was unnecessary, for at the same time that he was attempting to force Napoleon’s hand, the Emperor was determined to keep Louisiana away from the English.
In April of 1803, James Monroe was dispatched to Paris under the pretext of assisting in the negotiations started by Livingston. Monroe was unaware of the fact that Napoleon had already become determined to release Louisiana to the Americans. On April 10, 1803, seeking favor with the Americans, Napoleon carried on the following discourse with his minister, Barbe Marbois.
Napoleon was not one for procrastinating. On the morning of April 11, 1803, Livingston was quickly summoned to the French Court. French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand- Perigord offered up the entire Louisiana Territory. At first Livingston balked, suggesting that the Americans were only interested in New Orleans and Florida.
On the next day Monroe reached Paris. Livingston in an attempt to achieve the fait accompli prior to Monroe’s knowledge of the treaty, tried to persuade Talleyrand into repeating the offer. This effort on the part of Livingston met with Talleyrand’s silence. Although Monroe had reached Paris prepared to take up the negotiations for the Louisiana Territory, the agreement was made in large part by Livingston.
Livingston quickly brought Monroe up to speed over the nature of the negotiations. While at dinner on the evening of April 12, 1803, they encountered the French diplomat Marbois. Monroe, weary from his journey to Paris, retired in short order and Livingston carried on the conversation with Marbois. Later that evening the two diplomates effectually secured the bargain. The only remaining difficulty was the settlement of the price before Napoleon had a chance to change his mind.
The Americans and Napoleon agreed to a price which amounted to roughly fifteen million dollars, to be procured through the sale of bonds. The stipulation that called for the immediate incorporation into the Union would be the subject of future debate in the United States. The lack of specific boundaries of the Louisiana Territory would also be a topic for future discussion with the French and Americans. Hence, Livingston and Monroe were able to report from Paris on 13 May 1803, that the purchase had been completed, minus the desired region of Florida, which remained under the dominion of Spain. Negotiations with the Spanish continued over this area and in 1819 the Americans would receive all of Florida from Spain in the Treaty of Adams-Obis.
In early July 1803, the news of the Louisiana Purchase reached American shores via the New England Federalist, Rufus King. Once in Boston, King wasted no time in relaying the information to long time friend George Cabot. Cabot believed the sale to be advantageous to the French. Cabot believed that the French were simply giving up territory that they were incapable of defending and looking to better their relations with America. Cabot, unaware of Napoleon’s discussion with Marbois, had correctly ascertained Napoleon’s motivation.
The harshest criticism of the purchase came from Jefferson’s arch rival, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton believed that it was through pure serendipity that Monroe and Livingston walked away with the treaty rather then any skill on their part. Hamilton viewed the western territories as only being beneficial to Spain and that we could possibly use the territory as barter to obtain the Floridas.
Henry Adams suggested that it was only due to the desperate courage of five hundred thousand Haitian negroes who would not be enslaved that enabled the United States to procure the Louisiana Territory. The probability exists that had Napoleon’s armies successfully conquered the island of Santo Domingo, they would have had a base of operations in the western hemisphere. From there they could have easily made their way to the port of New Orleans and successfully closed the mouth of the Mississippi River to American commerce.
Jefferson’s party greeted the news with jubilation. Accolades poured into the Federal Capital at Washington from Jefferson’s constituents. Future President Andrew Jackson sent his congratulations to Jefferson.
John Adams would eventually make public his views on the matter several years after the fact. In a letter to one of his constituents, Benjamin Rush, Adams was pleased with the purchase of Louisiana, because, without it, we could never have secured and commanded the navigation of the Mississippi. Hence, one venerable old Federalist broke party lines and sided with the Jeffersonians.
In a July 17, 1803 letter to his friend Daniel Clarke, Jefferson describes his attitude of the purchase. The cession of Louisiana by France to the United States, a cession which will give as much satisfaction to the inhabitants of that province as it does to us. Jefferson also used this device to convey his intention of convening the Eighth Congress of the United States as early as October 17, 1803 in order to consider ratification of the treaty, which occurred on November 25, 1803.
The constitutional debates that followed would bring great concern to President Jefferson. For sometime, he believed the Constitution had been violated, by making the purchase. This has been an area of debate because the Constitution does not specify how the United States can gain territory. It only covers provisions of territory already in the domain of the United States at the time of its signing.
To some, the ambiguous nature of the Constitution appeared to be intentional on the part of the writers. Subsequent to ratification of the treaty by Congress, Henry W. Livingston petitioned Gouverneur Morris, delegate from Pennsylvania to the Federal convention, in an attempt to ascertain the intention of the framers of the constitution on this point.
This paper restriction that Morris so casually referred to would bring many uneasy hours to Jefferson. If Jefferson were to maintain his strict constructionist view of the Constitution, he would have to stick to every word of it. As we have seen, no where in the Constitution does it delegate how the United States is to procure new territory. Yet, one must consider that the constitution was but sixteen years old at the time, and that the old Articles of Confederation were still fresh in the minds of American politicians. Contained in Article eleven of the Articles of Confederation was the passage that, “Canada was to be admitted to the United States and also to be entitled to all the advantages of the Union.” So to the majority of politicians the United States should simply absorb the Louisiana Territory into the Nation.
While Congress prepared to convene on October 17, 1803, Jefferson considered his options. He could either ask congress to amend the Constitution to allow the new territory into the Union, or quietly submit the treaty for ratification. Attorney General Levi Lincoln suggested that Jefferson boldly announce and defend the constitutionality of the purchase in his message to Congress.
Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, was quick to discount this suggestion with his own opinion on the subject. Gallatin noted that if it was unlawful for the United States Government to acquire territory then it would be just as unlawful for individual states to do so. Gallatin went on to advise Jefferson that the United States as a nation has the right to acquire territory and that when the territory was gained by way of treaty “the same constituted authorities in whom the treaty making power is vested have a constitutional right to sanction the acquisition, and once a territory has been acquired Congress has the power of either of admitting into the Union as a new state, or of annexing to a State with the consent of that state, or of making regulations for the government of such territory.”
This interpretation of the Constitution was perhaps as liberal and broad as the Federalists themselves might have made. Gallatin was not alone in his interpretation of the Constitution. Thomas Paine took the occasion to voice his opinion on the matter in a letter to Jefferson.
Paine’s letter, along with the position that Gallatin held, slowly worked to change Jefferson’s mind on the constitutional issue. He still held to the idea that an amendment to the Constitution would be necessary to incorporate the Louisiana Territory into the Union. This was due to Jefferson’s strict constructionist views towards the constitution. Accordingly, Jefferson drafted two amendments to the Constitution, but finally on advice of his constituents never submitted either of them to Congress for debate.
Jefferson was not alone in his assumption that a constitutional amendment was required to absorb the new territory into the Union. Massachusetts Senator John Quincy Adams also drafted an amendment to the Constitution. Adams believed that the consent of the people of both the United States and those in the Louisiana territory was necessary to allow the latter into the Union. Adams invited Secretary of State James Madison and fellow Senate member Timothy Pickering to review the proposed amendment. Neither Madison or Pickering approved of the amendment yet both agreed on the correctness of the principle. Madison considered that the words of the amendment should simply read, Louisiana is admitted as a part of the Union. The simplicity of Madison’s suggestion is admirable during a time of seeming confusion.
Jefferson, beyond all else, insisted on preserving the integrity of the Constitution. He said that when an instrument admits two constructions, the one safe, the other dangerous, the one precise, the other indefinite, I prefer that which is safe and precise. Jefferson realized at the time that future generations would look to his actions as an example and he certainly did not want to make the constitution “a blank paper by construction.” Jefferson believed it the duty of the government is to set an example against broad construction, by appealing for new power to the people.
Wilson Cary Nichols urged the President not to convey his opinion of the constitutionality of the treaty. Nichols suggested that if this treaty was unconstitutional, all other treaties were open to the same objection, and the United States government in such a case could make no treaty at all.
Jefferson chose the later suggestion and apparently now put aside his strict constructionist views and recognized a broad construction of the Constitution. Jefferson now decided the less that is said about any constitutional difficulty, the better; and that it will be desirable for Congress to do what is necessary, in silence.
When Jefferson addressed the Eighth Congress, he praised the purchase of Louisiana but said nothing about its constitutionality. In this manner Jefferson was leaving the constitutional question up to the members of the House and Senate . The Republicans outnumbered the Federalist in both houses of Congress, ensuring ratification of the treaty.
Ratification was not easy. Republican John Randolph, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, submitted a resolution to pass the treaty of cession. Federalist Congressman, Gaylord Griswold requested documentation from the President to prove that the French indeed held the territory and were in a position to sell. Randolph denounced the request as useless, dangerous, & an encroachment on the prerogatives of the Executive. This tactic worked for the Republicans, and Griswold was defeated by the slim margin of fifty-nine to fifty-seven.
Although the Republicans had managed to thwart the Federalists on this account, there was indeed some concern of France’s right to sell the territory. Secretary of State James Madison had previously received a communiqu? from the Spanish envoy, Marques de Casa Yrujo, claiming that the French had never carried out the provisions of the treaty of San Ildefonso.
Whether the French had actually held up their end of the bargain with Spain was not the American’s concern. What did concern the Americans was whether the French had ever received the transfer of ownership of the territory from Spain. Madison was reassured on the matter when Louis Andre Pichon, French charge d’affaires, delivered the order signed on October 15, 1802 by the Spanish King, Charles IV, that ceded the Louisiana territory to France.
The following day Griswold again led the debate for the Federalists. Griswold implied that the framers of the Constitution, carried their ideas to the time when there might be an extended population; but they did not carry them to the time when an addition might be made to the Union of a territory equal to the whole United States, which additional territory might overbalance the existing territory, and thereby the rights of the present citizens of the United States be swallowed up and lost.
Randolph again responded to Griswold’s complaint, reasoning that the Constitution could not restrict the country to particular limits” because at the time of the framing of the Constitution “the boundary was unsettled on the northeastern, northwestern, and southern frontiers. This was a complete about race for Randolph who, like Jefferson, had previously been in favor of a narrow interpretation of the Constitution. It seems that broad construction fever had settled upon the vast majority of the Republicans.
Federalist Roger Griswold of Connecticut next took up the debate and rebuked Gaylord Griswold’s assertions. Roger Griswold argued that a new territory may undoubtedly be obtained by conquest and by purchase; but neither the conquest nor the purchase can incorporate them into the Union. Griswold suggested that the new territory should be retained in the form of colonies and governed as such, but that the President and Senate could not admit a foreign people in the Union as a State.
Joseph H. Nicholson, Republican Congressman from Maryland, took up the debate and argued that the United States as a sovereign nation had a right to acquire new territory. Nicholson asserted that under the terms of the Constitution, the right to declare war was given to congress; the right to make treaties, to the President and Senate. This basically supported the position that Griswold had held. The point that Nicholson was trying to make was that the United States government alone had the power to make treaties. Advocates of States’ rights issues shuddered at such a centralizing of power assertion as this.
Republican Congressman Caesar A. Rodney of Delaware next took up the attack. Rodney cited the necessary and proper clause and many strict constructionist viewed this clause as being the most dangerous medium of a centralized government. Rodney stated “Have we not also vested in us every power necessary for carrying such a treaty into effect…?
This virtually ended the debate in the House of Representatives. After only one day of discussion on the floor, the treaty had been ratified. In the vote, ninety Republicans supported Randolph with their votes, and twenty-five Federalists alone protested. In so doing, the Republicans had now in fact taken up the position formerly held by the Federalist. The centralizing of power placed in the hands of the Federal government would have made many of the Republicans consider seceding from the Union only a few years earlier. Now that such ideas supported their needs they embraced this notion as if they had conceived it on their own.
On November 2, 1803, debates started in the Senate over the treaty. Senator Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts led the debate for the Federalists. Pickering agreed with the suggestion that the United States had the right to purchase or conquer new territories. He also believed that the government had the right to govern new territories but he ascertained that neither the President nor Congress could incorporate this territory in the Union, nor could the incorporation lawfully be effected even by an ordinary amendment to the Constitution. Pickering also said that he believes the assent of each individual State to be necessary for the admission of a foreign country as an associate in the Union.
The point Pickering was arguing was the states’ rights issue. The reason the Federalists had taken up this side of the argument was an attempt to protect their rights. The Federalist party had long since been losing ground to the Republicans and they feared being squeezed out of policy making procedures all together.
The debate over states’ rights was pushed on by Republican Senator John Taylor from Caroline, Virginia. Taylor also voiced his objection to the increased powers of the central government. He believed that the United States government…had bought a foreign people without their consent and without consulting the States, and pledged itself to incorporate this people in the Union. Taylor consequently agreed that the government could make treaties, but should appeal to the public for a broadening of its powers.
Senator Uriah Tracy of Connecticut followed Taylor and perhaps put forth the best argument of all the Federalists. Tracy said I have no doubt but we can obtain territory either by conquest or compact,….but to admit the inhabitants into the Union , to make citizens of them, and States, by treaty, we cannot constitutionally do. Thus the portion of the treaty that required the inhabitants of the Louisiana territory to become admitted to the Union became the greatest point of dissension between the two parties.
John Breckenridge from Kentucky answered Tracy’s argument. Breckenridge asserted that “the admission by treaty of a foreign State was less dangerous, and therefore more constitutional, than such ownership of foreign territory.” Breckenridge maintained the position that if the Union were to accept Tracy’s argument that America could “incorporate ten millions of inhabitants,and thereby destroy our government. Then certainly the thing would be possible if Congress would do it and the people consent to it….The true construction must depend on the manifest import of the instrument and the good sense of the community.
The Senate, after two days of debate, ratified the treaty by a vote of twenty-four to seven. The dissenters were the New England Federalists including Hamilton’s long time friend Timothy Pickering. The Federalists feared that the enormity of the area purchased would consequently reduce their power in the government as the acquisition would upset the balance of power between the New England States and the Western States. The general consensus at the time of a lasting peace with foreign powers and control of the Mississippi River over rode the constitutional issue.
The inhabitants of the Louisiana Territory would be treated as nationals of the United States. The western territory would eventually become the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma and much of Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming.
Jefferson stated his views of the purchase perhaps best in a letter to Doctor Joseph Priestly. “I look to this duplication of area for the extending a government so free and economical as ours, as a great achievement to the mass of happiness which is to ensue.” The government had done just that, retained the freedom of the existing States, while at the same time liberating the Louisiana territory from the despotism of European powers.
For Napoleon, the sale of the Louisiana Territory set a precedent in his loss of national appeal. No true Frenchman could forgive the emperor for trading away such a vast empire for so paltry a sum. Napoleon blamed the loss of the North American territory on the affair of Santo Domingo and called it his “Louisianicide.”
The Republicans, in order to ratify the treaty of cession, took on the broad construction views that had been held by the Federalist party. At the same time the majority of the Federalists attempted to adhere to a stricter interpretation of the Const itution. This change of views occured in order to meet their respective agendas. The Republicans wanted the territory and considered an alliance with England in necessary. The Federalists knew that as the country continued to grow ever westward that the New England States would lose the power that they held with the rest of the Nation.
The Federalist party was by now in decline on a national level and the Louisiana Purchase added to their decline. The Federalists had lost so much favor in the new Nation that they never regained the presidency. Rufus King from New York in 1816 was the last presidential candidate put forth by the Federalist party.
Jefferson redefined the nature of the executive office during his presidency. The Louisiana Purchase effectively broadened presidential power and put more authority into the hands of the central government. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the existing United States and set a precedent for expansion. It has been viewed as the progenitor of the Monroe Doctrine. Under provisions of the Doctorine, the American continents are not to be considered as subjects for future colonization.
The constitutional issue, decided oddly enough by a man that Jefferson despised as much as he did Hamilton. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, viewed by Jefferson with a repugnance tinged by a shade of some deeper feeling, almost akin to fear. Marshall believed that by Jefferson weakening the office of President it would increase his personal power. In 1828 under the direction of Chief Justice John Marshall the Supreme Court found that the Constitution confers absolutely on the Government of the Union the powers of making war, and of making treaties; consequently, that Government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or treaty. Thus the issue was finally put to rest after twenty-five years of uncertainty.
1. Bergh, Albert Ellery, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907.
2. Ferguson, E. James, ed. Selected Writings of Albert Gallatin. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967.
3. .Foner, Philip S., ed. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. New York: The Citadel Press, 1969.
3. Koch, Adrienne & Peden, William, ed. The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.
5. Adams, Henry. History of the United States during the Administration of Thomas Jefferson. Nine volumes. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1930.