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  • Writer's pictureLiz Bowers

Thomas Jefferson & The Louisiana Purchase

"I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some ... that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union... The larger our association the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family?" - Thomas Jefferson

If there was ever a man who encompassed the saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” It would be President Thomas Jefferson. He was one of the few founding fathers who did not serve in a military capacity during the Revolutionary War, but his pen gave life to the spirit of the Republic declaring,

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)

The list of grievances that he and his fellow delegates sent to the King are often remembered now as being of a lesser issue than what we currently endure under the top-heavy bureaucratic administrations that more closely resemble democracy than a republic. Jefferson himself certainly favored democracy and the choices of individual citizens over the institutions of the republic which he feared would continue gathering power for themselves and grow to violate the rights of the people.

Where we can agree with Jefferson’s policies is his strong belief in individual liberty, limited government, and the rights of states. Throughout his career, he advocated strongly for religious liberty, the Bill of Rights, and Presidential term limits. Where he broke with his view of limited government is his purchase of the Louisiana Territory forever shaping both the power of the executive office and Americans’ understanding of themselves as a nation.

The negotiations with France originally began with the intent to purchase the Port of New Orleans and all or parts of Florida. Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston to negotiate with Napolean, they were authorized to spend up to $10 million dollars for the expected territorial expansion. Napoleon, however, had other plans to finance his own military campaigns and protect French territories in the Caribbean. He offered the entirety of the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $22 million dollars. Over the course of negotiations, Monroe and Livingston were able to reduce this price to $15 million dollars. Of course, in those days news traveled slowly back to Jefferson that the treaty was possible for both more territory and more money than originally anticipated.

Jefferson knew that if the treaty was ratified, it would nearly double the size of the United States. So began a wrestling within his own principles of whether or not the executive branch had the Constitutional authority to acquire such a large expanse of territory. In fact, he wholeheartedly believed that the Constitution did not give him any such authority, writing to John Dickinson in 1803 he stated clearly,

“It has not given it power of holding foreign territory, and still less of incorporating it into the Union. An amendment of the Constitution seems necessary for this.”

However, his cabinet including James Madison did not see a need for a constitutional amendment arguing that Article II Section II of the Constitution in giving the President authority to make treaties with foreign nations implied the authority that he could acquire territory for the United States through treaties with foreign nations.

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment. He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments. The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session. (The United States Constitution Article II Sec. 2)

Although it did not sit well with Jefferson on a Constitutional basis, he had no desire to lose the historic agreement with France. Explaining the heart behind his decision in 1803 to John Breckinridge he said,

“It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.”

Fortunately, the purchase was very popular with the citizens of the United States and no court action was ever taken against his decision. The Senate voted to ratify the treaty and the purchase in October 1803 after only two days of debate. Later in 1823, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, in the decision for another case, American Insurance Co. vs. Canter, stated his agreement that the Constitution did imply the acquisition of territory via treaty as an Executive power.

“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 by treaty." (

We cannot understand the serious need for the purchase at least of New Orleans without understanding the political climate of the times and the history of Louisiana’s ownership. Americans had already begun to expand into the Ohio and Tennessee river valley relying on unhindered access to the Mississippi River and the port in New Orleans. The territory had already passed from France to Spain during the French and Indian War. With more conflict in Europe between Spain and Britain during the late 1790s, Louisiana was secretly returned to France. While Jefferson and his party had always favored the French politically, he made it very clear that if Americans were cut off from New Orleans by France then the United States would align themselves with Britain against them.

“The day that France takes possession of New Orleans…we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation." (

In 1802 this became a very real possibility when Spain violated the treaty of San Lorenzo, rumored to be acting under orders from France. The treaty was supposed to allow Americans to store goods at the port of New Orleans. This is the act that prompted Jefferson to send James Monroe to aid Robert Livingston in negotiations with France.

With the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase, the first inklings of an American Manifest destiny to spread from coast to coast were born. At the time most Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic ocean. Travel was difficult between the colonies and the identity of the young nation was still forming. The Louisiana Territory was comprised of 828,000 square miles that would one day be 15 states stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. It would develop the future of American ties to Great Britain, France, and Spain. While the term Manifest Destiny would not be coined until 1845, it certainly owes a large debt to the legacy of Jefferson’s dream of westward expansion.

"We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace on terms which have been contemplated by some powers we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends." (Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, December 25, 1780. Boyd, Julian P., ed. Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 4, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951, p. 237-238.)

What do you think the world would look like if the United States had not ratified the Louisiana Purchase? Do you agree with Justice Marshall’s opinion that the power to acquire territory by treaty or conquest is implied in the Executive Clause of the Constitution?


*All opinions expressed by WYO Conservative guests are theirs alone and may not represent the views of WYO Conservative’s Founder and Owner, Donna K. Rice, or any WYO Conservative affiliates.


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